What does this have in common with techniques used by magicians? There are two aspects: what the player (performer) does and what the opponent (the audience) expects.
Using an audience’s expectations to fool themselves is a quintessential tool of a magician.
First, the physical deception comes in the player’s ability to control the tension in his body. Magicians who are great at creating deception can raise and lower the tension in their bodies at will. Tension impacts attention. When a magician lowers the physical tension in his body, his audience is lulled into relaxing and ignoring his methods.
Brewer has mastered this principle. As soon as he caught the ball, he released all tension from his body. This subconsciously communicated to the players on the opposing team that the play was done. They could relax because his body wasn’t communicating the tension that would exist if he were about to run with the ball.
Many times, audiences assume they’re being misdirected by a magician’s alternative action (“quick, look over here!”). In reality, magicians aren’t relying on an action to misdirect you, they’re relying on a non-action. That’s exactly what this football player is doing so well.
The other reason the trick play worked so well is that it is built on the opposing team’s players’ expectations. They were assuming that the player would call a fair catch.
Our brains are constantly making shortcuts. The less work for us, the better. Since we’re constantly making assumptions, it’s much easier for us to think we are going to be right than to look for evidence that we are wrong.
The first player running up to Brewer must have just assumed the fair-catch signal was made. The second player must have assumed the first player made the right decision. Again, it’s much easier to believe we are right than we are wrong.
I understand why the opposing team players fell for Brewer’s gambit. But it was also his acting that helped make this work.
I’m very curious about the moment in which Brewer decided to fake out his opponents. Was it as the ball was flying towards him through the air? Was it as he was catching it, knowing that he had not made the sign for a “fair catch.” Or was it the moment that he caught it, paused and realized that no one was tackling him and there was no whistle blown?
9/17/18 Update: I’ve since learned through reading this interview that Brewer’s teammates had been practicing this trick play for months—and that his coach gave him the go-ahead for the well-coordinated theatrical production.
A magician’s skill comes in “being natural.” This includes keeping a poker face and not celebrating when you’ve just achieved something supremely devious. And vice versa, it includes not acting upset or even surprised when everything around you is going wrong.
A great magician can control both his physical movements and his psychological reactions to what’s happening in real time. Being in control of your response is at the center of influencing perceptions.
Magicians use physical and psychological deceptions to fool their audiences. This is a beautiful example of an athlete using the same principles to fool the players on the other team and using a magician’s technique to score an extra touchdown.