Gathered in the basement of a three-floor home on Georgia’s Lake Oconee, 17 Dallas Cowboys players fell silent.
A former Army Ranger and Lieutenant Colonel stood before them. The Silver Star and six Bronze Stars he had earned in combat spoke loudly even as Brian Kitching spoke softly.
The first words out of his mouth: “February 11, 2024.”
The date of this season’s Super Bowl set the tone for the three-day mental performance workshop that quarterback Dak Prescott organized in July for his teammates.
This wasn’t simply a handful of starters meeting up to run routes and review their plays (yes, that happened, too). This was a broader, more culturally focused clinic that no coach or team staffer influenced. Prescott emerged from the Cowboys’ second straight postseason loss to the San Francisco 49ers saying: I need to exhaust all resources.
How could he ensure a roster widely considered to have contending-caliber talent doesn’t fall short again?
“I don’t wanna just be culture, culture and how to build a better culture because we’re good on that — it’s more about how to use your culture,” Prescott told Yahoo Sports. “It doesn’t mean anything if guys aren’t telling us what they’re sacrificing or what they’re trying to get better at, and if other guys aren’t holding them to that.”
In March, Prescott and his marketing agent Peter Miller met with former Navy SEALs Adam La Reau and Paul McCullough over dinner to hear about the company they’d co-founded to enhance physical and mental performance among government, law enforcement and military agencies. O2X — short for “Optimize to the X,” a military imperative to always find the most optimal way to hit the target, even as it changes — tailors workshops around nutrition, sleep, conditioning, resilience and stress management.
Prescott specifically wanted to gain a mental edge. He wanted his entire offense to gain it, too.
“He gravitated right away to anything neck up,” McCullough told Yahoo Sports during a recent Zoom call. “Anything about culture, accountability, goal-setting or getting 1% better, his eyes lit up.”
So O2X curated a five-session curriculum rooted in strategies that special operations units employ to thrive in high-threat situations. Interactive lessons on tactical resets, sacrifice and goal-setting spanned three days, Prescott “most proud about” his teammates’ buy-in. “Every one of the guys had a notebook full of notes,” he beamed. Amid strategies to win each moment and day, the “X” was explicit.
The Cowboys. In the Super Bowl. On Feb. 11, 2024.
“The first thing they said, literally every single one of them, they were like, ‘We want a championship. We want to win,’” Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “And it’s just like, damn, if y’all are thinking that and y’all don’t even play? And you just got that from one conversation with Dak?
“S***, I’m on board. I’m on board.”
‘The difference between winning and losing’
In the center of a chandelier-lit ballroom, Cowboys players divided into two teams. Each team received a concentration grid, the posters including every number from zero to 99 in jumbled fashion. The teams were to race: Which group could find every number on the poster, in descending order, most quickly? And how calmly could players execute these decisions when the pressure of competition was on, complete with razzing (receiver Brandin Cooks even snuck into his opponent’s huddle to point at incorrect numbers) and an “immense amount of s***-talking,” per McCullough?
O2X assigned each player a heart-rate monitor to further demonstrate how physiology impacts their decision-making.
Screams heightened as each concentration board neared completion, a marker hurled into the air as one team erupted when it won by 0.02 seconds. Or so they thought. The alleged victor had missed the number ‘2’.
“The small things, the details, that all matters,” wide receiver CeeDee Lamb told Yahoo Sports. “Knowing your job, knowing your responsibility and what you gotta do next.
“It’s the difference between winning and losing.”
The Cowboys learned that in the divisional round of the 2021 season playoffs, when Prescott picked up 17 yards on second-and-1 with 14 seconds to play, then did not connect with the officials in time to spot the ball for a final play. (An official NFL box score suggests Prescott spiked the ball with 1 second remaining, but the Cowboys were not granted another play.)
I don’t wanna just be culture, culture and how to build a better culture because we’re good on that – it’s more about how to use your culture.Dak Prescott, Cowboys QB
Mistakes again differentiated their first and second playoff games this past January: When the Cowboys avoided turnovers in the wild card, they beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers 31-14. In a 19-12 divisional-round loss to San Francisco, Prescott threw two interceptions. The Cowboys have adopted more West Coast principles this offseason in hopes of honing precision between Prescott and his targets.
Thus the specter of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl has continued to hang heavy in the humid North Texas air for more than 27 years.
The Cowboys last played in an NFC Championship game, much less a Super Bowl, following the 1995 season. They won their third Super Bowl in four years on Jan. 28, 1996. Twelve subsequent playoff berths have ended prematurely.
Under head coach Mike McCarthy, the Cowboys have shown progress, reaching the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 2006-07 and posting consecutive double-digit winning seasons for the first time since 1995 and 1996.
But making elite decisions in the highest-stakes moments will be crucial to breaking the drought. O2X instructors shared breathing and mindfulness exercises to aid decision-making.
In moments where players have more time, they inhale for five seconds and then exhale for seven. When they need a quicker reset, one deep breath can similarly calm their minds and bodies. Cowboys players have also begun integrating what O2X calls a “three by three,” saying aloud three things they feel, three things they hear and three things they see as a means of blocking out internal and external distractions.
In huddles at training camp, Prescott gave his receivers two-handed fist bumps and told them: “Breathe. Take a breath. We’re blessed. We’re thankful that we even get this series.”
“Just being able to do that now at practice, when I do it in a game, that’s gonna be a grounding mechanism for all of them that it sounds just the same as we do at practice,” Prescott said. “It’ll be a way to block out whatever the situation is and understand: ‘Hey, this is what we do. Resort back to the training. Resort back to everything that we put in it.’”
Can Dak, Cowboys power new strategies to Super Bowl?
The Cowboys’ first chance to ground themselves in a live huddle will come under bright lights, on Sunday Night Football this week at the New York Giants. In the midst of a prime-time division matchup, expect Prescott to distribute fist bumps and breath imperatives. But the Cowboys’ application of their new training won’t end there.
They will continue to chase the philosophical pursuits they discussed amid a U-shaped table in Georgia, the specific goals each player wrote down and shared aloud with his teammates as they aspire to “incrementally get 1% better.” Could there be better proof of concept than the 100-square concentration grid outcome, when one team indeed beat their competition on 99% of the board — but lost because they failed to master that 1%?
And then there were the more personal moments, like when Prescott gathered his teammates Friday night on the back patio over cigars and asked them: Who are you? And how would you explain how you got here?
Players began to open up about the successes and adversities that led them to the 2023 Cowboys’ 90-man roster; about their families and their hometowns. Prescott’s powerful life story of loss and love has long been on display globally. But now, knowing his teammates more acutely, he plans to motivate each with their individualized whys.
That’s what La Reau and McCullough had hoped their worksheets and introspective conversations would produce, establishing an ethos that these players talk openly among one another not only about the present but also about their pasts and future.
“If we drive more communication so people pull out more truths and feedback, then they’re able to unpack it and learn from it all season long to communicate and grow,” La Reau told Yahoo Sports. “Communication and dialogue isn’t one way.”
Gallup said he could see that translating at training camp when rookies approached Prescott with questions. No matter that Prescott is an eight-year veteran, the longest-tenured quarterback in the NFL and now 30 years old.
“I know when I came in I was nervous to ask him a question, but now they’re not scared to ask him anything,” Gallup said. “They come in here now, they’re good.”
Cooks, who joined the Cowboys this offseason after stints on four different teams, including Super Bowl appearances with the Patriots and Rams, said he’d “never done anything like that.”
“You get together in the offseason with your team and quarterback, but never to that magnitude,” Cooks told Yahoo Sports. “That was pretty special for Dak to be able to put on and really think ahead like that.”
The cognitive dissonance of staying deeply in the moment while also not losing sight of the larger goal ahead will continue. The breaths, goal-setting and open discussions about sacrifice will carry through the season.
All along, Prescott and his receivers will think back to the first words of their Lake Oconee workshop. The words that were spoken softly but said volumes.
“February 11, 2024.”
“That s*** was amazing, excuse my language,” Lamb said. “The best feeling ever. Definitely we hope and we’re gonna continue to work until we get there.
“February 11 can’t come soon enough.”