EAGAN, Minn. — Seven years later, Dr. Cindra Kamphoff’s star pupil is still turning to one of her strategies to move past a costly mistake — this time in the NFL playoffs.
Few knew what Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen was doing when he made a motion with his hand like he was flushing a toilet after fumbling early in a wild-card playoff game against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
But Kamphoff, a mental performance coach, did because she taught him and the rest of the Minnesota State Mankato football team during Thielen’s senior season in 2012 about “flushing the toilet,” or letting go of mistakes.
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“One component of mental toughness is the ability to live and let go,” Kamphoff told ESPN. “We’ve got to learn and burn. You have to learn from the mistake quickly and then we have to burn it, we have to let it go. That’s the heart of it. The reason we want to do that is to remain in the present moment because the past play we can’t do anything about, we can’t change it. All we can do is reset for the next play.
“Adam is one person I use as an example in other work that I do with teams and individuals as someone who can move on quickly, but that’s also a skill that you can practice; it’s not something that you have innate in you. The best athletes can move on very quickly so they can get back to present.”
The “flush” helped Thielen move on and turn in his second-highest receiving total of the season, recording seven catches for 129 yards, including a 43-yarder that set up the Vikings to beat the Saints in overtime and advance to play the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC divisional round playoff game (4:35 p.m. ET Saturday, NBC).
“It doesn’t matter what happened, I’m going to go flush it down the toilet and I’m going to go to the next play,” Thielen said Sunday. “… it doesn’t matter what happened in the season or what happened the last play, there’s always an opportunity to make the next play.”
At Minnesota State, Kamphoff introduced a topic about mental training or sports psychology to Thielen and his teammates every week. Players learned to work on confidence, motivation, positive self-talk and focus. Visual reminders are important for an athlete’s motivation, so Kamphoff borrowed an idea from legendary sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, who gave each member of a struggling 2004 Cal State Fullerton baseball team a tiny toilet — small enough to fit in their glove — to serve as a reminder to flush away any mistakes, mental blocks and trepidation.
Kamphoff adopted the concept at Minnesota State and found a miniature toilet that had a weekly presence on the sideline. Whenever Thielen or his teammates were met with adversity on the field, they could see the toilet — or better yet go hit the flush valve — to remind themselves to move on.
Courtney Cronin says the Vikings don’t anticipate an ankle injury keeping Adam Thielen out against the 49ers but are monitoring it closely.
The mental preparedness Thielen has gleaned from his work with Kamphoff in college and during his time with the Vikings helped him through one of the toughest challenges he has faced as a professional.
His streak of playing in 87 consecutive games ended in Week 8 when he sat out with a hamstring injury. Thielen admits to returning too early in a Week 9 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, setting himself back further when he re-injured his hamstring in the first quarter. The next six weeks taught Thielen a lesson in overcoming the mental strain associated with an injury he’d never dealt with.
“It’s taken a lot for him,” Vikings rookie wide receiver Bisi Johnson said. “I’ve seen him struggle through it emotionally, but it’s also a testament to us as a wide receiver group because he has put his trust in us. Maybe he rushed back the first time but after that it was like, ‘Yo, I just need to take my rest time, get right and let the other guys do everything else.’ We took care of business and he took care of business how he needed to, getting treatment, things like that.”
Days after his breakout performance in New Orleans, Thielen suffered another setback in practice after a cut to his left ankle required stitches. He is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game in San Francisco, but sources told ESPN the injury isn’t expected to sideline him, although the team is monitoring the injury closely.
Moving past this obstacle requires Thielen to hit the flush valve yet again. The tactic he gleaned from a tiny toilet has him mentally prepared to cross the next hurdle as he aims to help lead the Vikings back to the NFC Championship Game with what he hopes is another standout performance.
“It’s the same thing as a competitor with anything whether it be a play, an injury, a distraction,” Thielen said. “You just put it behind you, you take the situation for what it is and you control what you control and the people that do that the best are usually the more successful team, person, individual, what have you.”