Month: January 2012

How Great Coaches Think

One of the most persistent myths about great coaches — who are, of course, interchangeable with great teachers and great leaders — is that their primary job is to come up with Big Ideas. You know, those creative, last-minute, improvised bursts of genius that change everything: the revolutionary strategy, the brilliant 11th-hour gambit, the heart-lifting pregame speech. This myth, born in Hollywood, is built on the governing idea of the coach/teacher/leader as visionary artist — a special one who sees something no one else can see. In other words, the coach as wizard.

It’s a tempting view — because from a distance, it seems to be true enough. The problem is, when you look closely at great coaches/teachers, they’re doing precisely the opposite. They’re not thinking like wizards. They’re thinking like construction workers.

For a revealing glimpse into this mindset, check out the Belichick Breakdowns, a weekly video by the man currently regarded as the greatest living wizard, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, who are headed to their fifth Super Bowl in 11 years.

In the series, Belichick analyzes half a dozen or so key plays from the previous game. The remarkable thing is what he considers to be key plays — and what he doesn’t. As Seth Stevenson points out here, the coach doesn’t focus on the big moments we notice — he skips over all the amazing athletic moves, the key turnovers, and pretty much anything that you might remember from the game. Instead, he focuses exclusively and obsessively on Little Things — the perfectly executed block that turned a 3-yard run into a 5-yard run. The way a defensive player sealed off an end that led to an incompletion. He focuses, time after time, on small moments.

This is not an accident — this is, in fact, his construction-worker mindset in action.  This mindset focuses on three qualities, which can be approached as questions. Think of these questions as the filter in a great coach’s mind, governing his attention and action.

  • 1) Is it Replicable? Is this a one-off fluke, or is it an action that can be applied in a variety of situations? Blocking technique matters on every single play. If Belichick were a guitar teacher, he wouldn’t care about that kick-ass solo — instead, he’d obsess about thumb position and finger angle, the stuff that matters on every single chord you play.
  • 2) Is it Controllable? Is this something that has to do with effort, awareness and planning? If you watch the breakdowns, you’ll see how he makes heroes of players who pay attention, who anticipate, who get to the right spot at the right time. If Belichick were a high-school English teacher teaching Huckleberry Finn, he’d make heroes of the students who are first to spot the themes and connections in the text, because that’s about awareness and effort.
  • 3) Is it Connective? Is it related to a successful outcome? Belichick understands that every big play is built on a scaffold of solid technique. So he focuses, like any good construction worker would, on the foundational things that made success possible. Each of those small moves (the perfectly executed block) is in fact vital, because without it all the good luck (the big pass play) never happens. If Belichick were a sales consultant, he’d focus on the first ten seconds of the sales call — because without a warm emotional connection, the sale would never happen.

It’s no accident that Belichick’s Super Bowl counterpart is Tom Coughlin of the NY Giants, who’s cut of a similar construction-worker cloth. If you watched Sunday’s game you saw the Giants win with an overtime field goal in wet conditions. It turns out that the Giants practiced all week snapping and kicking wet balls — they soaked them in a water tank. It probably seemed silly and small and obsessive at the time. But in fact, they were building toward a win.

PS — For another view into this mindset from a classroom POV, check out Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. It’s great.

The 3 Levels of Effective Practice

I’m always on the lookout for new ways to understand highly effective practice, and recently came across a keeper from Vern Gambetta, the well-known coach and athletic consultant. It’s called “winning the workout.” (Here’s a short video describing it.)

At its core is the idea that there are three essential ways of approaching a practice session.

  • Level 1) You show up. You do the job exactly as you’re told to do it; nothing more, nothing less. You get a little better.
  • Level 2) You show up. You do the job, and you target certain tasks that’ll help you toward your goal. You work the workout, push yourself, think about technique. You get a lot better.
  • Level 3) You show up, having thought about how today’s session fits into the larger goal. You work very hard, pushing yourself into the discomfort zone over and over, with full commitment. Later, you reflect/analyze/critique your performance with a cool, objective eye. You get a LOT better, creating what Gambetta calls “the quantum leap.”

Think of the three levels as bronze, silver, and gold. Level 3 is winning the workout.

Traditionally, when we talk about effective practice, we use the idea of focus — the amount of attention a person puts into their actions. After all, that’s the one word parents and coaches often yell from the sidelines — “Focus!” (And it usually works about as well as you’d expect.)

One reason I like Gambetta’s concept is that it takes us beyond the primitive idea of focus and into the more targeted idea of investment — sensing and measuring the total amount of time and energy put into the process of getting better. I also like it because it embraces the semi-revolutionary idea that some of the most vital work happens away from the practice space, in the time we use to reflect, strategize, plan, and figure out honest answers to those two simple but immensely difficult questions we face every day: where are we right now, really? Where we want to be tomorrow?

The more immediate question is, how do you increase investment and win the workout? Here are two ideas.

  • 1) Notebooks. Writing stuff down is a good way to increase planning, reflection, and understanding; it lets us think our way past obstacles and see ourselves clearly. Check out for some good ideas and tools.
  • 2) Make a habit of connecting every session, every drill, to the longterm goal. One way to think about this is to think like a movie camera, zooming in and out. Zoom in on the task, then zoom out to show where it fits in the bigger picture.

(Big thanks to sharp-eyed reader Gerald Murray for alerting me to Gambetta’s work.)

Choices, Choices

A late Christmas present just arrived! I’m psyched because I just got the first cover design for my new book, The Little Book of Talent, that’ll come out in September.  Actually, two designs.

The question is, which to pick? That’s where you excellent people come in.

FYI, the book will be pretty little — it’ll measure 7 inches by 4.5 inches. It’ll be hardback, and it’ll have no jacket — just plain cloth. We’re aiming for a classic/timeless feeling, but we don’t want it to feel old-fashioned or fusty. In other words, not your grandpa’s little book.

First, we have choice A:

Then, option B:

Which do you like?

(In our family voting, there was a clear winner. I’ll tell you which in a little while, so as not to skew the voting process.)

Here’s the update as of Monday January 16:  A = 30 votes, B = 8 votes.

Our family’s vote was exactly the opposite — we preferred B, because the title seemed to “pop” more and because it seemed a tad less nostalgic, a little fresher.  But now you’ve got me thinking….

Thanks for all the great feedback; keep ’em coming!

Is This Great, Or is it Creepy?

Okay, I’ve been watching this video of this five-year-old kid, and I just can’t decide: is it amazing, or is it creepy?

(I’ll take a polite break while you watch.)

On one hand, the kid is totally amazing. So much control, discipline, balance, and ferocious focus. So much raw effort, so many hours spent practicing. If this kid were playing music or writing poetry, we wouldn’t find it creepy at all. Is he really any different from a young Mozart, or a Williams sister?

On the other hand, it is sort of creepy to see this level of expertise in a kid this young, isn’t it? It seems out of balance with our ideas about childhood. Is it mentally or physically healthy to be on a regimen like this? Who is really driving the bus here, the kid or the whispering parent? Is this a train wreck in the making — another overtrained prodigy destined for burnout and sadness?

This kid embodies the thorny question we all deal with. How much effort do we put into building narrow expertise, and how much into the broader social muscles? In other words, how much should we specialize to build the skills that make us unique, and how much should we spend time developing the muscles we need to make and maintain relationships, control emotions, and learn to communicate with others?

What do you think?