So here we are again, another Super Bowl week with our nation forced to confront the Belichick Conundrum. Which is this: how does this grim, cranky, secretive, ruthless, uncharismatic coach keep building a winning culture, year after year?
The usual answer: Belichick is a football Einstein, a genius who out-thinks, out-schemes, and out-adjusts everybody else. That he is, like a chess grandmaster or an ace fighter pilot, always three moves ahead of the opposing coaches. That he just sees the game differently.
It’s a tempting view. But when you look closely at how Belichick operates, he’s actually the opposite. He’s not leading like an Einstein. He’s more like the foreman of a construction job. He’s leading by focusing obsessively on small, mundane tasks.
For a glimpse inside his method, check out the Belichick Breakdowns. In the video series, Belichick analyzes half a dozen or so key plays from the previous game. You’ll notice a pattern: Belichick 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 the little moments — the perfectly executed block that turned a 3-yard run into a 4-yard run. The way a defensive player sealed off an end that led to an incompletion. He focuses, with insane precision, on routine moments where a tiny individual improvement — better technique, better timing, better awareness — boosted the team’s performance.
In fact, it’s possible to categorize the kinds of things he talks about into three buckets:
- 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 foreman 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.
This approach seems disappointing at first glance, especially in comparison to the Einstein model. But in another sense, it’s better. His success as a coach doesn’t depend on some brilliant moment insight, but rather on the sustained and relentless application of awareness, knowledge, and communication. It’s steady. It’s reliable. Above all, it works because it generates a powerful cultural message, which roughly translates as THE LITTLE STUFF IS THE BIG STUFF.
And it works. Recall that moment with 20 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX, with the Seahawks on the Patriots one-yard line, about to score the winning touchdown. The Seahawks attempted to surprise the Pats with a pass, and then this happened.
How? It turned out Belichick had worked with cornerback Malcolm Butler earlier on the week on the details of that play, from that formation. Butler remembered, recognized, cut in front of the receiver, and intercepted the ball. It might have been a great play, but it was built by great craft.
(Note: a version of this piece appeared on my blog on Jan 24, 2012)