With two games left in the 2021 NFL regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers and linebacker TJ Watt were all but eliminated from playoff contention; One statistical source gave them a scant two percent chance of making the postseason ahead of the team’s Week 17 Monday night game against Cleveland.
Meanwhile, Watt had already set the franchise record for sacks in a season (17.5), but breaking Michael Strahan’s NFL record of 22.5, set in 2002, had about as much probability as a Steelers playoff berth.
And then, the improbable happened, twofold: The Steelers somehow made the playoffs after wins against Cleveland and Baltimore (plus some help from other teams), and Watt tied Strahan’s single-season sack record with four sacks against the Browns and one against the Ravens en route to being named the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Going on behind the scenes during Watt and his team’s near-miraculous finish was a formal social media “cleanse,” led by Six Star Pro Nutrition, Watt’s sports nutrition brand of choice. The cleanse was a team effort between TJ Watt and six other Steelers (his brother Derek, Chukwuma Okorafor, Devin Bush, Trai Turner, Joe Haden, and Diontae Johnson) that stipulated zero social media use starting Dec. 29 and running to the end of the regular season (January 9).
Six Star challenged Watt and his teammates as part of a 2022 New Year’s campaign (#TwentyYOU) to raise awareness around screen time and cyberbullying – with the unintended benefit of helping the Steelers win a couple football games.
But seriously. Did the social media cleanse really send Pittsburgh to the playoffs and give TJ Watt the extra energy and focus he needed to finish with five sacks in two games? No one can say for sure, but Watt’s not ruling it out.
In an exclusive M&F interview, he discusses how the cleanse helped him, how he plans to keep is screen time in check going forward, and what it’s really like to be trolled on Twitter by armchair quarterbacks.
What were you hoping to get out of the digital cleanse? What were your expectations going into it?
To be honest, I just wanted to get out of the monotony of just sitting around, scrolling through my phone. Every day I’d come home from work, I’d sit on the couch and scroll through my phone. And before you know it, two, three hours had passed. And it was one of those things where once you take a look at the screen time and see how much time you’re wasting, it’s just like, “Why am I doing this? What’s the point of just sitting here when I could be having a great conversation with my fiancé, asking how her day was?”
What social media platforms did you focus on for the cleanse?
I’ve just been kind of an Instagram and Twitter guy. I had already deleted Facebook, and I’ve never been a TikTok guy. I used to be on YouTube a lot, too. I would just click through videos. YouTube’s a crazy place, man.
It just so happened that you and your Steeler teammates won two big games at the end of the regular season while doing the cleanse and made the playoffs in surprising fashion. Do you think the cleanse helped your play on the field?
I think it definitely can. It’s just one of those things where you don’t always have to be reading what’s said about you. I think it’s very important for professional athletes, specifically, and anybody that has their job publicly out there where people can just reach out and Tweet at you. One Tweet can really change how you think about yourself, and it affects your day. To be able to get off social media and not read what people are saying, whether it’s good or bad, helps you stay in a rhythm with yourself and not let anybody throw off your day. I think that was important for us toward the end of the season.
What’s it like being a public figure and having millions of strangers saying things about? Do the haters and trolls ever get to you?
It’s all what you read. I had both of my brothers grow up in the same spotlight, so I could see how they handled it, and I had their tutelage to tell me how to handle it as well. I think I’ve done a good job of not reading everything, whether it’s good or bad. I have so many good people in my corner. I value their opinion so much, and that’s really all that matters at the end of the day.
Did you use any specific strategies during the cleanse to make it easier to stay off social media?
Yeah. You can change the time limits on your screen time on your phone settings. You can change it to zero minutes, or you can change it to 10, 20 minutes, whatever you want. I also make sure that I have no social media on my home screen, which makes it less convenient.
I think the biggest key was accountability. When Six Star brought this cleanse challenge to the table, it made it more real to me that I needed to hold myself accountable. And when you have teammates doing it, too, it becomes… if they can do it, why can’t I? I think it was important to bring the team aspect to it, or for others to have someone do the challenge with you, to hold you accountable.
Did you and your teammates, one of which is your brother Derek, do anything to hold each other accountable?
Yeah. If I was ever around them and I saw them on social media, it was like, “Hey, we’re cleansing right now. Get off there.” I think that’s okay. I mean, it’s going to be harder for some guys than others, but that’s why it’s important that we were all able to hold each other accountable. And anytime I went over to my brother’s house, having his two sons running around, I don’t really need to be on my phone much anyway. So, it’s just living in the moment.
Do you have any recommendations for others who may want to do a cleanse or otherwise work on reducing screen time and social media?
It’s one of those things that you always tell yourself you need to do, and you can do it for a day, and then after that you go right back to what your old habits were. I think if you can get someone that’s close to you that can do it with you, it definitely helps with accountability. But I also think you just have to have a conversation with yourself to say, “When is this going to stop?” Because the screen time is just going to keep increasing. A lot of times you’re scrolling on your phone for no reason, just wasting time. I think a lot people don’t want to look at their screen time because they’re scared to admit how much time they’re spending on their phone. But you have to make a conscious effort, otherwise it’s not going to change.
What did you learn about yourself during this process?
I realized that I was just picking up my phone for no reason. There are times when your phone’s sitting on the couch, you just pick it up out of habit. But during the cleanse, I formed new habits. I started cooking with my fiancé more, just being involved in the kitchen more, having conversations more, and watching TV shows together as opposed to just both of us sitting on the couch looking at our phones. I’ve enjoyed life with the cleanse, and I’m going to continue to try to do my best to limit my screen time going forward.