Any list of great football books on sports psychology must include titles that cater equally to die-hard fans and those who are curious about the inner workings of the game and the mental dynamics of the players who are caught up in it. The books that accomplish this most effectively often feature an outsider who has infiltrated the secretive and insular world of a football team and reported on its culture and psychology from the dual viewpoint of an outsider with inside knowledge.
Now a classic in the genre, the book that set the bar high for others of its kind is “Paper Lion,” by journalist George Plimpton, first published in 1966. Plimpton went through training camp and played in a pre-season game with the Detroit Lions, not only getting to know the players and coaches and understanding what made them tick, but also experiencing firsthand what professional athletes at this level go through. “Paper Lion” is a must-read for anyone interested in comparing the culture and psychology of today's NFL with the way it was in days gone by.
Two more recent outsider-infiltrator books on football are notably good sources of insight into the psychology and culture of the sport. John Feinstein's “Next Man Up” is written from the perspective of an experienced and knowledgeable sportswriter with a lifelong enthusiasm for and commitment to watching and documenting the game. In that sense, the author's approach is that of a semi-insider from the start. Feinstein was granted full access to both players and management for the Baltimore Ravens for the entire 2004 season, a year that turned out to be not so stellar for the team. “Next Man Up” offers the reader an up-close-and-personal look into the mind of professional football players over the course of a typical season.
In contrast to Feinstein's approach, and more in line with the Plimpton concept, is “A Few Seconds of Panic,” by Stefan Fatsis. Known for the fascinating book “Word Freak,” in which he detailed his year inside the world of high-level competitive Scrabble players, Fatsis applied the same total-immersion method of reporting to the NFL for this account of his participation in the Denver Broncos training camp. Insight into the “real” players' personalities as they gradually accept the slight, middle-aged, and not particularly athletic Fatsis as one of the team, and the contrast of today's professional football culture with that of Plimpton's day, make this an absorbing read.
Thanks to the enormously popular Hollywood movie starring Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side” by Michael Lewis is probably the most familiar title on this list. While the film adaptation focuses primarily on the heartwarming rags-to-riches story of Michael Oher and the family who rescued him from the ghetto, the book also offers an in-depth analysis of contemporary football strategy and the thinking that underlies how it has developed. A talented writer with a knack for exposing hidden intricacies and clarifying their meaning for the average reader, Lewis makes a convincing case for today's football game being as much a matter of intellect and psychology as of brute force and athletic prowess.