NFL Players in Neurosurgery

Written by Dr. Javahery. Posted in CNA Blog

With football back on our TV screens, it got me thinking about an article I read earlier in the year about former NFL player Myron Rolle being matched with Massachusetts General for neurosurgery. It’s not every day you see a former professional football player switch careers and enter the field of medicine. But when you consider the situational similarities between professional football and neurosurgery, maybe the transition shouldn’t be as rare as it is.

A good friend of mine is a sports psychologist and we were having a conversation the other day around the amount of information that needs to be processed when playing football especially at the NFL level. Based on his experience, football players are some of the smartest athletes you’ll ever meet. Based on my minimal exposure to football players, I would tend to agree.  It’s a surprisingly large amount of data that needs to be deciphered quickly under intense levels of stress.  Then in one snap, they need to analyze the play, recall all the information they have studied, while applying their tackling and blocking fundamentals, and do so under tremendous stress.

The cerebral aspect of neurosurgery requires the same level of calm under stress. Obviously, the complexity and gravity of neurosurgery is greater, but a neurosurgeon must interpret the situation, often when things are very stressful, then apply their fund of knowledge to the problem.  It can be disconcerting.  If you are not meticulous in your approach both cognitively and surgically, the consequences can be grave.

Not everyone has the ability to perform well under pressure. As stress levels rise and situations become more unforgiving, people tend to become more self-conscious in their decision making.  Their decisions, become less fluid.  They (we) can “over think” the problems. Often, we focus disproportionately on the risks involved. It’s a natural response but it can paralyze our ability to act effectively. As the risks rise, so do our propensity for making poor decisions. NFL players, like neurosurgeons, are trained to focus and maintain a proper situational awareness which leads to clearer thinking and better decision making. The basis of which is training and mastery of information.

While NFL players have the potential to possess great surgical skill, I wouldn’t expect an influx of former players crossing over to neurosurgery any time soon. It’s very hard to go back to medical school and residency in your 30s and early 40s. The sacrifices required to go through that gauntlet tend to favor the young, especially if you have a family. But for those like Myron who do, I think they will find their training in football will be an asset.

I wish Myron the best as he continues his studies. His accomplishments are already impressive.  He is a role model in the world of football.  I hope he will become a role model in the world of neurosurgery, as well. 

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