Twenty seconds before this year’s Super Bowl ended, no one knew who Malcolm Butler was. Now we all want to know, “how he did it.” Butler’s interception came as we were all convinced the game was over. He’ll be remembered as the man who changed the fate of the game. It wasn’t his hands that made the play – it was his head.

His head is what gave him the opportunity to make a moment count. The undrafted rookie corner from a Division 2 school set himself up for success. He put together a demonstration of four key mental skills: rehearse, refocus, recognize, and react.

The best athletes have a common, critical, characteristic: Mental Muscle Memory.
Our minds are like an app. If you program it, it will respond accordingly. If you don’t, anything can happen. Baseball players spend countless hours in batting practice so they can, in mere seconds, react to a pitch. In martial arts, athletes program themselves with a foundation of blocking and striking. They don’t have to think, because their muscle memory takes over. In practice, Butler rehearsed the very play in which he made the interception.

“Mental” Muscle Memory includes the ability to override any noise and to refocus. A few plays prior to the interception, Butler was the player who let up the circus catch to Seattle’s Kearse. When Seattle lined up for the goal line play, Butler wasn’t even going to be on the field because New England was in their base defense. But when Seattle put in an extra receiver, Butler got put in the game. Butler was resilient enough to embrace the pressure and rely on his instincts and assignment. Plenty of athletes would have still been focused on the last missed opportunity. But Butler was refocused. In sport psychology, it’s called having temporary amnesia. You need to be able to forget what has been done and focus on what to do.

All of us fans of the game were certain it would be Lynch to run the ball at a half a yard out, but Butler stayed disciplined. Because he rehearsed and prepared, he knew what it would look like if Seattle was going to try and set up a pass play. He didn’t get caught up in the distractions. He recognized what was about to happen before it happened.

A reaction is something that is automatic. You don’t think, you perform. Butler’s nickname, “Scrap”, also played a role. He was someone who was always around the ball and went after what he needed to make a play. He was someone who had a mindset that he took smart risks. In that key moment, Butler didn’t question himself, he went with his gut, reacted, and jumped the route.

While most executives will never even attend a Super Bowl, this can serve as a powerful lesson to teach us about what Mental Muscle Memories we build every day. If you are someone who is a student of the game of business you can learn to prepare, so when opportunities arise, you capitalize.

Here’s the danger. If you aren’t aware of how you are programmed you can build Mental Muscle Memory that will actually hold you back, or worse, have you reacting in a negative way. When you don’t have time to pause and think about your next step, you better be programmed to recognize and react in the right direction.

Why is the right direction so critical? In a word, brand. Before Butler’s “moment”, he had a brand, one that was not intentional. The brand was one of a guy who shouldn’t be on the field with the game on the line. An undrafted rookie, a walk on, that just let up the pass to Kearse that ended the Patriots season, which reinforced that brand.

When a brand or story is created, people see things through that lens and look to reinforce it. Once this happens, changing that brand is tough, very tough. You need a combination of key factors to rewrite the story leading to a different brand. This can be done in two ways. The first involves a lot of time, intentional behavior change, and impression management. The second is simple, a game changing event.

If you need more evidence of how to execute this well, see Sully Sullenberger and the Miracle on the Hudson, who reacted well and saved lives. Or, on the other hand, watch Brandon Bostic of the Packers two weeks prior to the Super Bowl. He reacted poorly because he didn’t focus on his assignment of blocking and, instead, jumped up to catch the ball which lead to a loss.

What’s the point? Build your mind’s muscle today, so when pivotal moments arise, you let your head lead your hands. Will you hesitate and let someone else get in the end zone? Or, will you jump the route?