Episode 18 – Sage Rosenfels On Performing

When it comes to the performance area of communication, the process of repetition plays a pretty big factor in your success as a speaker or performer.


Guest Starring Sage Rosenfels, Former American Football Quarterback

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)

“Front Runner” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Valantis” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)

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

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Stadium Crowd
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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 if you ask a lot of sports fans what draws them to their favorite sport, they’ll probably say it’s the action. But for some, myself included, it’s also a physical and verbal performance that draws them in.

In most sports, if you listen closely and pay attention, all of the athletes involved are all communicating in one form or another, whether it’s verbally or physically. They’re speaking to their teammates, explaining what actions they’re going to take, hopefully without the other team figuring it out first, and also expressing to the audience watching a desire to achieve something special.

Of course, while scientists aren’t competing on a literal field of play, they are, in a sense, conducting their own communicative performance in hopes of getting their own something special across to their audience.

In this episode, we’re going to get a glimpse into the sport of American football and when it’s all said and done, we’ll see that when it comes to communicating, we can learn a lot from something that’s more than just a game.


My name is Sage Rosenfels. I am a retired NFL quarterback of 12 seasons.



And even though Sage is retired from playing the game of football, his current life path still involves various aspects of communication and performance.


I dabble in different aspects of the media, whether it be calling football games, writing articles, doing radio shows, radio interviews, all that type of stuff.



As I mentioned, in most sports the players are constantly communicating with each other, both physically and verbally. When it comes to football, you’ll see coaches on the sideline using hand signals or large signs relaying plays to the players on the field.

Typically in the NFL, the quarterback, essentially the leader of the offense, has an electronic communication piece in his helmet that the coaches use to relay plays from the sideline or a coaches booth high up in the stands to the player out on the field. The quarterback then, in the huddle, relays the play to the rest of his teammates on the field just prior to running the play. Sometimes you’ll even see something on the quarterback’s wrist, like a wristband, that has the plays listed for reference.

To get just a little taste of what these plays sound like and how a quarterback would call them out, I asked Sage if he could give an example or two.


Double right zebra right three jet zebra arches.





Twins right motion scat right 525 F post swing.


As it turns out, these are the exact same plays. We dive deeper into the language aspect of communication in other episodes so we’ll keep it simple in this one but basically, in football, there are different types languages so it’s possible to say the same thing in different ways.

Now, I don’t know about you but I was very curious to get the breakdown of the plays.


So generally in an NFL play you start with a formation, two players on the right and two players on the left or just start with three players on the right and one player the left. And then there’s what they call the “strength,” which is usually what the position of tight end signifies the strength of the formation.


[start fast forward sound effect at start of blue font, “what the position…”]

So on a play double right… double is sort of a different way of saying two…………


……….The running backs, they’re listening for the three jet and zebra arches. That’s really it. They’re not so worried about the formation as much. Offensive linemen are really just listening for three jet. That’s all they really care about, is the pass protection aspect of the plays.

[use the following narration to be used over the blue, fast forwarded part]



You know, while this is a very cool and interesting breakdown of the play, perhaps I underestimated it’s depth. There really is a lot to that little group of words that is the play. But let’s get to the gist of what all of this means. So right… about… here.

[end fast-forward effect, line this narration part right up until end of blue text]


So everyone has their individual responsibilities and it sort of tells everyone what to do but generally almost all NFL and college offenses start with a formation, a possible motion, some sort of protection, and then the pass pattern.


That point is important to keep in mind because there will inevitably be moving, complex parts to your performance and talk. While most football players in a huddle are listening for their individual responsibility within the play call, the quarterback has to know every teammate’s responsibility. You, the quarterback of your own performance, will need to know each part of your performance and how they together create effective communication.


What’s amazing is how few people really understand all the things a quarterback needs to know to be successful.



And this doesn’t even include the fact that these NFL quarterbacks are performing in front of tens of thousands of people each week. Oh, and don’t forget the television audience, which could be in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

So there’s an onus on the athlete to perform a task, which is really the responsibility of any performer; to perform a task you have promised to an audience and in turn, communicate an idea or desire. In Sage’s case, it’s playing a fast-paced and demanding game. In your case, it could be showing how your research has lived up to the responsibility required of you as a scientist. Just like Sage, you need to be conscious of the audience’s expectations of you.

I know, that sounds like a lot of pressure and we’d be remiss if we didn’t say it wouldn’t be nerve wracking to perform in front of large stadiums full of people. It’s unavoidable. It’s human. Most of us, me included, can’t really conceptualize how that feels when a stadium is full and everyone is watching you. Sage does, though, and filled us on what that was like for him and also that that nervous fear that may be unavoidable but in time can go away.


My first college game probably had over 50-55,000 fans. I definitely remember walking down- from the locker room, you had to sort of walk down a ramp to the field and really just looking up at all the people in the stands and the crowd and just being in awe. And I’m sure my mouth was open, my jaw was dropped. Over time you definitely get more and more used to it and you get so focused on what you’re doing, this crowd sort of becomes this thing that’s around you and it’s something you don’t really pay attention to.




But surely all those people yelling had to have some kind of effect, right?


Believe me, we can’t hear you when you yell at us from the stands. We don’t hear any of it. We’re very focused on our job and plus, there’s usually 70-80,000 people. We’re not going to hear your complaint over their voices as well.


Again, you, the scientist, won’t constantly have other scientists trying to tackle you so in a way, you really don’t have that sort of distraction to take you away from your fear of engagement with an audience during a talk.


However, perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. Maybe you, the scientist, have it ten times easier because without that distraction, you can focus on your talk and interaction with the people in front of you. Good old perspective.

Along with focus, Sage brought up a subject other guests we’ve talked to in the series have raised, and it plays a significant role in the overall goal of strengthening communication: Practice.


Anytime you practice something hundreds and hundreds and thousands of times, you get so used to it that your body just sort of does it. It just sort of adjusts and you’ve trained your mind over the years to make certain throws or make certain reads.



When it comes to the performance area of communication, the process of repetition plays a pretty big factor in your success as a speaker or performer.


In fact, it’s kind of amazing what happens to your perception of your surroundings once you’ve repeated the same action over and over, whether it’s during a game, during a talk, or while you’re reciting your talk over and over in your bathroom mirror.


I think you just get so focused on what you’re doing, you’re just not worried about what’s going on around you and you’re so focused on the game plan and what the coach wants you to do in that play, that you dive into that so much, you sort of forget about all the rest that’s going on.

I believe if you really understand the game at a high level, again, the science of the game, the speed of the game will start to slow down. If you’re one of those players who, I guess, isn’t well-schooled in all the intricacies of football, I think the game can feel really, really fast and chaotic and there’s a lot going on but if you’ve really mastered, sort of, the X’s and O’s of the game, what everyone’s responsibility is, the defensive responsibilities, what’s going to happen, and you can anticipate, the game does slow down much more than people realize.




Alright, so maybe you’re not dodging tackles or giving talks to tens of thousands of people in an open-air stadium. But when it comes to performing and communicating in such a way that your audience leaves with more knowledge and satisfaction, I’d say this episode proves you can learn a lot from athletes.


The language you use will tell your peers and audience members what direction you intend to head in or what actions you plan on taking. Furthermore, it informs those around you or those paying attention of the results of your actions.


And that’s where practice comes into play. Consistently repeating your communication, whether it’s to peers or to a wall, will play a very big role in how well you are able to communicate in the big moment. As Sage mentioned, when you understand something at a high level, you’re able to anticipate potential stumbling blocks and adjust your communication performance.


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.