In the basement of a three-story house on Lake Oconee, Georgia, 17 Dallas Cowboys players gathered and fell silent.
In front of them was a former Army Ranger and lieutenant colonel. The Silver Star and the six Bronze Stars he earned in the fight spoke out loud while Brian Kitching spoke softly.
The first words out of his mouth: “11. February 2024.”
The date of this season’s Super Bowl set the tone for the three-day mental performance workshop quarterback Dak Prescott organized for his teammates in July.
It wasn’t just a handful of starters getting together to run routes and discuss their plays (yes, that happened, too). It was a broader, more culturally oriented clinic, uninfluenced by a trainer or team member. Emerging from the Cowboys’ second straight postseason loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Prescott said: I have to exhaust all resources.
How could he ensure a squad that is widely believed to have talent of competitive caliber doesn’t fall short again?
“I don’t just want culture, culture and how to build a better culture because we’re good at that — it’s more about how you use your culture,” Prescott told Yahoo Sports. “It doesn’t mean anything if guys don’t tell us what they’re sacrificing or what they want to get better at, and if other guys don’t make them do it.”
In March, Prescott and his marketing agent, Peter Miller, met with former Navy SEALs Adam La Reau and Paul McCullough over dinner to learn more about the company they co-founded to improve the physical and mental capabilities of government, law enforcement, and… improve military authorities. O2X – short for “Optimize to the
Prescott specifically wanted to give himself a mental edge. He wanted his entire offensive to win as well.
“He was instantly drawn to anything that came his way,” McCullough told Yahoo Sports on a recent Zoom call. “Anything related to culture, accountability, goal setting or 1% improvement made his eyes light up.”
That’s why O2X has put together a five-session curriculum based on strategies that Special Operations Forces use to be successful in high-threat situations. Three days of interactive lessons on tactical realignment, sacrifice and goal setting, with Prescott “most proud” of his teammates’ approval. “Each of the boys had a notebook full of notes,” he beamed. The “X” was clearly visible on the strategies to win every moment and day.
The cowboys. In the Super Bowl. On February 11, 2024.
“The first thing they said, literally every single one of them, was, ‘We want a championship.’ “We want to win,” Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “And it’s just like that, damn it, if you all think that and don’t even play? And you just found that out from a conversation with Dak?
“S***, I’m in. I’m on board.”
“The difference between winning and losing”
In the center of a chandelier-lit ballroom, the Cowboys players split into two teams. Each team was given a concentration grid on which the posters had all the numbers from zero to 99 jumbled up. The teams competed against each other: which group could find all the numbers on the poster in descending order the fastest? And how calmly players could execute those decisions when the pressure of competition was high, complete with razzing (receiver Brandin Cooks even sneaked into his opponent’s group to point to wrong numbers) and what McCullough calls “an immense amount of nonsense.” ?
O2X assigned each player a heart rate monitor to further demonstrate how physiology affects their decision making.
The screams grew louder as each concentration panel neared completion, a marker being thrown into the air as one team erupted as they won by 0.02 seconds. At least that’s what they thought. The supposed winner had overlooked the number “2”.
“The little things, the details, that’s everything,” wide receiver CeeDee Lamb told Yahoo Sports. “Knowing your job, knowing your responsibilities and what you need to do next.
“It’s the difference between victory and defeat.”
The Cowboys learned that in the divisional round of the 2021 season playoffs, when Prescott collected 17 yards at second-and-1 with 14 seconds left in the game, Prescott did not get in touch with the umpires in time to spot the ball for a final play. (A Official NFL box score indicates that Prescott had passed the ball a second from time, but the Cowboys were not allowed another play.)
I don’t just want culture, culture and how to build a better culture because we’re good at that – it’s more about how to use your culture.Dak Prescott, Cowboys QB
In the first and second playoff games last January, there were again mistakes that made the difference: when the Cowboys avoided turnovers in the wild card, they beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers 31-14. In a 19-12 divisional round loss to San Francisco, Prescott threw two interceptions. The Cowboys have adopted more West Coast principles this season off in hopes of increasing the precision between Prescott and his goals.
The specter of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl has hung heavy in the humid North Texas air for more than 27 years.
The Cowboys last played in an NFC championship game, let alone a Super Bowl, after the 1995 season. On January 28, 1996, they won their third Super Bowl in four years. Twelve other playoff places ended prematurely.
Under head coach Mike McCarthy, the Cowboys have made progress, making the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07 in a row and posting double-digit winning seasons for the first time since 1995-1996.
But elite decisions at the crucial moments will be crucial to breaking the drought. The O2X trainers taught breathing and mindfulness exercises to facilitate decision-making.
In moments when players have more time, they breathe in for five seconds and then breathe out for seven seconds. When they need a faster restart, a deep breath can calm their mind and body alike. Cowboys players have also begun to integrate what O2X calls “three times three” and saying out loud three things they feel, three things they hear and three things they see around internal and external block out distractions.
While huddled in training camp, Prescott punched his receivers with both hands and told them, “Breathe. Get some air first. We are blessed. We’re grateful to be able to get this series at all.”
“Now being able to do that in practice if I do it in a game is going to be a cornerstone for everyone to make it sound the same as we do in practice,” Prescott said. “It’s going to be a way to tune out the situation and understand, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing.’ Return to training. Draw on everything we put into it.’”
Can Dak and the Cowboys come up with new strategies for the Super Bowl?
The Cowboys’ first chance to assert themselves in a live duel will come under bright lights at this week’s Sunday Night Football with the New York Giants. Expect Prescott to dish out fist bumps and breath commands in the middle of a prime-time divisional match. But the Cowboys’ application of their new training won’t end there.
They will continue to pursue the philosophical goals they discussed around a U-shaped table in Georgia, the specific goals each player wrote down and shared out loud to their teammates as they strive to “incrementally get 1% better.” . Could there be a better proof of concept than the 100 square concentration grid result where a team actually beat their competition on 99% of the game board – but lost because they didn’t beat that 1%?
And then there were the more personal moments, like when Prescott gathered his teammates on the back patio over cigars on Friday night and asked them, “Who are you?” And how would you explain how you got here?
Players began talking about the triumphs and adversity that led them to the 90-man Cowboys 2023 roster; about their families and hometowns. Prescott’s haunting life story of loss and love has long been seen around the world. But now that he knows his teammates better, he plans to motivate everyone with their individual “whys.”
This is what La Reau and McCullough hoped for with their worksheets and introspective conversations, establishing the ethos that these players are not only open to each other about the present, but also about their past and future.
“If we push more communication so people can get more truth and feedback out of it, they can learn and communicate from it all season long to communicate and grow,” La Reau told Yahoo Sports. “Communication and dialogue are not a way.”
Gallup said he could see the translation at training camp when freshmen approached Prescott with questions. It doesn’t matter that Prescott is an eight-year veteran, the longest-serving quarterback in the NFL and now 30 years old.
“I know when I walked in I was nervous about asking him a question, but now they’re not afraid to ask him anything,” Gallup said. “They come here now, they are fine.”
Cooks, who joined the Cowboys this offseason after playing on four different teams, including Super Bowl appearances with the Patriots and Rams, said he’s “never done anything like it.”
“You hang out with your team and your quarterback in the offseason, but never on that scale,” Cooks told Yahoo Sports. “It was very special for Dak to be able to assert himself and really think ahead.”
The cognitive dissonance of staying deep in the moment while not losing sight of the larger goal in front of us will remain. The breath, goal setting, and open discussions about sacrifices will continue throughout the season.
All along, Prescott and his recipients will think back to the first words of their Lake Oconee workshop. The words that were softly spoken but said volumes.
“11. February 2024.”
“That was amazing, excuse my language,” Lamb said. “The best feeling ever. We sure hope so and will keep working until we get there.
“February 11th can’t come soon enough.”