Monday, December 29, 2008

The virus of higher personal expectations

Loved this excerpt from the late David Halberstam in his book "The Education of a Coach," about Bill Belichick (whose 11-5 team, despite winning its fourth straight today, including three on the road, failed to make the playoffs).

Here's the passage (pp. 247-249):

In 2004, after the Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three seasons, NE coach Bill Belichick "went to Florida to visit with Jimmy Johnson, who he thought was the one coach out there who knew the most about what would happen once a team had shown itself able to play at so lofty a level, Johnson's Cowboys having won the Super Bowl after the 1992 and 1993 seasons.

The two men were friends in the delicate sense of friendship that football coaches are allowed -- in the we-may-be-on-opposite-sides-of-the-field-but-we-have-similar-problems-and-similar-enemies-and-we-may-need-each-other-yet-you-coaching-for-me-or-you-coaching-for-you kind of friendship.

[Over the years], they had stayed in touch. They had talked about getting together, and after the [Super Bowl], Belichick took Johnson up on his invitation to come down to Miami and talk, and they spent a day and a half going over the problems that accrue to the victorious.

Johnson was the perfect person to visit with, Belichick thought -- he was very smart, as smart as anyone in the game, and more than anyone else he had been through what Belichick was now just beginning to go through, the ordeal that came with success.

Some of the issues were technical. The Patriots had a lot of draft choices in the coming draft, ten picks, and yet he already had a good team. Belichick wanted to know what to do -- use them all, trade some away for futures, or what.

Johnson told him to make a list of players he genuinely wanted, and draft them, but not to spedn the picks just to use them, that it would be easy to trade picks now for higher picks next year.

"Stay with your list," Johnson said, "and don't be tempted to pick up players outside of it just because you can." But if there were a player that Belichick thought could help them right then, go for him.

Belichick ended up using eight of the picks.

The most difficult thing, Johnson said, would be the pressure that would come with winning. When you win, everyone wants more, he said. Everything would be different. Every player and every player's agent would perceive the player as being better. The pressure to renegotiate would be immense, even for players with three years left on their contracts.

Wait until the final year of the contract if at all possible, Johnson advised.

A few days after their meeting, one of the players began talking publicly about his need for a bigger contract, and the fact this his contract reflected an essential disrespect for him as a player, and it brought home Johnson's lesson.

The virus of higher personal expectations, Belichick called it.

The final thing Johson mentioned was the danger of going back and trying to do the same things in the same way as before with your players. They would, Johnson warned, tune out. Football practice was built on repetition, and there was a strength and a danger in that.

You've got to keep doing what you're doing, but you've go to find different ways of doing it, and you've got to find ways of making it fun.

That, Belichick decided, would be easier said than done.