The Psychology of the Detroit Lions 

Here at Metro Times, we wanted to know what kind of impact 57 years without a championship can have on the psyche of Lions team members and their fans. That's nearly three generations of Detroiters who have never seen the team win it all.

We reached out to Kip Watson, a sport psychology professional and psychotherapist who counsels NFL players. She got her start working in chemical dependency, where she counseled a number of local pro-football players. At that time, she was playing football herself, as a tackle for the women's champion team the Dallas Diamonds, where she got to interact with pros from the CFL and NFL. Moving from chemical dependency work to sport psychology was a natural transition, and helping the athletes with life skills became her passion.

"What makes them really great on the field makes their personal lives not so great," she tells Metro Times by phone. "It just was a natural fit."

Football, Watson says, "is probably the purest form of pure team collaboration, and each individual athlete contributes their own synergy to a win-loss mentality. The concept of momentum is true. Loss after loss creates a sense of identity there that's really hard to change. Everyone has the same mentality to the Patriots or the Cowboys, and the mentality is entitlement that says 'we're gonna win.'"

In Detroit, says Watson, the mentality is, "'We're the losing team. We're always at the bottom.'" Fans have probably noticed that, too, even articulating it. Regularly.

"We all love an underdog story," adds Watson. "I don't know that Detroit has ever gotten over that hump."

"When you repeatedly lose, it's normal to feel down, especially for an athlete," Watson says. "It's your profession. You're paid to win. Many athletes might play a good game, but unless the team wins, it won't feel like a successful day."

"No athlete wants to lose or likes to lose," she continues. "We play to win. I think, culturally speaking, Detroit is in a unique situation. Not only do you have a losing culture represented in the football team, but the city itself has gone through a lot of hardship and failure and struggle. Is it the culture of the team? The city? The fans? Yeah. All of the above."

The stigma of losing, she says, comes from the media, the athletes, the city, the fans themselves... everyone. "It's so prevalent it creates a unique obstacle that everyone has to overcome."

But how do you overcome that obstacle and win?

"It has to be a unique chemistry to come together to break a 50-year losing streak," she says. "You break it by having the right combination of people in strategic places. It starts from the top down. The owner, the coach, the director of scouting. The coach has the control in creating the mentality of the team. It's the chemistry of the right people, and the belief that you can win.

"People, players and fans alike, the owners, the management, and the city of Detroit have to say, 'I believe we can win. Yes, we have the right chemistry and the right people on the team.' Those things have to come together into a belief that we can get off the losing wheel."

Can one person be the catalyst for that? "Sure," Watson says. "But I don't think anyone alone has been able to get over that hill. It's hard to do, but it's not impossible. Everyone has to buy into it until there's change."

She's adamant about that: Everyone, fans included. "If you want to change a losing stigma, everybody has to buy in to change it. You have a 50-year stigma on your back. You might have a catalyst. But everybody has to buy into that."

"Every year at this point in time, it's normal to have a sense of hope. I think it would be spectacular, given all that the city and the community and the history Detroit has gone through, to have a sense of hope and belief at the beginning of the season, from the top down. Can we believe? If everybody did that towards the mission statement of the team, you'd have a winning season."

"The hard part is keeping the skeptics and the criticism off to the side. It's harder with social media. Criticism is coming at people from all sorts of angles more so than ever before. If I were a head coach, I'd say 'no social media, ever.' If I wanna keep you in the zone, in the right mind — no social media."

"Nothing would make me happier than to see a team like Detroit turn around. These long streaks of losing ... the hope's not as strong. Have hope, believe in your team, get behind them."

Her advice for the pro football players she counsels applies to fans too. "Every athlete, I tell them, 'You can only control three things: Your effort. What you're learning and improving, and your mistake and recovery. Everything else you don't control. You don't control media, your coach, or the public.'"

Another thing Watson stresses is that winning and losing are not your identity. "A lot of athletes struggle with that. Your success or performance starts to define you. That's when they can easily fall into trouble."

Kip Watson grew up in Columbus, Ohio, a Buckeyes fan, watching the Lions every Thanksgiving. Her company is NeuroSport; website: kipwatson.com; t @kipfit — mt

More by Valerie Vande Panne

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