Category Archives: Sports

Tom Brady’s Professional Humility

Humility might be a bit strong.  No one rises to the top of their profession without a healthy dose of chutzpah, self-confidence and above all a relentless desire to win.  That said, one who accepts help, guidance and coaching has some degree of humility, or at least a very solid handle on their ego.  It takes just as much strength to lead as it does to follow, to teach as it does to be taught.

Tom Brady is without question the best at his trade currently, if not ever in the history of football.  But after over 20 years, realistically 30 years, of throwing a football at the very highest level, he still has and uses a throwing coach.  He pays someone to work with him on the most basic, foundational element of his profession.  Conservatively he has thrown a football over a million times, yet he still has a coach who’s sole focus is to work with him on his throwing motion.

During his playoff bye week, Tom Brady worked with his throwing coach Tom House, and the results of the last two weeks speak for themselves.  Yet again the Patriots will be in the Super Bowl and Tom Brady, at the age of 41, is throwing the football as well as ever.

“I have done it quite a few times,” he said. “I don’t know if it is every year, but it is something I always think about. I am always trying to be really sharp with my technique and fundamentals. Again, I just love spending the time doing it.” 

Professionals ask for, and often pay for, help.  They do not wait for their companies to tell them to seek help or coaching, they do not expect others to pay for it, arrange for it, or otherwise direct it.  Professionals realize and embrace the timeless fact that fundamentals matter, that the core behaviors, the little things, the basics, the boring details, are the true keys to long term success.   While the cumulative sum of everything is what truly ensures success, none of it is possible without the foundational basics, and sometime we all could use some refresher training, and enforced accountability.

It takes enormous resilience, drive, dedication and raw effort to be the best.  It also takes a degree of humility and self-awareness to ask for, sometimes pay for, but certainly accept help and coaching.   If the GOAT can do it and benefit from it, we all can.

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Saban or Swinney – “Process” or “Family”

The game.  The moment.  The “field of competition”.  There is nothing as clarifying as the culminating event, the defining moment, that line of demarcation between winning and losing.  Sports is such a great provider of those clearly defined outcomes, and nothing more so than the penultimate “championship game”.  Monday evening again provided one of those moments.  Clemson did not just win the game, they absolutely dominated Alabama.  It has been an interesting four years watching those two programs compete for the National Championship in college football, each having won two.  What makes it all the more interesting is that by definition, the teams to some degree change on an annual basis.  While there is some player continuity on a year to year basis, but after a few years the players completely turnover.  The only true consistent is the head coach.  Unlike their NFL counterparts, the head football coach in college create the programs, the cultures and the environments.

What has become clear is that Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney stand at the pinnacle of their profession.  While Nick Saban has clearly been at the forefront of the college coaching world for well over a decade, the last four years has seen a clear emergence of Dabo Swinney as a truly special coach.  While both share a unique position at the top of their profession, each man clearly has a different leadership style.

Nick Saban is renowned for his focus, his process, his relentless attention to detail, for creating a system that has turned Alabama football into a true dynasty.  A factory producing championships, coveted coaches/coordinators and a host of NFL players.  To a degree his style is coldly professional, results oriented, absolutely committed to excellence, and very clear in that everyone plays a part to ensure the greater team goal is achieved.

Dabo Swinney has created an entirely different culture at Clemson.  His style is open, warm, focused on creating an environment resembling a family, where having fun, maximizing the goals of the individual, and above all instilling a sense of love and passion for the game and for teammates is paramount.  The result has seen Clemson clearly rise to the top, winning two of the last four National Championships while also producing a host of NFL players.  Dabo Swinney’s style has created an environment which from the outside appears to be the antithesis of the Alabama “factory system”.

Thus far, both leadership styles work, just as various leadership styles work in all aspects of life.  The interesting piece is that upon closer examination, Coach Saban and Coach Swinney teach us that their respective styles are not all-inclusive.  There are clearly aspects of each style within the other program.  Early in the season Dabo Swinney made a quarterback change.  He replaced the well liked and respected senior Kelly Bryant with the freshman Trevor Lawrence.  While love, faith and family feel are hallmarks of Dabo Swinney’s leadership style, quantifiable facts and commitment to the overall goal have to take precedence.  He made the hard but right decision.  He made the change, and the rest as the cliché goes, is history.  Conversely, for all the portraits of Coach Saban as detached, cold and strictly process driven, snippets leak out of him taking players water skiing, of he and the staff playing hoops over lunch, of a warmth and personal relationship side to the process driven leader.

Both styles work, but neither works in totality.  Each draws upon the other in various degrees, at different times, and for different reasons.  While consistency and tone are critical components of successful leadership, there will come a time when flexibility and  adaptability are critical traits for the leader and their team.

The leadership style, the feel and culture, the environment and tone are different, Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney absolutely share a relentless work ethic.  They are consummate professionals who are committed to their profession, their universities, their players, their coaches and the attainment of the ultimate goal.  While they might have a different approach, style is nothing without sweat equity.  Leaders have to put in the work.

 

 

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Run the Race, the Entire Race

It has become the trending topic and video of the current news cycle, the Women’s 4×400 relay at the NCAA Championships.  The odds, the pressure, the botched hand-off, and the comeback.  Words do not do it justice.  Watch the video – it is the best 5 minutes of the week.

 

Sports is such an illustrator of life lessons, and in sports there is nothing as humbling and clarifying as the track.  Everyone is competing in the same arena, across the same distance, against the unforgiving clock.  And when it comes to the 400, or 800 and 1600, it is equal parts physical ability and mental stamina.  It flipping hurts running fast over distance.
It was just the reminder we need:
  • Never, ever stop chasing.  Run the entire race.
  • Never take your foot off the gas.  If you are in front, know with absolute certainty that there is someone, somewhere, coming up behind you.
  • There will be hiccups, bobbles and misfortune along the way.   It is not about what happens, it is about how you react.
It was an amazing race for the USC Women.  They had one chance to win the entire meet, win the 4×400, the final event.  While everyone will remember that last closing 100 meters, it was every step, by every one of the women, in every leg, that ensured the victory.  If any of them had run one step slower, none of it would have mattered.  And if any of their teammates, in any of the events, had not given their all throughout the weekend, the stage would not have been set for the dramatic final race.
Sports, and especially the track, is a great equalizer.  It is also a great case study of the relationship between practice, effort, commitment, teamwork, and victory.  It took all they had in that moment, but it also took all they had in practice, throughout the course of the season, and in that meet, to create the opportunity.
We owe it to ourselves to run the race, and do all that it takes to get to the point to be in the race.  And when in the race, we run the entire race, as hard as we can, no matter what happens along the way.
As the Trojan’s say, “fight on”.

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Roger Bannister – Making the Impossible Possible

There are certain names, achievements and events that just simply are.  Neil Armstrong,  first man to walk on the moon.  The Wright Brothers, the first to fly.  Roger Bannister, broke the 4 minute mile barrier.  In these stories of great achievement, of individuals doing what moments before seemed impossible, come great lessons.  Roger Bannister died Saturday.  Though he will forever be remembered for breaking the 4 minute barrier, it is the lessons he shared that I found myself reflecting on this weekend.

Once the impossible is made possible, it becomes common.  History is riddled with things once thought impossible.  Flight, going to the moon, running a sub 4 minute mile.  All examples of things that could never be done.  While they might not be entirely common, they are certainly not impossible, and short of the moon, not even news worthy.  If one believes something is impossible, it will never happen.  But if one accepts that something is possible, they are on the path to achievement.

Amazing achievement demands sacrifice.  So much goes into that simple sentence, but breaking the 4 minute mile barrier is a story of sacrifice and pain.  It hurts to run fast.  Any runner suffers, but running fast for any amount of distance really, really hurts.  The mental fortitude to endure such self-inflicted pain is the true strength of a runner.  Running at an elite, world-class level, is a monastic existence.  Roger Bannister sacrificed in all other aspects of his life to achieve his goal.  Things thought impossible are not made possible without unfathomable sacrifice.

Focus and Commitment.  It was the most amazing part of the entire Roger Bannister story…he was going to medical school when he broke the 4 minute barrier!  It was the era of “Amateur Athletics” – one could not profit from athletics; it was unseemly.  Roger Bannister was in medical school, would train over his lunch hour (an hour to change, run, cool down, shower and change – an hour), and then occasionally run at meets strictly for the competition and only when his academic schedule allowed.  There were no endorsements, no shoe contracts, no government programs or athletic assistance.  He had to cover his own costs, buy his own shoes, sharpen his own spikes, all of it.  He had to focus and commit to the goal, then do everything required to achieve his goal.

Nothing is ever done alone.  The track optimizes individual effort.  It is the runner, on the track, against the clock.  Yet in his efforts to break the 4 minute barrier, Roger Bannister had help.  He had a coach and trainer, he had teammates and mentors, and on that fateful day he had pacers.  There literally were men who went before him, breaking the wind, setting the stage for his final lap push to finish in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.  Nothing, even the most solitary of endeavors, is every done entirely alone.

Competition.  Having rivals.  Being pushed.  Having someone to chase, someone nipping at your heels.  It matters.  Roger Bannister was not the only person chasing the 4 minute mile.  The rivalry with American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy was en epic contest.  They all were running in the 4:02 range and were desperate to be the one who broke the barrier.  They each pushed the other, chipping away, gradually going just a bit faster, training a touch harder, honing their craft and demanding more from the others just by competing.  Just as it was a “space race” to the moon, so it was with Bannister, Santee and Landy, and so it is with each of us who compete.  Thank the competition, they make you better.

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb was the book that introduced me to the full story of the 4 Minute Mile.  Like most everyone, I knew Roger Bannister broke the barrier, but knowing what it took, how it was done, the rivalry with Landy and Santee, the worldwide quest to do it, the mental and physical barriers.  That book sets atop one of my book shelves for a reason.  It is that good and taught me so much.  Sir Roger Bannister made the impossible absolutely common.  Yet when asked, he holds his work in medical research as his greatest personal achievement.  That last part is what makes the loss of Roger Bannister so great and the lessons his quest illustrates all the more telling.  He was a regular, and by all accounts, a good guy, who repeatedly did amazing things.  He achieved because he believed, he sacrificed, was focused and committed, had and accepted help, and embraced the competition.

You know, all the things any of us can do.

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Commitment – Rockets, Tom, Olympics and Teddy

There is something almost reassuring in seeing those who put in the work, who took the chance, who totally commit, succeeding, or even failing.  Just this month, we have seen a rocket take a car into space, a privately owned, designed and produced rocket and car.  Seen an older athlete return to the top of his sport, beating folks half his age.  An entire stream of unknown athletes burst onto the world stage, taking gold in events that require the skill, daring, joy and reckless abandon of youth.  Oh, and witnessed the most accomplished quarterback in football yet again lead his team to the Super Bowl.  But what we also saw in these events was failure.  The main rocket missed its remote recovery point, the quarterback lost the Super Bowl, and scores of Olympians melt in the heat of the moment.

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in that gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

  • President Theodore Roosevelt

Watching Shaun White, Chloe Kim and Red Gerard fly, to witness a private company launch a massive rocket, a test launch, complete with a privately produced car as the payload, broadcast live, oh and recover perfectly their booster rockets – all amazing moments.  It was equally rewarding to see Tom Brady slow the hands of time, but lose a game.  Or to see all the success of SpaceX and the Falcon Heavylift not include the perfect recovery of the main rocket.  Witnessing Mikaela Shiffrin win gold in her first event, then be edged off the podium in her specialty, or Lindsay Vonn to settle for bronze in her first event.  All incredible achievements, but not perfection.  Yet they all, in sport or business, have encountered great success, great failure, but through it all, none have never wavered.  Elon, Tom, Lindsay, Shaun, Chloe, Red and Mikaela continue pressing forward.

It takes courage to fail.  It takes commitment to try.  But it takes faith to try again, and again, and again until the moment of truth.  Winning is great, but getting back into the game after the crash, after the loss, after the defeat or just coming up a bit short, well that is the domain of the champion

Again, it is Teddy Roosevelt who said it so much better:

“It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly;
who errs and comes short again and again;
who knows great enthusiasms,
the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly
so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

 

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NFL playoffs and Leadership…It Matters

The beauty of sports is it’s crystal clear definition of success. Games and matches are played, points are scored, finish lines crossed, a winner is determined. Moving into the heart of winter, there is no better illustrator than the NFL, the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl. It is without question the most American of sports institutions. The hype, the media, the corporate money, the halftime show, the commercials, the pre-game shows, and even post-game shows. It is an absolute spectacle. Yet it is all about determining a winner. A champion. While coaching and leadership matters in all sports, there is something about football that seems to magnify the impact of leadership.

Tom Coughlin was the head coach who built the Jaguars. He lead an expansion franchise from concept to the most successful expansion team in league history. The Jaguars of the mid to late 90’s were a perennial contender, culminating in two AFC Championship game appearances. They were a standard of what a franchise could be, and at the center of it all was an old fashioned, hard-nosed, detail oriented, disciplinarian. It was a no-nonsense organization, and the results were clearly visible on the field.

As the cliche goes in sports, the window closed. The players aged, injuries took their toll, salary caps and retirements all changed the team. The leadership message grew stale, and Tom Coughlin was fired after 8 years in Jacksonville. The next 15 years would not be fun for the Jaguars.

After a year away from football, Tom Coughlin was hired by the New York Giants in 2004. His demeanor, approach, attention to detail and style were exactly the same. He immediately set the tone for the Giants. “Colonel Coughlin” had arrived and it was all business. The first few years were a rough transition, but the next several seasons saw the Giants earning multiple playoff berths as well as two Super Bowl titles. But with time, the message and leadership style of Tom Coughlin grew stale, and by the end of the 2015 season he “retired” from the Giants. It was a graceful exit, but everyone knew the truth; it was time for all parties to part ways.

Sunday the Jaguars will play in the AFC Championship game. It will be their first since 1999. Tom Couglin will not be coaching, but it is clear his return to Jacksonville last year as an executive leader has set the tone. He changed the morale of the organization. He instilled a sense of pride, professionalism, and winning. The Jags have went from “worst to first”.

While leadership alone will not make a winner, a lack of leadership can certainly ensure failure. The Jaguars are a team and organization of hundreds. But the right leadership has set the tone, and that has made all the difference, at least for this season. Unfortunately, they face the Patriots. Within the confines of the NFL, the Patriots are the gold standard when it comes to leadership, organizational culture, and winning. At the center of the Patriots stands Bill Belichick, who outwardly appears to be the same sort of gruff, “old school”, “my way or the highway” type of leader as Tom Coughlin. However, Belichick has been at the helm for 18 years with the Patriots.

Clearly, leaders set the tone, but those leaders who make lasting change are not tone deaf. Leaders have to evolve, adapt, temper their message, alter their presentation, all while never losing their followers and above all, without sacrificing the core message.

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Kaepernick and the Cause Célèbre Curse

Colin Kaepernick, from a business perspective, is not worth the risk.  It has nothing to do with his political views, his kneeling, his public comments or personal beliefs, nor his athletic abilities or skills.  Rather it has everything to do with his being a cause célèbre.  The more support he generates, the more celebrities who publicly plead his case, the more organizations and movements that march, the more stories and media coverage, the less hirable he becomes.  This has nothing to do with athletic ability, nor does it have anything to do with politics or race.  Rather, it has everything to do with business.

The emotion and “noise” surrounding Kaepernick is currently being directed at the NFL, its commissioner, its teams and team ownership.  With 32 teams and a very public commissioner, in raw numbers, each team simply has to shoulder 3% of the heat.  However, the team that hires him would then take-on all the baggage he brings.  All the noise, the emotion, the attention, the vitriol, the passionate supporters, the messaging, the questions, the disruptions.  All of it, all the time.  Thus, Colin Kaepernick cannot be hired by any NFL team.

The only thing harder than hiring someone is firing someone.  While it sounds harsh, it is  reality.  While it might be tempting to hire Colin Kaepernick, especially as injuries mount over the course of an NFL season, and he is someone with a very rare skill set – NFL quarterbacks are not easily found – he simply brings too much baggage.  And if an organization decided to accept all that hiring him entailed, the idea of not playing him and potentially having to fire him – it is simply not viable.  It is a sad irony, the more people, and his fellow players, try to support and help Colin Kaepernick find work, the less hirable he becomes.

 

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