Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens showcases Adam Thielen’s ability to sell a route with intensity.
He plays like he’s solving a math problem.
I once heard some fellow musicians characterize a successful local performer this way. In terms of technique, theory, and knowledge of the genre’s he performed, this guy could play the hell out of the saxophone.
He worked with a lot of famous acts when they came to town—world-renowned musicians you, your dad, and your grandfather all at least appreciate and respect. As good as he was playing in a section, put him on the bandstand as a featured soloist in a small group environment that featured a lot of improvisation and he wasn’t a convincing performer.
The audience often sensed something was missing—even if they had no musical training. The story he tried to tell on his horn wasn’t convincing.
My friend Darren Kramer, a performer I’ve had on the RSP Cast last summer to discuss the parallels between improvised music and football, was always skilled at connecting with his audience. Nearly three decades ago, I asked him how he did it and this is a paraphrasing of what he told me:
The audience came to the concert to get lost in the music. They’ve spent the week working, studying, taking care of kids, or fulfilling some form of obligation that’s not always easy. They’re emotionally tired and want to recharge.
They’ve come here to have a good time, but their brains can’t help but think about their lives. That conscious thought is the wall that separates them from us on stage and prevents them disappearing into the music that we’re making.
This is especially true when different musicians are taking solos. When I solo, I want to do something early on that breaks that wall down. It can be funny, angry, or even a little strange but it has to be done with feeling so the audience believes you and focuses on what you’re doing.
When you do that, they forget themselves and the wall comes down.
Whether it’s music, film, theater, or sport, you have to sell your performance with feeling to get your audience to suspend disbelief. Below is a performance of Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen. The piece he’s performing is a short route and the audience is a defensive back.
Thielen arm-drums, sticks, reduces his torso from the jam, swats, and uses and arm-over to work inside to open space. These are six specific techniques used to execute his release and stem of the route.
What ties everything together with this performance and makes the cornerback suspend disbelief is the variation of pacing with these movements and their intensity. We can break down the slow-fast phases of the route and discuss the violence Thielen displays with the mechanics of the stick—including the range of motion with the head-fake—and this analysis all supports the overall success of the performance.
We can also sum up Thielen’s performance another way: He plays it with feeling.
Playing with intensity and feeling requires vulnerability. You have to lay it all out there emotionally. Physical performances are included in this respect.
Selling on stage in a believable way can feel exaggerated and there’s a risk of public shame if it’s hackneyed. Even great athletes can feel vulnerable and have a deep-rooted sense of shame to do what it takes to sell on the field.
It’s rare once athletes reach the NFL, but occasionally you’ll see players who, for whatever reason, don’t feel comfortable “playing with feeling.” They aren’t around long.
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