Jenkins: You think football is tough? Try walking in space


Sally Jenkins

That evasive, poorly defined phrase “bringing your A game” gets thrown around a lot, chattered about senselessly by all kinds of emotionally chaotic athletes, only some of whom have any idea how to bring it, much less twice in a row.

Mike Hopkins knows how. Hopkins doesn’t play football in 100,000-seat stadiums anymore. He belongs to a different class of doer now, and he understands more about practical, technical, repetitive excellence than he ever did as a player. Like the kind he delivered up in space this week. If you really want to learn performance under pressure, study an astronaut.

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The dogging question for any athlete is whether they translate in the actual world – how would they do in a situation that actually meant something? Hopkins, former captain of the University of Illinois football team, won’t ever be troubled by that query. He doesn’t have to ask whether he can be usefully imported to another field, because for the past week he has been repairing the International Space Station. The job requires him to hit mental and physical peaks, both at the very same time, because to replace a broken 780-pound cooling system while dangling 260 miles above earth takes more than just a mechanical mind – you’ll notice that we don’t just shoot pencil-necked engineers into space. Hopkins works out 2 1/2 hours a day, even in space, and can do reverse push-ups from a handstand.

When Hopkins and partner Rick Mastracchio “suited up” on Christmas Eve, it was by donning 260-pound rigs, which take 45 minutes just to put on, one of which almost killed an Italian astronaut in July when a malfunction caused it to fill up with water. Hopkins then crawled outside the station at the end of a tether, hung upside down in feet clamps at the end of a robotic arm, allowed himself to be swung through space swaying like a kite on a string, and did several hours of delicate mechanical work with a hand drill and other tools. To call it the most spectacular high-pressure athletic feat of the week in all of the known universe is hardly a stretch.

Col. Bob Behnken, a veteran spacewalker who is NASA’s Chief of the Astronaut Office, says what Hopkins did was like “a biathlete trying to race from point A to point B, and then stopping and getting a gunshot off at a small target,” except he did it over and over, with much higher consequences.

That Hopkins was chosen for such duty is not surprising to people who remember him at Illinois, where he was a walk-on in 1989 but won a scholarship by flying through the air at high speeds on special teams kickoff and punt coverage. By his senior year he was a preseason all-American at safety.

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“You can’t be a great special teams player unless you got nerve,” said his former defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, who’s now at Buffalo.

Sportswriter Will Leitch, an alum and lifelong Illini fan, recalls that Hopkins was a cult icon.

“Not necessarily the most talented but the one who worked harder than everyone else and everybody loved him,” Leitch said. “Everybody knew Mike Hopkins. If you would have blindfolded me in 1991 and said ‘Which Illini athlete will end up an astronaut?’ Mike Hopkins would have easily been my first choice.”

According to Tepper, becoming an astronaut was Hopkins’ boyhood obsession. “He talked about it all the time. Now a lot of people want to be astronauts. But how many of those really make it?”

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Answer: There were 3,564 applicants to NASA in 2009, and just nine were accepted for astronaut training, which entailed four years of simulators, being thrown into cold oceans and dragged by a parachute, and a lot of scuba diving with heavy gear, submerged in tanks while manipulating 600 pounds of equipment.

To perform under those circumstances, astronauts practice at a level that far surpasses the habits of professional athletes. NASA astronauts borrow from athletes the understanding that behind character is conditioning, but they take it miles further.

Hopkins underwent 2,089 hours of basic space training and 192 hours of body-building just to qualify for a six-month assignment to the space station. That was just a good start. The most simple movements he performed on his spacewalk were rehearsed at a ratio of eight times to one – for every hour a task took, he spent eight hours rehearsing it.

“If you already know how to drive a car, we’d have you race it eight times on the ground before we ever let you race it in space,” Behnken says.

Just wearing the suit is at once physically demanding and mentally stressful. It’s bulky, stiff, and claustrophobic, and can actually injure you if you turn the wrong way in it.

Over five to seven hours working against the pressure and stiffness of the suit, Hopkins would have burned between 3,500 to 4,000 calories, with no access to food, and only a quart of water to drink. He had to pace himself not unlike a marathoner and be careful not to exhaust the suit’s oxygen and water.

“You don’t want to overwork the suit and your body in the process,” Behnken says.

Which leads to the most intriguing and advanced aspect of astronaut training: the psycho-physiological. NASA believes the ability to manage the body through command over emotional reactions can be taught. Anyone who rides atop an exploding bomb and lives for six months on a giant fan in the sky surrounded by nothing more than crumpled foil needs the right mental makeup.

Where a Dez Bryant, Tony Romo, or Brandon Merriweather are slaves to their temperaments, astronauts learn to control even their own perspiration rates; you don’t want to sweat too much in the suit. Another program teaches them how to cure their own motion sickness.

“We get pretty deep into the idea of managing your body response to different things, and that connection is where people can make vast strides,” Behnken says. “That emotional response is the thing you can learn to control or defeat.”

Example: What happens if Hopkins makes a mistake? Despite all the practice, astronauts sometimes throw the wrong switch, especially when they’re exhausted. But what NASA taught Hopkins is that he’s allowed just three seconds of remorse, that’s all, because if he makes one error, he better not follow it with another one.

“The bottom line is that people are going to make mistakes,” Behnken says. “The idea is to make one, and not turn it into four interceptions. The next thing you do is even more important than the last thing you did.”

No other profession understands how to create repetitive excellence so well. The physical and mental training Hopkins did for football was valuable, but it was crude. The NFL borrows from NASA technology for its helmets, but it’s in a relative stone age when it comes to human performance. You want to perform under pressure? Watch NASA TV instead of the NFL Network.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.