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.