October 12, 2020

The Unity of a Team (with SOUL)

Filed under: Leadership,Sports,Teamwork — Nathan @ 12:25 pm

I love baseball. I grew up playing it, had many “Field of Dreams” moments with my dad through the years (he coached at two colleges), and still continue to watch even after my own inauspicious career at Duke. I confess, I fell asleep in the middle of the deciding fifth game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Yankees the other night and missed the drama of the well-played game with high stakes and drama, including an incredible eighth-inning at bat by Mike Brosseau that launched the Rays to the clinching win.

Ji-Man Choi, removed for Mike Brosseau, celebrates Brosseau's home run

Ji-Man Choi celebrates Mike Brosseau’s home run

In a professional career that had me building and studying teams up close (including watching our Buccaneers teams go from 9-7 to a Super Bowl then to 7-9 in consecutive seasons), I’ve been fascinated by the subject. That has taken even more of my attention ever since Tony Dungy and I first began working on “The Soul of a Team” (Tyndale House, 2019), including research, interviews with corporate and coaching leaders, and speaking and consulting on the topic.

With that backdrop, I was particularly drawn to several moments of the broadcast of Brosseau’s dramatic at bat against Aroldis Chapman…none of which directly involved Brosseau or Chapman. Instead, they can be glimpsed at the 2:06, 5:35, and 5:56 marks of this clip, when you see Ji-Man Choi first cheering, then later jumping the dugout fence and celebrating with Brosseau.

Why the big deal? Well, Choi was no longer in the game. More specifically, he started the game and was removed for Brosseau two innings earlier. That is, Choi could’ve been the one at bat, but wasn’t. It was Brosseau. And yet, Choi was one of the main cheerleaders. The moment wasn’t his, and he was okay with that. It was Brosseau’s. And the team’s.

The elements of “SOUL,” a critical foundation of a high-performance team, are challenging. But the level of unity shown by Choi is so impressive and runs so counter to our nature (or at least mine!) – to actually be so committed to the team that you are pulling for your replacement’s success.

Thanks to what appears to be a selfless, unified roster of players like Choi, the Rays have already gone far beyond what their salaries and name recognition would make you expect. For them, the whole is truly greater than the parts, exactly what you’re hoping for with a team.

I may start taking afternoon naps to make sure I don’t miss any repeat performances.

February 27, 2020

Growth Requires Adversity

In the Spring of 1988, I was a freshman at Duke and immersed in the throes of a baseball campaign that saw us lose nineteen straight games on our way to a 10-37 record. (You know, if you take out the 19 then we were only 10-18, which really isn’t too bad…)

In the meantime, the Duke basketball team was having more success on the court than we were on the field. At least, until a dreadful late-season stretch of three straight losses that saw them drop from first place in the ACC to third and looking fourth square in the face with a final game against regular season champ North Carolina. The first two, losses to NC State and Georgia Tech, weren’t all that surprising, as both were solid teams. But those two were followed by a loss that allowed a dreadful Clemson team to climb out of the cellar.

Along with plenty of others, I wrote off the basketball team after those three losses, only to see them crush Carolina, win the ACC Tournament, then make a run to the Final Four before finally losing to eventual champion Kansas.

Eight straight wins at the most important time of the year after the three-loss swoon.

I was reminded of that long-ago reversal upon reading about Coach K’s recent comments following Duke’s loss to NC State the other day. Those comments, as captured by Ed Hardin in the Greensboro News & Record, contain a great deal of wisdom for sports and life.

“The game’s not over until you get feedback,” Coach K said. He went on to discuss the point of that feedback – learning and improving, and his strategy for doing so, starting with speaking to his team about attitude.

“Whenever there’s adversity, the single biggest gift that God has given you is attitude. You are in control of attitude. No one else. It’s on you.” Then, he said that there’s belief that springs from your attitude, and finally your belief leads to preparation and execution, which complete the cycle of improvement. 


How we approach things mentally then allows us to put the sufficient effort and time into tackling what’s in front of us. And improving.

“You turn adversity of something that was bad into an opportunity that makes you better….Sometimes you need to get punched and knocked out. But then we get up, figure out why you got knocked out.”

Good stuff. Sometimes you need to get knocked out. Notice he didn’t say, “that stinks, but it’ll make us better.” No, an attitude that these challenges are good for our growth.

What do you know? Duke lost the next week to Wake Forest after these comments, a possibility Coach K entertained when he said that it was a cycle to be repeated as necessary. Knowing him, there’s a part of him that was pleased by the loss to Wake – another chance to grow.

Adversity leading to progress. Not in spite of adversity. Because of.

File that away for the next time life throws a punch. 

I will.

February 4, 2020

Win It Again

Filed under: Life,Significance,Sports — Nathan @ 1:02 pm

“Now we just have to win it again.”

I was reminded of those words this weekend as the Chiefs beat the 49ers to win the most recent Super Bowl. When they were spoken seventeen years ago, we were about 35,000 feet over New Mexico or West Texas, red rock passing beneath our flight. I was holding the Lombardi Trophy, adding my fingerprints to the chrome surface that had gone around the plane to the coaches and players and was now with those of us in the front office. We were only about eighteen hours after our Tampa Bay Buccaneers had hammered the Oakland Raiders to win Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, and I handed it to another front office member, and as they added their prints to it, they spoke the sentence above.


Those words revealed a truth that Tony Dungy and I have spoken about numerous times since then. When the Bucs won, Tony was coaching the Indianapolis Colts, still a couple of years from their Super Bowl victory, and he was constantly impressing the truth of Matthew 16:26 to his players and staff. “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul?”

So true. My Super Bowl ring is a neat conversation piece, but there’s nothing about it – or the win – that changed me. For better or worse, we were all the same people on that flight back to Tampa that we’d been before kickoff. Having won that game – although a fun way to cap the season and a week in Southern California – didn’t alter who I was.

Goals are important, and striving to use our talents to the best of our abilities is a critical component of living the life we were created to live. But ultimately, getting into the “right” school, winning the big game, being promoted to the corner office, don’t carry any inherent value.

We are the ones with value. Not things. What we do with opportunities, with the doors that open, to build relationships and impact others – others who also have value – are the accomplishments that really matter.

So, yeah, if we were trying to measure ourselves by the world’s scoreboard, then we needed to win it again.

But you and I know better. So ultimately, the win the day before – or the fact that we didn’t win it the next year, or any of the sixteen years to follow – really doesn’t matter. Instead, what did we do with today? What will we do with tomorrow?

So sure, it would be nice to win it again, but we are made for so much more.

December 6, 2018

Playing Well

“I would rather play well and lose than play poorly and win.”

– Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach, 4-time Super Bowl champion

“There’s no such thing as a moral victory.”

– Just about every other coach

I was pondering the other day – again – what do you do when nothing seems to be going your way? Or when you’re completely outmatched before you take the field?

The current basketball team at one of my alma maters, Duke, is ranked in the top five and seems pretty solid. They opened the season by hammering then-number-one Kentucky and has played well in not only their wins but also their single loss.

On the flip side, the Stetson Hatters (what a great mascot) traveled to Durham last week with a 1-7 record, having lost seven straight. One ranking put them at 348th out of 353 college basketball teams.

Hardly a fair fight.

So I was pondering, what are you thinking if you’re Stetson? Sure, you want to win the game. You put your best plan in place and look to win the game, as Herm Edwards said. I never took the court, gridiron or diamond unless I thought I was going to win, although looking back, sometimes it was more delusion than confidence.

Winning is the point of keeping score. We never lost sight of that when I played college sports, or when I worked for the Jacksonville Jaguars or Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

But as you may have guessed, despite good intentions Stetson trailed 59-25 at half (including a 48-16 deficit at one point) on it’s way to losing by 64 points. Kind of had their hats handed to them, if you will.

Sounds a bit like a day I had last week.

So is there really no such thing as a moral victory? Is winning really the only thing?

I don’t think so.

Mike Young, the successful basketball coach at Wofford College, has an approach similar to Tony Dungy’s. Mike told me this fall that he doesn’t point the team toward particular fixed goals, but rather a standard based on several inquiries: Are we playing as well as we can? Are we growing and improving as individuals? As a team?

And finally, Did our performance this season demonstrate that we’d maximized our capabilities?

Sounds very similar to Tony Dungy. Tony measured his Colts teams not against other records in the league or even other Colts teams, but what were they capable of. His Super Bowl team was not nearly as talented as a couple of others that he had, but it maximized its potential by season’s end.

However, winning that championship wasn’t the measuring stick. Similar to that Super Bowl team, he had one team that exited in the first round of the playoffs that he felt was one of his most successful, since on paper it shouldn’t have been in the playoffs at all. It had maximized its potential.

We need to remember that. Every sales call won’t result in a sale. Every book won’t hit number one. (Unfortunately.) We won’t win every game.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re failures. Are we learning and growing? Better today than yesterday? That sales call may pay off later, or in some unexpected way. That book may deeply impact a few people.

Those are the measuring sticks we should be using.

Sure, we play to win the game. But as you do, remember that playing well and losing isn’t all bad, either.

October 2, 2018

Ring of Honor Reflections

Filed under: Life,Sports — Nathan @ 11:01 pm

“Okay, so how did you handle the bitterness?” Silence. “I mean, did it help that you immediately went to work for the Colts, or was there still some residual bitterness that you just needed time to heal, or maybe just pray your way through. Or both?”

More silence. He was about to speak but I jumped in to clarify one more time. We’d been really making good progress in the interview until I’d hit this snag. Maybe the wounds were still so raw he couldn’t articulate it.

“You said that you’d tried to build an organization and team in Tampa that did things the way you thought the Lord would want them. You and your players had been active throughout the community. You took a moribund franchise and put them in the playoffs every year. And for that…you were fired. So how’d you work through the bitterness of following what God wanted you to do and yet get fired?”

So it went in February of 2007 as I sat with Tony Dungy in his office in Indianapolis. We were beginning a thirty-day race to write Quiet Strength (we didn’t have a name for it yet), and I was trying to understand where he was coming from at critical moments in his life.

I was reminded of that conversation last week when my wife and I were guests of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Tony was inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.

Ring of Honor collage            His answer eleven years ago underscored the attitude that made possible that evening last week: “Bitter? Why would I be bitter? God had work for me to do in Indiana, and unless the door in Tampa was closed, I would’ve never left.”

My response was probably also instructive as to my all-too typical mindset. “Wait. I’ve been bitter on your behalf for five years, and you weren’t even ever upset?”

He admitted to the all-too human emotion of disappointment, but said that he and Lauren hadn’t spent any time being upset with the Bucs or their owners, because there was another mission field.

I’d been scheduled to go the following week with the rest of the Bucs scouting department to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama but was told I had to stay behind. “Bill Parcells will be arriving while we’re gone, and somebody needs to be here to help him get settled.” While they were gone I’d grown a beard and had taken to wearing flannel – I looked like a malnourished lumberjack – and was so annoyed I should’ve had a High Voltage: Do Not Touch sign around my neck. (Coach Parcells opted not to come, and a month later we had Jon Gruden as our new coach, but that’s another story.)

So here we were, the Dungys, Tony’s players, coaches and front office staff from his Buccaneers tenure, watching his induction into the Ring of Honor, recognizing his place among the franchise’s greatest contributors.

My takeaway from the unlikely event of the night (at least in 2002 when he was fired by Tampa Bay)? Sure, don’t burn any bridges came to mind. But even more, it’s darkest before the dawn or God causes all things to work together for good seem even more apropos.

Look, I was also fired by the Bucs, but my induction into their Ring of Honor is…unlikely. But so often the greatest opportunities come out of the depths of seeming disaster.

Hang on. Keep scrapping. You never know what doors are opening, or why.


July 12, 2018

Belgium’s Red Devils

It’s true – I’ve been watching this year’s World Cup. Watching a lot of it. Of course, other than now knowing the term “set piece” and appreciating the cleanliness of the Japanese and Senegalese fans, I must confess to still not grasping the intricacies of the game.

But one thing is clear; teamwork is critical.

I was fascinated to see the comments of Roberto Martinez, the coach of Belgium’s team (the “Red Devils”), on the necessity of his squad to work as a unit. “Individual skills and talent are important, but in these tournaments, it’s absolutely necessary to play as a team,” he said. “The last thing you want at international football is to see a group of individuals hoping to get a result.”

So true, not only in international football, but also in other sports, as well as corporations and any team settings. A team is completely different than a group of individuals.

Three points jumped out at me from the comments of Martinez, who led Belgium to the Cup semifinals:

  1. They needed the right roster configuration. As the late (American) football coach Denny Green said, “I want the right players on the roster, not necessarily the best players.” Martinez, likewise, spoke of needing the right mix of attackers, defenders and others, even if that meant some of the players who “grab the headlines” didn’t make the team.
  2. That roster configuration included diversity for the benefits it brings. Youth and young blood bring “bravery and naivety,” but Martinez also sought the benefits that veterans who had played in high stakes international competitions brought. Tony Dungy tackled this with his first Buccaneers coaching staff, hiring the blunt, fiery Herm Edwards as his Assistant Head Coach to complement Tony’s soft-spoken approach. Neither needed to become something they weren’t, but both needed to appreciate the other.
  3. Belgium had to become a team that could handle adversity. And the only way to learn to handle it is to experience it. “We must become a team that can suffer when it’s needed to be a winning team….” Martinez explained.  It’s certainly no fun when it’s happening, but it’s a part of growth. For the Red Devils, or your team. As my friend Jon Gordon notes, maintaining a spirit of positivity helps us press on through bad times.

So as you work within your team – and teams are all around us, in our families, businesses, churches, sports teams, and organizations (including my wife’s Junior League!) – remember Martinez’ words of wisdom. At the end of the day, teams can accomplish more, but only if they are a team – not merely a collection of individuals.