Winning Football Teams

In Sports by Brock Bourgase

Last Sunday, the Detroit Lions played on Sunday Night Football against the New Orleans Saints. The young team, comprised of talented young draft picks, committed eleven penalties, including three personal fouls and were shredded by the efficient Saints who exercised control in their precise offensive sets and discipline on the field.

Tonight, the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing the Cleveland Browns. While the physical defense has struggled with league rules regarding hits to the head, the team has been remarkably consistent over the past twenty years, frequently making the playoffs and winning two Super Bowls. The Steelers have drafted late in the draft for years but their adherence to team goals over individual impulses makes them far more likely to reach the post-season than the Lions, this year and beyond.

Good teams aspire to play hard, play smart and play together. Achieving these three goals is not a part time job — the objectives must become part of a team’s identity. Currently, Detroit’s personality is “out of control trainwreck” whereas the Green Bay Packers, recent comeback winners courtesy of a last-second game-winning drive led by Aaron Rodgers, are labelled as “Back-to-Back Super Bowl Champions.”

Playing HARD: Teammates model the way, the bench provides encouragement, five players become a defensive unit, generating the turnovers that fuel the fast break. In the short term, an extrinsic event – such as a game against a big rival – can generate the motivation to play hard but over the course of the season that drive must consistently come from within. Social learning and peer pressure are powerful motivator for student-athletes and they mimic how championship teams use collective goals as a powerful incentive. Great defenses, like Pittsburgh or Baltimore care passionately about winning, not the statistics that they accrue in the process.

Playing SMART: Individual decisions determine team destiny. Successful teams understand each other’s strengths and limitations. Drew Brees makes dozens of decisions during the game and most of them are good choices. Even when he commits error, he understands that it’s not the mistake that matters but the reaction to it. Unfortunately, Detroit was committing mistakes with unnecessary penalties during the play and by reacting emotionally after the whistle.

Some players innately make intelligent decisions while others learn by experience; it can take a while to understand that experience and put it all together. Coaches model the way and it is telling the Detroit’s coach (Jim Schwartz) nearly started a fight with an opposing coach during a post-game hand shake earlier this season and the team’s defensive star (Ndamukong Suh) os currently suspended for stomping an opponent. Mentorship develops the discipline that turns winning games into winning championships.

Playing TOGETHER: So why not simply write “play hard and play smart”? Because no team meets the first two objectives consistently without epitomising the third. In practices, true teams push each other to get better — in games, they pull together and overcome adversity.

Coaches can motivate players but extrinsic motivation is a fossil fuel that cannot be sustained. The intrinsic motivation that is generated when every player comes to practice focused and ready to work hard is a renewable resource. Occasionally, there are times when the team must be picked up by the coaches although the key word is “occasionally”. The teams that pick themselves up are the teams that play for national titles year after year. Schwartz may make a passionate speech to get the Lions back on track this week but the Packers need no reminders to get ready to play.

Teams are owned by the players. Successful teams self-evaluate and push each other to get better throughout the season. Occasionally, teams fall into crisis and when this occurs, the players are ultimately responsible for the resolution. Coaches can recommend actions but players must execute these actions. Sometimes, the players must pull themselves together and move forward on their own. The Ravens locker room belongs to Ray Lewis and his teammates, not coach John Harbaugh.

Sports help to teach decision-making; every choice has a consequence. The choice of action or inaction includes the consequence of being accountable or abdicating responsibility. In life, everyone must work for what they want; nothing is handed to anyone. Green Bay is currently 12-0 and boasts a roster of over a dozen undrafted players. Being a highly touted recruit or a high draft pick is neither a guarantee nor a prerequisite for success. Those who assume the former may fall short but those who believe the latter and never stop working hard, smart and together.