Episode 14 – Sage Rosenfels On Performance Under Stress

Whether you’re on stage giving a talk or explaining what you do to friends or even on a field being pursued by 11 large athletes who want nothing more than to tackle you, you will at some point fail at least once. It’s inevitable. Sage Rosenfels joins us to help how to tackle unavoidable failure when approaching your communication obstacles and how rebound effectively from those failures.


Guest Starring Sage Rosenfels, a retired NFL quarterback of 12 seasons and also a football broadcaster, analyst for television, radio, and podcast

Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield

Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE

Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE

Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:

Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation

Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League

Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory

Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC

The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.


“All The Best Fakers” by Nick Jaina is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Drifting Spade” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License.

“Dirtbike Lovers” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.

“Deliberate Thought” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) is Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/



Welcome to The Great Communicators Podcast presented by The MIT Office of Graduate Education, a professional development podcast expressly designed to bring lessons from the field to our graduate student researchers.

My name is Adam Greenfield and this episode is all about the F word: Failure. Countless quotes about failure have been made throughout time, like “Failure is not an option.” This particular quote is attributed to Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director for several significant space missions.

Of course, in space, failure would be catastrophic. But here on the ground and in the universe of communication, failure is not only inevitable but also our friend in the end. It may feel bad at first but as we’re about to hear, failure can actually be an advantage when it comes to communication, if not life in general.

Our speaker in this episode had a career in a field that dealt with failure as just part of the process.


Failure is very much a part of sports. Of all sports.


That’s Sage Rosenfels, a retired NFL quarterback of 12 seasons and also a football broadcaster and analyst for television, radio, and even podcasts.


I am a father of three kids, so that’s one of my occupations, I guess.


And probably one of the more tougher jobs ever, too. But since this is more of a professional communication podcast series than a family dynamics podcast series, we’ll just stick to how we’re communicating at the office, so to speak.

In Sage’s case, his office is on a football field where split second decisions need to be made. But just as he mentioned, it’s not just football where failures occur; failures happen in all sports and even the best athletes fail.


I mean, Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time in my opinion, he missed more shots than he made. So he failed more than he succeeded as far as shooting the basketball.


And even though we weren’t there to witness how he processed those misses, we may not actually need to be. I mean, it’s pretty clear how successful of a career Michael Jordan had. So how did he maintain his level of success even with all those missed shots? Sage explains it from a football perspective.


It’s all about really playing each individual play as its own separate entity throughout the sixty minutes of a football game. In football, very early, whether it’s high school, football, or pro, coaches are always pushing “next play, next play, next play.” There’s really nothing you can do about whatever happened on the last play whether it was really good or really bad. Many times it’s bad when they’re bringing that up. “Hey, next play. Let’s move on. That was a mistake. Next play.” Because the clock is ticking. You don’t have time to sit there and mope and contemplate and worry about what happened. Obviously you have some time between games but not much. The week is so regimented that, yes, after a loss you maybe have 24 hours but the next day? Worrying about that game and feeling bad about that game or the play is not going to help you win the next one. When you’re actually in a game or in a practice and, say, you have a bad play, again, that play is not going to have an effect on the next play in a positive way on the next play if you spend any time worrying about it. Bad play happened. What’s the next play and how can we maximize that play because that’s the great thing about football, is you can have a bad play and the next play or the next group of plays you can play perfect football and make up for that bad play.


So what do you, the scientist, do if you make a blunder during a moment that’s more likely to occur in your world, like a speech or presentation? Well, nothing much you can do besides finishing strong and leaving a good mark on your audience.


When it’s something like, say, you’re speaking in front of 1000 people or you’re in a ballet or you’re in a play, if you fall down and have an incredibly embarrassing mistake, it’s hard to really make up from that. I think the difference is in football or, say, golf, another similar sport to football in a sense that there’s individual plays or individual shots and the last shot doesn’t necessarily need to affect the next shot. The hard part is when you’re speaking in front of a crowd or maybe doing some theater, if you make a really, really bad mistake, there’s not really much you can make up for that. So then just put on the best performance you possibly can from then on out. People may remember that mistake or they may remember the rest of your performance as being spectacular.


Now, I know that bouncing back from a mistake, especially right in the middle of a performance, can be a major challenge. And if you’re just starting out down the path of communicating your work, it can be pretty frightening, too.

But Sage’s experience of moving on from a bad play on the football field or giving wrong information when he’s in the broadcast booth gives him the edge when it comes to useful insight on this subject of recovery.

And when it comes to being so afraid of failing that it prevents you from even trying, try to keep in mind the amount of time and effort you’ve put into your work. This can be a great confidence builder and reminder that the knowledge you’ve gained from all that time and effort has some significance and is worthy of the time needed to communicate it to others.


I think some people are sometimes concerned about not saying the right thing or possibly being wrong. You know, I have to go on the radio all the time and give my opinion about what’s going to happen in a football game and I’m sure I’m wrong all the time. I still can have an opinion about it based off the information I know and I understand. I can also change that opinion. That’s ok. You learn- you get new information, your opinion changes and I think that’s what a lot of times slows people down or intimidates people, is the possibility that they could be wrong and I think that’s- I think that should be let go and I think it’s important, if you feel strongly about what you have to say, people aren’t going to realize how important it is unless you communicate it strongly and sell it. Not in a fake way but in a genuine way that you really believe based off the information that you have acquired over the years or the project you’ve worked on, that you really feel strongly about the results that you’ve gotten.


Of course, that confidence comes from practice and having a routine. In sports, athletes try to be very regimented from morning to night, from how much sleep they get to what they eat to being sure they’re doing what’s necessary to understand and play their game. This routine can train your brain and body in hopes of minimizing mistakes and having a great performance. The added bonus is when you make a mistake, it’s easier to get back on track. In football, this test of how well you perform, and also your recovery skills, is tested on a weekly basis through the NFL season.


This is one of those things that Norv Turner said to me one time. He was my quarterbacks- well, he was an offensive coordinator back in, I think, 2002 and 2003 in Miami- and he said, “The great thing about football is we get to take a final every Sunday for, basically, 16 weeks in a row. Most people don’t get to do that.” You work on a project, you work in a company, you never really see the results ever over the course of maybe years or you see them- or a project over the course of a few months or six months or something like that. You really do get to see your work come to fruition very, very quickly throughout a season.


And here’s the crazy thing, another connection between science and football: Just as science is fluid and constantly growing and becoming more and more understood, the game of football is also changing, growing, just as the athletes are. So while it’s still vital to practice, it also helps to understand the game and all the players will not be static in their growth. Adapting now becomes another part of the process.


Everything is always changing. That’s one thing you can expect from game to game, year to year, in the NFL, was change. The only thing that always stayed the same was change, and always the ability to adapt, to learn more. So the ability to take in more information and possibly adapt to it.


So whether you’re on stage giving a talk or explaining what you do to friends or even on a field being pursued by 11 large athletes who want nothing more than to tackle you, you will at some point fail at least once. It’s inevitable.

But as Sage pointed out, failure is not the end. What you do from there is even more important than the failure you just experienced. People will remember the recovery, or lack thereof, more than they will the mistake.

Of course, when you’re in the moment, that’s easier said than done. But Sage mentioned one key point to recovering from a failure or mistake: If you feel confident in what you’re communicating, use that confidence you gained from all the studying and practice you’ve done to pull yourself up and finish strong.

Thanks for listening to The Great Communicators Podcast brought to you by The MIT Office of Graduate Education. My name is Adam Greenfield, and feel free to talk amongst yourselves.