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Stories: Sports and Movement

Interview with Chris Iversen

When hearts, minds, and spirits come together on a football field, adversity can be overcome and the team “jells” toward a common purpose – to win the game. Chris Iversen experienced this on his high school football team and recalls these moments of collective resonance with nostalgia. He describes them to Renee Levi in this interview for her doctoral research on the phenomenon of collective resonance.

RL: Chris, would you describe how collective resonance happened for you on the football field? CI: Okay. This was back in the fall of 1964 during a Petaluma High School/Santa Rosa High School football game taking place at Durst Field in Petaluma. I was one of the captains on the team and was on offensive and defensive line.The particular experience is about our offensive line play or collective line play and how five individuals on the interior of the offensive line worked together during that game. It was typical of how we worked together, basically, throughout the whole season.

The rivalry between Santa Rosa and Petaluma had always been intense and Petaluma was usually the underdog because it was a small school. However, that year we had a highly rated team and we only lost one game. During the Santa Rosa game, they started out kind of pushing us around but something changed. I’m not sure what it was, but I think we recalled - collectively recalled - our training in practice and late in the first quarter, we kind of jelled. I mean we could feel it in our bodies, we’d feel it when we’d line up in the huddle and our bodies would touch each other.

RL: You could actually feel it?

CI: Yes, we could. We weren’t holding hands, but we kind of put our hands on our knees and you could feel it when your knees or your thighs would bump against the body of the person in the huddle next to you. And you could hear it in the breathing patterns. Also there was a leadership factor and I don’t know if the leadership factor triggered it, but the quarterback came in, and said, “Alright guys, let’s go.” And for some reason we stopped milling around and kind of formed, or jelled, both structurally and psychologically.

We just knew that we were going down a field and we just knew that we could keep it up the whole night. It wasn’t verbalized. It wasn’t intellectualized. We just knew that when the huddle broke and we ran up to the line of scrimmage that we were going to execute very well together. And we did. We won the game by a couple of scores.

RL: Wow. It was thirty years ago and you still remember this?

CI: Yes. It’s interesting, the huddle is supposed to form someplace eight or nine yard behind the line of scrimmage and, when the team goes to the huddle, usually the center is supposed to get there first and he’s supposed to raise his hands over his head and kind of beckon and call and identify people like “Chris, you okay? C’mon line up, we gotta go, we got a time clock.”

So the center calls it to order and if you watch football games, you can tell how a team is doing by the way they huddle up. If they’re eager to get to the huddle and form up and listen for the play, you can tell they’re intense. If they’re not eager to get to the huddle and they kind of stand and mill around and look over their shoulder, you notice a wandering. So there is a collective focus that takes place when a team is doing well.

RL: So, is it about doing well? I mean, when you’re winning you might go to that huddle quicker than when you’re not?

CI: I think it’s about thinking you’re doing well. I remember one game, and this was a Santa Rosa game a year later, which we lost, I had a slight concussion and I was playing but I was basically impaired. I thought we were winning the game when really we were behind. But the offensive line was executing very well. So from my isolated and damaged perspective, I believed we were doing well. And we were, we made a lot of yardage that game but we lost it on turnovers and things like that but it wasn’t because of the offensive line play, it was other factors.

RL: So it’s the perception of doing well…

CI: The perception of doing well really helps. Sometimes it could even be that we believe that we may not be doing well now, but give us a couple minutes and we will. We’ll show you what it looks like to do well.

RL: So in that huddle that you were just talking about you remembered milling around at first and then a moment when you all jelled?

CI: I think we were a well-coached team and I think that at that moment we sort of collectively remembered…each one of us collectively remembered. The light went on and we realized that we weren’t focused and we were going to need to center and focus and get down and access everything that we had together to do this. And if we didn’t do that…we looked at each other and we knew that if we didn’t do that we would lose the game.

RL: Why do you think it happened all at the same time?

CI: Well, some of us had known each other for a long time. We grew up in a small town and played Little League baseball together and, you know, playground stuff, so I think we really knew each other well. So you could tell by a facial expression or body posture what was on your teammate’s mind.

RL: Was there anything else you were reading?

CI: Well, linemen do talk, but it’s in short, clipped sentences like, “C’mon, suck it up. You’ll wind up too close” or “You’re gonna get called for holding”. Just quick little feedbacks and suggestions.

RL: So words were a part of it as well as facial expressions, body posture, and a felt energy from the physical nearness, I suppose, in a huddle.

CI: Yes. I think perhaps following the verbal clues there was a kind of a resolve as we lined up, so we could tell, collectively, that we had made that commitment. Just by the way we stood in the huddle together. And it was non-verbal because you only have twenty-five seconds to call a play and get up to the line of scrimmage and execute it. There’s not a lot of time for intellectualizing or checking in or checking out. It’s states of mind.

RL: It sounds like from a collection of individuals a group was formed. In a way you almost left your individual body – not really body, but a kind of sensing individually – and merged into the group?

CI: Yes, and there are two reasons for that. The offensive line is trained and practiced to act as a unit whereas a wide receiver or quarterback is trained more to run individual pass routes or throw a specific pass to a specific point. A line person, however - a center, a guard, a tackle, or tight end - is trained to work in conjunction. So there are a lot of if-then options, like if the person across from you winds up on your head or directly across from you there may be one blocking rule for the whole line and the whole line has to read that blocking rule. However, if that person winds up in a gap or back off the line a little bit, or in combinations, then there is another blocking rule.

And then on pass protection, you’re protecting – the line is protecting – an area or a container that they call a cup so that the quarterback is shielded in this cup. The linemen kind of fall back in retreat, a controlled retreat, and they’re blocking people as they’re coming in. One person may be blocking two people at the same time, or two people may be blocking three or four people, depending on what the defense sends at the cup.

RL: So you’re moving as a group. I mean, you’re almost always moving as a group.

CI: Always…on every play. If you watch the Superbowl on Sunday, watch how the linemen – especially for the Raiders, they’re very good at this – talk to each other as they come up to the line of scrimmage. And what our coach – who later went on to become a successful college coach - would tell us is that if we were unsure about who to block, just point at the guy or call out to your teammate, “I’ve got number 84, you get 77.”

It was a very intimidating thing for the other team to hear this because in those days that didn’t take place, it wasn’t common for linemen to talk to each other…it was a different concept. So our coach taught us to call out and articulate what we were going to do if there was a formation that we didn’t recognize. We would talk and we would actually point at the person that we were gonna block, which, because we were good at it, was kind of like calling your shot.

And we were good at it collectively. It was a psychological advantage to be able to do that. And there was no bickering about it. No “I’m not…no, you’ve got 84, I’ve got…” It was like, “Okay, you called it, let’s do it.” It didn’t matter who called it.

RL: So there was no internal competitiveness. It’s built into the system that it’s collaborative?

CI: It is collaborative. I mean, we obviously all wanted to do well individually, part of personal pride, but the idea was to make the collaborative result come out right.

RL: Is that a key part of why this collective resonance happens in that kind of an environment?

CI: Yes, and it would be true to a greater or lesser extent for other positions on the team but it’s particularly true for the offensive line.

RL: So you really are cuing one another. Not always verbally, but there’s a cuing going on.

CI: Yeah. If you’re fallen back in the pocket and the pocket collapses - somebody falls down or somebody may get pushed back - instinctively the line person next to that individual has to compensate.

RL: So, watching how you’re describing this with your hands, Chris, it’s in unison. It’s like they really have to close the circle, is that what you’re saying?

CI: Right, it’s like a half-circle with the quarterback in the rear center of the circle. And sometimes parts of the circle collapse or bend and the line has to move collectively to fill those gaps and maintain the perimeter or the boundary.

RL: So it’s like a container…

CI: Oh, definitely, it’s actually called a cup.

RL: So, a literal container.

CI: Yes.

RL: Chris, tell me if you can why you got emotional when you were describing the huddle.

CI: Mm-hmm.

RL: And I’m wondering how you felt that huddle, because I think that emotion is a felt experience, it’s not up here in the head. How did it feel to you energetically? Where in your body did you feel it the most?

CI: I think I could feel it in the pit of my stomach and I could feel energy in my head, kind of behind my sinuses. It felt like a clear energy; a clear, high vibration…(long pause). And I could feel my senses being focused.

There was a lack of sound input from the environment and visually, I think, the circle of my vision narrowed. When you’re on a football field, if you stood in the middle of the football field and you had perfect peripheral vision, you’d see everything from the top of the stands down to the bottom of the stands to the respective benches on each side, to the center of the field where you’re standing. But at that moment it was like my peripheral vision was only ten or fifteen yards because it was brought in to an area that was not much bigger than the boundary of the container. So it was a kind of focusing.

RL: Like tunnel vision?

CI: Yeah, it was like tunnel vision, and if a person is playing defense - a defensive back or a defensive linebacker - the vision is peripheral; in other words you need to see everything on the field unfolding, but in this instance, it was a much narrower picture.

RL: Did the sound go away too?

CI: (Animated) The sound. The sound… as I’m talking, I can remember. You know on the sidelines there’s drums and there’s yelling and there’s bands and there’s just like (whooshing sound), it’s all of sudden a vacuum forms and you’re in this little world. Pain goes away.

RL: Who was in that world? Who was in?

CI: Pretty much ten people. Five of the line people on offense, your teammates, and the people you’re blocking against. Sometimes defensive secondary people come into it. They come in to make a tackle and you pick them up, but it’s like they come out of the darkness or a shadow and suddenly appear before your face. You see them and you know exactly what you need to do.

I think it starts in the huddle. The huddle is more peripheral because you’re maybe waiting for a play to be sent in or maybe you’re alternating with someone, so in the huddle you’re more conscious, maybe, of looking at the big picture and then, as the quarterback calls a play, then you focus down into that soundless, narrow, painless world.

RL: The way you’re describing it is wonderful, Chris, because I can feel it. I can really feel it.

CI: Yeah, I haven’t thought about it for awhile. Wow.

RL: You’re communicating in such a way that there’s a resonance here that allows me to feel the energy even though I’ve never played football, never liked football, frankly, but now I can see it in a completely way. I think I’m different.

CI: Mm-hmmm. You might watch a little of the Superbowl now, maybe?

RL: Maybe. My husband would like that. You know, I’m wondering if you remember what shifted in the group? Were there any precipitating factors, like events or actions? How did you know the shift had taken place?

CI: I think it was the look - the collective look – that was the realization. We looked at each other and the looks on our faces were fear, concern, and stress that we might be at the point that the emotional tide of the game is turning or the breaks of the game go away from us. And we collectively knew by the reflective looks on our faces that we had…yeah, something had shifted…and that we had to get our shit together. We shifted and we could tell that we stayed shifted. And with every play it was reinforced. That’s part of the momentum that occurs in any kind of sport, probably more typically in football, but in basketball as well.

RL: So you read the fear, concern, and stress on their faces before the shift. What showed on their faces afterward?

CI: Determination. Resolve. Confidence.

RL: Did their features change, or their bodies?

CI: I don’t know, I just knew it. I think, perhaps, a softening in the jaws and the cheeks.

RL: If you don’t mind my asking again, why did you get emotional when you talked about that?

CI: I think it’s a relationship thing. There are a few people that I played with that we see on a regular basis, but at that point in time we were as close as people could be and I know it will never be just like that again. There’s a temporality in it, you know, it’ll never be again.

RL: And maybe a wishing for that now?

CI: Mm-hmmm…

RL: People get more boundaried as they get older…

CI: …and we’ve got other stuff to do, other boundaries. We’ve got work and other obligations. And don’t forget, we’re talking about sixteen, seventeen, eighteen-year-old boys, with all the attendant stuff that’s going on. And all that charged-ness, the hopes, dreams, sexual energy, everything….it’s all wrapped in there.

RL: A period of time. It would be nice to be able to carry that feeling of closeness forward, though.

CI: Yeah.

RL: And a final question, Chris, what value have those experiences of collective resonance had for your life or work?

CI: The value of depending on each other in a relationship, professional or personal. Also, the value of understanding body language or things that aren’t said, or the emotional factors that go behind organizational decision-making and execution.The reliance, or the recognition that it’s okay - despite how well-prepared one is - it’s okay to depend on other people or to give way to another person at a particular point in time when their strength might be appropriate for the situation. And then, at another time, to re-enter and present your own strength. It’s okay to have that alternating power.

RL: When you said, “Give way to another person”, I’m reminded of what you said earlier about the line of scrimmage. Were you giving way to another person or were you giving way to the group?

CI: I think you’re giving way to another person for the benefit of the group. Because you’re usually interacting with the person next to you, you’re mindful of that. You’re mindful of what he does and how he reacts in different situations.

RL: Would you describe this as spiritual in any way?

CI: Yes I would. Not in a religious way, but it’s like being connected to something much more than just an individual effort or something even more than the present people on the field.

RL: So there are outside forces…

CI: Yeah, it’s part of a larger struggle.

RL: And finally, what are you feeling right now?

CI: Oh, I’m feeling pleasant memories, really, because I value the experience.

RL: Are you feeling the same physical symptoms?

CI: I was when I was talking about them. I could feel them, that’s why it was so easy to access. But I don’t feel them now. I kind of feel like it’s three hours after the game and we’re talking about it and maybe having a beer or something.

RL: Well, thank you so much for sharing that with me. It was really valuable for me and a wonderful addition to the study.

CI: Good, I hope it helps. It was fun, really fun. Sometimes, when things are tough, I retreat to that metaphor of forming up and the old cliché, “let’s re-dedicate ourselves to excellence.” But personally I see it in my mind like a pattern, even a mantra, to help me assemble my courage.

Chris Iversen brought his experiences of collective resonance to the corporate playing field for over 30 years. He is currently conducting doctoral research in creating healthier, more creative and productive workplaces that support individuals in recovery and will be teaching and consulting when he completes his move to northern California in early 2005.

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