If you want to be world-class at whatever you do - whether business, tech, or creating memes on the internet - you will probably learn more by studying world-class sports coaches than productivity gurus on YouTube.

Let’s take a look at two of the best football coaches of all time: Nick Saban and Bill Belicheck.

In 1982, Nick Saban was an up-and-coming college football coach. He was a defensive assistant at the Naval Academy and shared an office with a fellow coach, Steve Belicheck.

Nick looked up to Steve as a father-figure because of his extensive coaching experience. He would go to Steve’s house for dinner and that’s where he met Steve’s son, Bill Belicheck.

Bill was also a football guy. At the time, he was working his way up the NFL coaching ranks. A few years later, Bill was offered the head coaching position for the Cleveland Browns.His first hire was Nick Saban as defensive coordinator. In four years, they went from the worst defensive team in the league to the best.

Nick and Bill parted ways but over the next 25 years, Nick’s teams won six collegiate National Championships while Bill’s Patriots won six Super Bowls.

They’re the two best coaches of this generation and arguably the two best football coaches of all time. 

But what makes them so great? 

And why should you care?

World-class Teachers

Elite sports coaches are some of the best teachers on the planet. But instead of teaching the physical laws of the universe or classic literature, they teach practical skills like work ethic, mindset, and strategy. The best coaches know how to help players unlock their potential. 

In 2019, HBO filmed Nick Saban and Bill Belicheck talking about their philosophy for coaching. The discussion ranged from the importance of process over outcome, how to develop an elite mindset, and the importance of practice. 

Let’s take a look.

On problem solving

"I studied economics and I'd struggle to say that helped me. The biggest thing I learned in college wasn't the material. It was how to solve problems, how to think, and how to come up with your own ideas and how to develop a solution to the problem. That's what I feel our job is.” - Bill Belicheck

The best engineers, designers, and executives I’ve worked with don’t view themselves based on their job title. They view themselves as problem solvers. Code, mockups, and slide decks are just tools they use for solving problems.

When solving a tough technical problem, great engineers don’t think - “Ooo let’s use that shiny new tool I saw on Hacker News last week!” Instead, they think - “What’s the best tool for the job given our constraints?” World-class problem solvers develop a wide range of skills so they can use the right tool for the job.

Every day, Belicheck uses the following framework for solving problems:

  • Scope the problem. “We need to come up with a pass play for third and long against the Falcons”
  • Think through the options. “We could pass it to Edelman, Amendola, or Gronk”
  • Identify variables. “Edelman will likely get double teamed and Gronk has a mild calf injury”
  • Pick the best option. “Gronk still has an advantage over their linebacker so we’ll most likely want to pass to him”
  • Figure out how to implement it. “Let’s get to the drawing board and start practicing it”

On process over outcome

Alabama football player:"Coach, we won the game last weekend. Why do we have to keep doing the same play over and over again?"

Saban: "Because you didn't do it right."

Saban sat quietly in the film room with their star quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, as they deconstructed the previous game.

Saban:“I don't like to watch this play because we never execute what we're supposed to do.”

What proceeded was a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight where the right tackle started the play by missing an easy block. In seconds, the defensive end was inches away from sacking the quarterback. But the QB quickly spun out, jumped, and passed for a touchdown.

Yet, Saban didn’t care about the touchdown. All he could think about was the right tackle missing his block. Saban obsesses over the process, not the outcome. Outcomes are outside of your control. But you control the process with how you approach the problem, how much effort you give, how resilient you are.

James Clear calls this idea Systems over Goals. Instead of setting a goal to lose 15 pounds, create a system that makes it easier to eat healthy. Instead of setting a goal to increase your salary 20%, create a system that helps you develop the skills needed to increase your salary.

It’s not about what you want. It’s about what you’re willing to do.

On practice

It was the Monday before the Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Seahawks. The Patriots were practicing defensive strategies for when the Seahawks were just a few yards away from a touchdown.

On one play, the receiver set a pick on the cornerback - Malcolm Butler - which set up an easy touchdown. The coaches told Malcolm that if the Seahawks lined up in that formation during the Super Bowl that he should be prepared to move around the screen so he can defend the pass.

Fast forward to Super Bowl Sunday and there’s less than 30 seconds left in the game. The Seahawks need to score a touchdown to win and they’re just two measly yards away. They line up in the exact same formation the Patriots prepared for on Monday. Malcolm recognizes it, gets around the receiver and makes an interception. Patriots win.

Deliberate practice isn’t always fun, but it’s what creates champions. Years of research have shown that deliberate practice is a key ingredient for cooking up top performers. 

Deliberate practice uses the Challenge, Act, Learn feedback loop:

  • Challenge. Practice your skill at a level that is difficult enough to challenge you, but easy enough to ensure you don’t get discouraged and quit. For example, instead of trying to write a 4,000 word essay, try splitting it up into a few 1,000 word essays.
  • Act. Work on projects. Build and ship. Get it out in front of people.
  • Learn. This is where many people get stuck. High-quality feedback accelerates skill development. One of my favorite ways to get feedback is by having a model to compare my work to. For example, if I’m writing code in a new language, I’ll look up well-written libraries and study their patterns. When learning to write, I deconstruct the structure and tone of writers I admire like Bill Simmons, Tim Urban, and Jams Clear and incorporate it in my writing.

On mindset

"Talent is the biggest nemesis to your mindset. Especially young people. You've always been the best player on your team and now you have to be disciplined and compete. It's okay though. You can learn it. It's a choice. Don't let talent be your nemesis." - Nick Saban

Many high achievers in the world of startups, business, and art have a point where people begin  telling them how great they are. The press. Their colleagues. Their friends. This praise is poison. It can lead to hubris and slowly eat away at the habits that got you to that point.

But those who become world-class and stay at that level take a different approach.

Saban:Everyone wants to climb the mountain. But when you get to the top, you become the mountain. Everybody is looking at you now.

Belicheck: And even when you’re the mountain, the best coaches still want to get better.

When the best of the best get to the top of the mountain, instead of pulling on the brakes, they step on the gas.

Over the years, Saban has developed mindset principles that he instills in all his players. Here are a few:

  • Discipline. When building on the internet, start by focusing on consistency over quality. This helps you build the habit of sharing your work online. Over time, your quality will improve naturally.
  • Pay attention to detail. If you watch game film with an elite athlete, they analyze every subtle movement to gain an edge over their opponent. Ben Franklin used to rewrite stories from authors he admired. Study the masters in your field with the same level of rigor and apply it to your work.
  • Prepare the right way. Whether it’s a meeting, presentation, or a demo, put in the work up front. Research, rehearse, reflect, repeat.
  • Give your best effort. Proper rest and recovery is a key part of being able to put forth your best effort. Once the lights are on though, be ready to turn tf up.

Saban and Belicheck will go down in history as two of the best sports coaches of all time. Anybody looking to be a top performer in their field can learn from how they solve problems, how they practice, and their mindset. But the most valuable takeaway from studying these two may be their unwavering obsession for their craft.

As their conversation ended, they got up and began taking their mics off. Belicheck goes: "So for the zone coverage, do you move the gaps over?" Without skipping a beat, Saban responds in football lingo: "We do two things. Any time the jack walks, it turns to the cat and the jack always goes away from the star.”

As always with Nick Saban and Bill Belicheck - it starts and ends with a love of their craft - football.


Thank you to the Compound Writing members who reviewed this post: Nick DrageDan Hunt, Joel Christiansen, and Tom White.

Aug 18, 2020

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