Geno Smith and the psychological principles to being a successful NFL quarterback

Guest post by David Gardy Ermann

The Seattle Seahawks’ 2022-23 season ended against the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the playoffs on January 14th, but their starting quarterback, Geno Smith, will still be playing football this weekend, on February 5th. That is because, for the first time in his 10-year career, Smith will be playing in the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s all-star game.

By any measure for a quarterback, Geno Smith had a great season. With his recent success, Smith’s NFL career is illustrative of three psychological principles critical to success as an NFL quarterback: self-efficacy, preparation, and patience.

Geno Smith, Quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks.


According to an article by Professor Temel Çakiroğlu, athletic self-efficacy is defined as “the athlete’s belief in the ability to perform a successful operation to achieve a specific outcome in athletic performance.” Studies have shown a positive relationship between an athlete’s performance and their self-efficacy.

Two of the primary sources for developing self-efficacy, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Monica Frank, include (1) an individual’s own prior performances, and (2) vicarious influences (i.e., observing others’ successful performances).

Prior Successful Performances

Prior successful performances are correlated to high self-efficacy, such that “more successful athletes scored higher in self-efficacy than . . . those who performed worse.” For example, sports psychologists Gio Valiante and David Morris found that professional golfers’ self-efficacy was positively impacted by recounting their own recent, strong performances.

Vicarious Influences

Just as self-efficacy can be developed from an athlete looking at their own prior performances, self-efficacy can also be developed “[i]f an athlete observes someone successfully perform a specific behavior that appears to be within the athlete’s skill range.” Accordingly, “[s]elf-efficacy can determine performance in sport and exercise through observing others persist in their efforts until the performance outcome matches the self-created standards made from vicarious experiences.”


Preparation helps minimize anxiety and enhance confidence. The more prepared you are, the more confident you are to perform your best.” This holds true in sports. Well-prepared athletes “are far more capable of performing what they practiced” because “[m]ental preparation helps athletes achieve a focused, confident and trusting mindset to help them compete at their highest level.” Cognitive scientist Massimiliano Cappuccio explains that “physical training and exercise are not sufficient to excel in competition” without a requisite level of mental preparation.


Patience, like self-efficacy and preparation, is necessary to success in sports. “The quality of being patient is an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.” One sports psychologist explained that if “a goal or a plan is taking longer” than the athlete would have wanted, the athlete should “remind [themselves] that things take time” and should “focus on the process of successfully obtaining [their] goal.”  Justin Brown, an NCAA baseball head coach, professor of Strategic Leadership, and author of Stay The Course: Five Transformational Principles of Leaders Who Last, explains that patience requires “wait[ing] for some distant date in the future” just for the potential to “cash in” on one’s “labor [and] hope [it] was not in vain.”

Geno Smith’s prior successful performances

Geno Smith had a prolific career at West Virginia University (WVU), in which, amongst other accolades and achievements, Smith set WVU single season records for passing yards and touchdowns, and earned the Discover Orange Bowl MVP in 2011. From these prior performances, he may have had high-self efficacy upon entering the NFL. The New York Jets drafted Smith in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, with expectations that the young quarterback would be the future leader of the team. 

Geno Smith was not yet a successful NFL quarterback

Although Smith was a high draft choice with the raw talent to perform well in the NFL, he was not yet a successful NFL quarterback. In his first offseason, he was welcomed to the Jets by competing against Mark Sanchez to be the starting quarterback. Sanchez injured his shoulder in the third preseason game of the 2013 season and rookie Geno Smith was subsequently named the starting quarterback.

As a rookie in 2013-14, Smith started all 16 games, going 8-8, passing for 3,046 yards with 12 touchdowns to 21 interceptions and finished with a Quarterback Rating (QBR) of just 66.5 (note: QBRs above 80 are “good”). Smith did not take the leap forward in his second season that he and the Jets would have hoped for. Instead, after opening the season as the starter, Smith was benched for the second half of the Jets’ week 5 game, in which he had only passed for 27 yards in the first half along with an interception, and was then benched again in the first quarter of the Jets’ week 8 game, in which he completed 2 of 8 pass attempts for just 5 yards, with 3 interceptions, and a dismal 0.04 QBR. Veteran quarterback Michael Vick was named the Jets starter for each of the next three games.  Smith finished the 2014-15 season with a 3-10 record in his 13 starts, passing for 2,525 yards with an even 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

The Jets and Smith had a bumpy 2015 offseason. The Jets went through a front office and coaching regime change. Meanwhile, Geno Smith was involved in an altercation, which led to him suffering a broken jaw and unavailable to start the season. Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took over as the starter and, even after Smith recovered from the fractured jaw, remained the team’s starting quarterback. Smith played in just one game in 2015.

In 2016, the Jets re-signed Fitzpatrick, leaving Smith in what would eventually become a familiar role for him as a backup quarterback to his team’s veteran leader. Nevertheless, Geno Smith maintained high self-efficacy and began to show patience. Speaking during training camp in 2016 about his role, Smith expressed that he needs to “play the cards that [he is] dealt” but that he continues to “know what [he is] capable of, and really believ[es] in [himself].”

Smith relieved Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter of the team’s week 6 matchup and was subsequently named the starter for the team’s week 7 matchup, in which he tore his ACL, prematurely ending his season. Smith became a free agent before the start of the 2017 season.

Geno Smith’s vicarious influences and maintaining patience

After four seasons with the Jets, Geno Smith signed with the New York Giants in the 2017 offseason. Even though Smith signed with the Giants as their backup quarterback, he came into the Giants locker room with a positive mindset, ready to learn from a vicarious influence, two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning, to excel as a starter in the future. “I want to carry my notepad around and whatever I see Eli doing, whether it’s in the classroom, on the field or off the field, I want to write it down. Because he’s a guy you can model yourself after. If you learn from a guy like that, we can all do a lot better.”

Smith showed patience and focused on the process of improving as a quarterback. “This is definitely an opportunity for me to learn and to get better. . .  I have tons of good football ahead.”

Following his season with the Giants, Smith signed with the Los Angeles Chargers to be the backup behind another top veteran quarterback, Phillip Rivers. With the Chargers, Smith did play in five games in 2018 in a relief role, but he primarily spent the season learning from Rivers. During the season, Smith discussed his mindset and approach, in which he emphasized the principles of self-efficacy,  preparation, and patience, stating:

You never see Phil without his laptop. . .  His truck is set up to be almost like a film room. You watch him during games and he’s talking to the backs, the receivers, the linemen, the defense, the refs, everybody. Then you see how he prepares during the week and you understand why. . .  It’s just a different standard of preparation than I had ever seen. I’m going to try to take it with me. . . When I get my shot again, I’m going to steal everything from Phil. I’m going to do it the way he does it. . . I will get another chance. . . I know I’m among the top six, seven quarterbacks physically. . . But it’s a mental game and I’ve grown in that aspect. Things happen for a reason.

After one season with the Los Angeles Chargers, Geno Smith signed with the Seattle Seahawks, again as the backup quarterback, this time behind Russell Wilson, a Super Bowl champion and multiple time Pro Bowler.

As he did while sitting behind Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers, Smith focused on what he could learn from Wilson, noting his “professionalism, the way he approache[s] every single day, [and] his competitive fire.”

From his own prior experiences, Smith was confident that he was a top quarterback in terms of physical talent. By learning from the top veteran quarterbacks who Smith understudied (i.e., vicarious influences), he prepared in new ways with a particular focus on the mental aspects of being a top quarterback. Smith was confident that the mental preparation that Manning, Rivers, and Wilson all approached the game with was an attribute that he too could achieve. Geno Smith was right.

Geno Smith’s focused mindset of patience and preparation

It wasn’t until the 2021 season when Geno Smith could display the years that he focused on improvement through preparation. In week 5 of 2021, Russell Wilson injured his finger and Geno Smith stepped up in the 4th quarter to finish the game. On his first drive, he led the team on a 98-yard scoring drive, in which he completed all 7 of his passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. After the game, Smith spoke openly about his experiences as a backup:

It is gut wrenching sometimes. Sometimes I fight back tears before the games, like, “Man, I wish I could be out there.” Reality is you got to prepare and you got to keep preparing. That is something that I pride myself on is being prepared and always being ready. And that’s mentally, physically, and anything else.

Smith started the next 3 games before Wilson returned from injury. Smith finished 2021 with a terrific QBR of 103, passing for 702 yards, 5 touchdowns, and just 1 interception.

Smith remained patient, although at times difficult, continued to improve and prepare, and then, when the opportunity finally came for him to be a starting quarterback again, Smith succeeded.

After the 2021 season, Russell Wilson was traded in a blockbuster deal to the Denver Broncos, which sent then-Broncos quarterback Drew Lock to the Seahawks and placed Geno Smith squarely in a quarterback competition, which Smith won. 

After not being his team’s week 1 starting quarterback since 2014, in 2022 Geno Smith earned the week 1 start.  With Geno Smith leading the team, pre-season projections simulated the Seahawks to finish with the second to worst record in the NFC, predicting 5.6 wins (with a floor of 4.4 and a ceiling of 6.8 wins). The projections did not account for a quarterback with high self-efficacy who spent the past 7 seasons improving and preparing, and patiently waiting to succeed in the NFL.

In week 1 of this season, which just so happened to come against the Russell Wilson-led Denver Broncos, Geno Smith threw for 195 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, leading the Seahawks to a win. Smith emphasized his years of patience after beating the Broncos, saying “they wrote me off, I ain’t write back though!”

Dave Canales, the Seattle Seahawks Quarterbacks Coach, noticed the high self-efficacy that Geno Smith justifiably maintained and his patience to become a starting quarterback again, explaining: “What I noticed about Geno over the last three years is he never lost sight of the fact that he was a top-tier talent. And he was going to get another opportunity at some point, somewhere.”

In the 2022 season, Smith threw for a Seahawks franchise-record 4,282 passing yards, to go along with 30 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and a 100.9 QB rating. He led the Seahawks to the playoffs and he earned his first Pro Bowl selection in the process. Self-efficacy, preparation, and patience were critical to his success.

David is an attorney in private practice based out of Manhattan. David earned his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and his B.A., summa cum laude, from Ramapo College of New Jersey. 

Connect with David on LinkedIn.


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