At a practice this summer, during an endless battle fought within his own mind, Doug Baldwin dropped three passes in a row. That’s notable for two reasons. One, Baldwin doesn’t drop a lot of passes. And two, he hates dropping passes so much that he cusses himself when he does.
In the past, even one drop would have wrecked him. But three? That would have buckled him for a day or two.
Yet Baldwin surprised himself by catching the next few balls thrown his way. And he surprised himself again when he had one of his best practices the next day.
Baldwin is one of the Seahawks’ most brash and outspoken players, and his nickname, Angry Doug Baldwin, personifies his demeanor on the field. But behind Baldwin’s fiery persona broods a side filled with doubt, an enemy he has fought his entire career.
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Over lunch this summer, Baldwin and Seahawks receiver Bryan Walters revealed a side of an athlete’s mind that contradicts the outward certainty. That confidence isn’t a mask; it’s essential for this level. But the doubt never goes away, even after winning the Super Bowl and receiving a new contract.
The challenge isn’t to eradicate those insecurities entirely, but to learn how to counter them.
“It can be a disability,” Baldwin said. “It can hinder your progress. We know that. That’s why, after I dropped those three balls, I was impressed I bounced back as well as I did. I was like, ‘Damn, I can do this!’ ”
“Even if you drop one ball,” Walters added, “that next ball that comes to you, you’re like, ‘Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.’ That thing is hard to catch because you already have it in your head, ‘If I drop another …’ ”
“It’s very difficult to kick out of my brain,” he said. “But I’ve practiced it enough to do that. So if I drop it, I have to tell myself, ‘Move to the next one.’ That’s where it becomes difficult sometimes because your brain just does it. … If you just don’t think about that, you’ll be fine. But it’s just so hard.”
Baldwin lays on a training table inside the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium. His front right tooth is gone. “Shattered,” he says later. His front left tooth is split in half. The shield on his helmet is splattered with blood after he bit through his bottom lip.
And here’s what he is thinking, as the stitches go in: I didn’t catch the ball.
With 47 seconds left and Seattle trailing Arizona by four points in 2012, Baldwin had a chance to play the hero. Russell Wilson, in his first start, whipped a pass hard and high into the end zone. Baldwin, in his second season, dived and extended his arms. He got both hands on the ball, but lost it as his head smashed into the grass.
He rolled on his back and grabbed his face mask. The pain hit right away. Then came something worse.
His teammates came to check on him along the sideline. I’m fine, he told them.
He was lying.
Baldwin’s mind filled with insecurities: What do my teammates think because I didn’t catch the ball? He had the worst season of his career in 2012, and that moment in the season opener was the first drop of poison.
“Imagine that you’re walking up to your front door, and you know it’s your front door,” Baldwin says. “You’re trying to unlock it, but it just won’t open. ‘This is my house. This is my front door. This is my key. Why the hell won’t this door open?’ It felt like that.”
Baldwin takes a seat in general manager John Schneider’s office. It’s sometime in the middle of the 2012 season, and Baldwin feels the walls closing in. He’s missed a couple games because of injuries. He isn’t producing as he did during his successful rookie season. He worries about his spot on the roster.
“All I could think about is my position; somebody is going to take my position,” he says.
He lets mistakes affect him not only for the next couple of plays, but the next couple of days. He leaves his windows open at night during the winter but wakes up sweating. He has problems with his girlfriend.
“Awful,” he says, shaking his head.
In Schneider’s office, Baldwin finally breaks down. He pleads for more time. “I’m trying so (expletive) hard. Don’t give up on me.”
Baldwin’s problems that season started two days after his rookie year. He was going to attack the sophomore slump with hours of work in the offseason. The only day he took off was Sunday, and he spent nearly every day in the weight room.
But he never let his body recover from the previous season, and injuries nagged him all year as a result. Then he struggled on the field, and the physical problems he started the year with compounded into mental ones.
“It made life so difficult,” Baldwin says, “because I was in my own way.”
Around the time Baldwin visited Schneider’s office, he started talking with Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist who works with the Seahawks regularly and is on the sideline during games.
Gervais told Baldwin he should meditate. Baldwin was skeptical.
“I knew the mental part was important,” he says. “But I didn’t know the road map to get to where my mental state would be good.”
Gervais convinced Baldwin to listen to a recording of Gervais’ voice. By the end, Baldwin fell asleep on the floor. “I could feel my body melting,” he says. “My mentality was so much calmer and I could see things so much clearer.”
Baldwin now meditates regularly, including before practices. He used to feel like he was rushing on the field, like everything was moving faster than he wanted it to. Passes would come out of the quarterback’s hands like Felix Hernandez fastballs.
“But now everything is just so smooth, and when the ball comes out it’s like floating into my hands,” Baldwin says. “That didn’t start happening until I started meditating.”
He also made physical changes. He worked out less in the offseason so his body could recover. He focused mostly on his glutes, abs, quads — all the things he considers essential to making him “functionally strong.” He rarely lifts heavy weights anymore.
But the biggest change was how he patrolled his mind. During the Tampa Bay game last season, Baldwin dropped a pass when he didn’t secure the ball and a defender jarred it free. It was Baldwin’s first drop of the season, in the ninth game. On the next play, Baldwin dropped another pass along the sideline when he turned his head upfield before the ball arrived.
He sat on the field for a few seconds, angry, before jogging off as the punt team came on. He walked to the bench, hung up his helmet and looked at his hands. What happened that led to those two drops?
On the first one, he realized he wasn’t aggressive enough with the ball. On the second one, he realized he needed to focus on the catch before running. Satisfied, he grabbed his helmet and watched the Seahawks’ defense.
While on the sideline, Gervais asked Baldwin how he was going to fix his mistakes. Baldwin told him he’d already fixed them. He smiled and winked.
Before every game, Gervais approaches Baldwin and asks him how he’s going to have the best game of his career. Baldwin answers with three things: 1) I have to catch every ball that’s thrown to me. 2) I’ve got to get off the line of scrimmage. 3) I’ve got to get out of my breaks.
Gervais then asks him how he is going to accomplish his goals. Again, Baldwin explains: 1) I’m going to follow the ball into my hands every time. 2) I’m going to use my hands for in-hand combat off the line of scrimmage. 3) I’m going to bend my knees and pump my arms in and out of my breaks.
“When he came up to me,” Baldwin says, “I had already said all of that to myself. To be able to do that, it’s a complete, drastic difference from my first two years.”
But a splinter of doubt still crept in, even in a moment of clarity. When Baldwin told Gervais he had fixed it, he wasn’t lying. “But another part of me was like, ‘Is it really fixed?’ ” he says.
He caught six passes for 75 yards and a touchdown against Tampa Bay that day. It was one of his best games of the season.
Baldwin takes a seat in front of a computer and projection screen. He and Walters pull up film of each other from different practices.
Walters is up first. He watches himself run a few routes and sees where he wants to get better. “I’m going to be way more patient in the top of my routes,” he said. “That’s my goal.”
Later, he watches a route where he made one move but it wasn’t enough to shake the guy covering him. “See, right there I might do a little double move instead,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to work on, Doug. Make sure you hold me to that.”
After a few more minutes, it’s Baldwin’s turn.
“All right,” he said, smiling, “let me show you how a real receiver does it.”
Twenty minutes later, that brashness has given way to introspection in a collision of the two worlds Baldwin internally navigates. To play in the NFL is hard enough. To know that you can play in the NFL is even harder, and it requires constant nurturing.
“You’re always fighting the demons,” Baldwin says.
Baldwin is trying to evaluate himself from a distance — what former Seahawks quarterback Jim Zorn calls looking at yourself in the third person. Instead of reacting so emotionally to mistakes, Baldwin is trying to be more analytical, a coldblooded problem solver instead of a hotheaded competitor.
“What he’s done a good job of is he hasn’t lost Doug,” Walters says. “He still cares. He’s still getting pissed about stuff. He’s mad on the field all the time. But I also think he has relaxed a little bit more in the areas that you should relax a little more in, in the areas that I’m trying to relax more myself.”
Walters smiles and backtracks. “Maybe he hasn’t relaxed that much. I’m thinking of some areas, like the depth chart.”
Baldwin says Walters is right, but the point isn’t whether he has it all figured out. The point is that he knows what he should do.
“He knows how to get back and regain his composure,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says. “I’m not worried about him at all in that regard … He’s got a little (John) McEnroe in him, but he handles it fine.”
Baldwin is always in the ear of the defensive back covering him, and after one practice this summer, he interrupted a Richard Sherman news conference and pointed out how he had routinely beaten Sherman. The image he portrays is clear.
“Super confident?” he says. “That’s part of the battle. You have to, I don’t want to say, fake it, but it’s pretty much faking it. Not necessarily to you guys, but to ourselves, to our own mentality. Because if you don’t, if you don’t have confidence in yourself, you’re not going to make it.
“The walk, the talk, the mannerisms, all that has to go in conjunction with that or your opponent will notice it and go, ‘He’s faking it.’ If there are cracks in your armor, your opponent is going to find them.”
Baldwin thinks that if he struggles again, if he starts dropping passes or misses time with injuries, he is more prepared to handle it now than he was in his second season. But the truth is he doesn’t know for sure. The truth is the battle never ends.
“It’s like the devil and the angel,” he says. “The devil is always trying to say something negative, and you have to block it out and talk to the angel.”
“You even have to say things out loud so the devil hears it, so the devil will shut up.”
|Doug Baldwin’s performance took a small dip in his sophomore season but he bounced back last year. Here’s a look at his catch percentage (passes caught that were targeted at him) and his average yards receiving per game:|
|Season||Catch pct.||Yds per game|
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