How the Ravens Rookies Learned Life Lessons Using Improv

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One Ravens rookie jumped into the middle of the circle and spread his arms wide. He was a tree.

Another leapt in. He was a bird.

A third rookie went in. Birdseed.

The Ravens rookies get a lot of classroom education on how to be a professional, financially smart, a good family member, a role model off the field and much, much more.

On June 9, they got a whole different kind of lesson that was way more outside the box.

The entire rookie class went to the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore to do improv exercises/games aimed at personal growth with the side effect of teammate bonding.

Set up by Ravens Director of Player Development Harry Swayne, the players worked with Development Specialist Lainie Hodges, who started her own business after working with the Ravens and other teams in the NFL's player engagement branch.

As part of the team's training seminars, the rookie class took part in a unique course focused on improvising in difficult situations.

It's the second year the Ravens have had this outing. They were the first team in the NFL to use improv as a tool, said Hodges, and the Seattle Seahawks and other professional sports teams have followed suit since.

"Improv is a great tool because it asks everybody to bring their natural abilities to the table," Hodges said. "The games are designed to build the muscles around mental, emotional agility, responsiveness to whatever might be thrown your way."

Hodges had the players act out different scenarios from the goofy one above (there was also some impromptu twerking) to more serious ones about being in a romantic relationship.

"It fosters a conversation because they're in a nice, natural state," Swayne said. "Their work hat's not on, their player hat's not on. They're totally silly."

Rookies are often thrown into uncomfortable situations. First of all, they're in an intense new job with some very big personalities. Then they go back home and, being that they're in the NFL, the dynamic often changes in their relationships and interactions.

If a player isn't comfortable handling those situations, they can sometimes make the wrong decisions or cave to peer pressure.

"They're in situations where they have to adapt or improvise when they least expect it," Swayne said. "We have to say something and do something too. This gives you those life skills for those situations."

Swayne said third-round outside linebacker Tim Williams was one of the rookies who was especially engaged and participatory. Typically more reserved fifth-round offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor opened up, Swayne said.

"It was a little weird at first, but overall a lot of guys got fun out of it being together and showing people another side of themselves instead of being all shelled up," second-round linebacker Tyus Bowser said. "It was good being able to show our emotions and doing things we're not comfortable with."

Hodges was particularly impressed with how well the rookies worked with each other. They did a group exercise in which someone would initiate a body movement and it would get passed around the circle like a wave. Hodges couldn't believe how quickly it became fluid for them.

"We're using games and exercise to allow participants to grow in the moment to help them and help them bond with the teammates," Hodges said.

"I'm extremely grateful to Harry and the organization for being innovative. This is definitely outside of the box. It's awesome that they were willing to take the leap to help their players."

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