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Washington Redskin coach Jay Gruden, the NFL and positive psychology

Written By | Feb 19, 2014

WASHINGTON, February 19, 2014 — New Washington Redskin head coach Jay Gruden does not pay much attention to player’s shortcomings or weaknesses, but instead focuses on their strengths, according to defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.

Does Gruden practice positive psychology?

One of the fundamental aspects of positive psychology seeks to focus on the strengths and attributes that help people thrive and flourish in life. Gruden seems to understand this, and is often described as using this approach to coaching.

First mentioned decades ago by psychologist Abraham Maslow, a so-called humanist, the science was brought to the fore in 1998 as a revolutionary branch of psychology by ex-president of the American Psychological Association Dr. Martin Seligman. Seligman theorized focusing on pathology is not the singular, most effective approach to emotional well-being.

Seligman concluded stress, anxiety and depression contribute to poor emotional and physical health. He further found that focusing on what makes us happy can not only keep us happy but can rocket people from a negative state of being to a positive, happy existence.

How could positive psychology and coaching philosophy work together in the NFL? Coaching philosophies from the past and present may hold clues. The stories of two players who seemingly went from golden shrine to a garbage pile may also provide insights.

Defensive lineman phenom Albert Haynesworth had a sterling high school football career. He was named Superprep and Rivalnet All-American. He then had an equally sterling college career at the University of Tennessee.

At the University of Tennessee, Haynesworth was such an on-field force that the New York Times called the 6’6, 317 lb. giant a “Potentially brutal run stopper” when he became eligible for the NFL. Haynesworth ran a 4.82= 40 yard dash and had a vertical jump of 9 ft. 7 in. considered remarkable for a man of his stature.

After joining the Tennessee Titans in 2003, Haynesworth was elected to the pro-bowl in 2007. Statistics showed that the Titans were 8-3 in games when Haynesworth played and 0-3 in games he did not.

Haynesworth had on-field and in-training anger issues with inexcusable violence. As NFL trains players to fight like animals for every yard gained or against every yard gained, the behavior was not unexpected.

In 2009, Haynesworth joined the Washington Redskins. Haynesworth’s career dive-bombed from the day he arrived at camp.

Critics speculate that Haynesworth received so much up-front money, he no longer cared to endure the brutality of playing in the NFL. This theory is unlikely, however. Haynesworth was already financially set for life before joining the Redskins. Moreover, the high levels of drive, ambition, desire and ego of most NFL players makes it almost impossible for them to willingly languish on the sidelines.

Peyton Manning is a current example. He has nothing to prove and more money than a small country, yet he keeps playing football. Most NFL players love and respect the game and ‘quit’ is not in them.

Many sports pundits believe Haynesworth when he complained of his new job in the 3-4 defense Washington used, which was different from the 4-3 defense he was accustomed to.

In the 3-4 Haynesworth played in Tennessee, his job was to ‘go to the ball’. His new job for Washington was to go to a particular position and remain there no matter what. The difference took away Haynesworth’s greatest tools and diminished him to staring at ball runners going by far too often.

Eventually, he incurred coaches wrath and was traded to the new England Patriots then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Haynesworth never again played to the level he had played earlier in his career.

Ex-Redskin linebacker extraordinaire LaVar Arrington suffered a similar experience with a similar fate after he was switched to position style defense. The move took him from thriving to benching.


Many coaches have playbook schemes, platforms, plays and designs that serve them well at some point. Often, they will stick with the program regardless of player’s strengths and try to put square pegs in round holes by explaining it is the player’s job to conform, regardless of ability.

Smarter coaches understand that designing an offense and a defense to conform to the strengths of players is the path to success resulting in personal and team flourishing and thriving.

A happy player is a productive player.


Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist

Paul Mountjoy

Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist and writer.