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.

NW