Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

Sports quotations often find their way into the classroom and the workplace. Usually it is the hackneyed kind such as the one this post is named after and is of little value. However, if you dig into the work of the most successful coaches there are often little nuggets that go way beyond the value of say, “Giving it 110%.”

Bear in mind, for all the publicity and money athletes make, the work your students will do in their lives will have much greater impact on society than most sports figures. If the Seahawks gave the ball to Marshawn Lynch and he crashed into the end zone at the end of this year’s Super Bowl, outside the NFL bubble, it really would not have changed anyone’s life. That is not the case for a paralegal taking information for a legal case, a business manager making decisions that will affect the company’s employees, or a nurse taking care of a hospital patient.

That being said (another cliché) here it goes:

Red Auerbach: “It’s not what you tell your players, its what they hear.” In the book, On & Off the Court, Auerbach tells the story of his first few days as a coach at St. Albans Prep in D.C. After the first three days of practice, Auerbach realizes his players are not absorbing the techniques being taught. Finally, he pulls the team aside and says, “The object of the game is to take this ball and stick it into the hole over there…and make sure the other team doesn’t stick the ball into this hole over here.” A teacher has to meet the students on their level.

Earl Weaver: As described by Bill James in the book, Guide to Baseball Managers, Weaver was not interested in what his players could not do, only in what they could do. I tell my students that I do not want them to think about what they don’t know or are unable to do. The focus in the class should be on what they do know and can do. That is used as a foundation upon which to build their knowledge of the subject.

Bill Polian: “Ignore the noise.” In The Game Plan, Polian recalls the decision to draft Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. At the time, the consensus in the media was that Leaf was the better prospect due to his physical stature. However, Polian had interviewed and observed private work-outs with both quarterbacks. The information culled from these sessions made it clear Manning was the better pick despite all the howling it would bring from the fans and media. For your students, remind them not to be swayed in their decision making by those who do not have all the facts, no matter how loud they may be. And that leads to:

Chuck Noll: About Three Bricks Shy of a Load is, to this day, the best sports read I have come across. In it, Noll describes his decision making process as follows: “I don’t like to speculate…I like to make decisions based on real facts, and if you haven’t got enough facts to make a decision, you obviously can’t make it.” You might get lucky making a single gut-feeling decision, but not over the course of a lifetime. The process of decision-making should be based on facts and information rather than a feeling what might be the best way to proceed.

Vince Lombardi: From When Pride Still Mattered, former Packer lineman Bob Skoronski describes a speech Lombardi gave to his team on the meaning of love. It went, “Anybody can love something that is beautiful or smart or agile. You will never know love until you can love something that isn’t beautiful, isn’t bright, isn’t glamorous. It takes a special person to love something unattractive, someone unknown. That is the true test of love. Everybody can love someone’s strengths and somebody’s good looks. But can you accept someone for his inabilities?” Given the caricature of Lombardi we have been presented with, it’s hard to imagine him saying this. But then again, would Lombardi have been able to motivate his players year after year by simply yelling at them? Lombardi obviously had more going for him than that. And you’ll need more going for you than that in any sort of leadership position.

It’s easy to be dismissive of sports culture given the scandals of recent years. And sports alone will not prepare one for life. The fact that 78% of NFL players file bankruptcy within two years of leaving the game makes that painfully obvious. However, as in most things in life, if you look deep enough, you’ll find something useful. In the big picture sports are not everything, as Marv Levy once said, World War II was a must win. Nonetheless, coaches are teachers, and the best will have techniques and philosophies that can be applied in the classroom and in life.

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