Teachings from the Trenches, on Football and Decisions

I watched football ‘game film’ for the first time in third grade. A local high school coach brought tape of a recent game over to our house to dissect and critique the team’s offensive line play with my dad. I remember being excited for the night. All day at school, my brain drifted to scenes of football plays and imagined coaching conversations. I thought the coach and my dad were members of some elite, football secret society that I would join if only for a few hours. Juice from chewing tobacco would be spit into Styrofoam cups, and I could casually toss a football in the air to myself while listening to their analyses. It would feel as if heaven descended to earth. Pigskin perfection.

Except, after 30 minutes spent seeing only two plays somewhere around 27 times each and enduring enough rewinds and slow motions to spin me dizzy, I bolted the room—bored, drained, and disinterested in their offensive line jargon. Give me touchdowns and interceptions, not 3-foot splits, reach steps, backside seals, and kick-out blocks.

As I’ve grown older and continued watching football, I find that I actually spend most of my time observing the offensive line play and not watching the path of the ball. I suppose this is natural after two decades watching games with Dad, who always said he should have been born an offensive lineman and obsessed over the ‘big uglies’ up front. I’m not surprised, then, that when I recently visited the website Smart Football I couldn’t pull my eyes from former Denver Broncos assistant coach Alex Gibbs’s discussion of offensive line mechanics.

I drifted away from the game while listening and focused on the content of his words. Maybe my ears are less trained on the particulars of football now and more accustomed to gleaning lessons from unexpected places. Perhaps it’s merely that I’m older and can back pedal from the minutiae of each play to see the larger game unfold. Coach Gibbs’s analysis resonated in unexpected ways. I heard its relevance not just for football but for life, especially as it relates to achieving goals.

Look, sports are not life. At their heart, they are a collection of games played for fun. Sports do not define our values. Parents, families, educators, and school systems must accomplish this important, life-shaping task. Instead, the wonder of sports is that they can solidify and enhance our guiding principles.

I found that I gained more from this video because I took a different perspective while watching. As I outline below, several themes emerge that represent helpful lessons: Attention to detail, informed decision-making, and decisiveness. While these lessons are important in football, they also matter in other aspects of our lives, and that is why I’ve shared them (as a word of warning, there are some swears and phrases in this video that are not suitable for work).

Attention to detail

  • 0:20: That right guard did not cut and I promise you he got chatted with very quickly off that backside.
  • 0:25: Now, Elway’s keeper here I would blast.
  • 0:48: I don’t like the technique the left tackle’s using. That fat a** needs to get his feet moving better than that.
  • 1:25: Again, the right tackle, I think that’s sh***y. That just makes me sick and want to throw up.
  • 6:35: That’s a wide receiver down in the briar patch because that’s our system.

In most of the clips noted above, the comments reference players’ actions that occur away from the play and often for seemingly minor details such as poor foot placement or a lazy fake following a handoff. No point is minor, as the video makes clear. Each sequence demonstrates the importance of all roles to achieving success. Just because the ball moves away from these players does not mean they are less important. In fact, the play’s success depends on how well they address every detail.

No shortcuts exist—whether in an individual or team setting. Engagement must be pervasive, individuals well taught, and all parties prepared. The devil breaths its fire in the details. Having the focus to mind the finer points—especially when it seems nobody is watching—can determine success or failure.

Informed decisions

  • 0:03: Our left tackle and left guard are trying to make that read so that runner has no choice…
  • 0:53: But the right guard did a great job making the run read…his read was to the end, to the nose…
  • 6:54: That read says go out. That’s as clean as a bell.
  • 7:30: That ball bounced but his read outside told him that guy’s inside the tight end. He’s got to bounce that to the edge.

In a dramatic oversimplification of the scheme involved, the running back bears the responsibility for processing the information before him and using the cues given by the defense to decide where he runs. If his read (the player whose actions dictate his decision) goes inside, then he runs outside. If the read jumps outside, then he charges inside. The play’s outcome relies on informed, rapidly processed decision-making by the runner (and yes, I know this oversimplifies the on-field action).

Every day we make decisions based on the data available to us. It might be something complex, such as the creation of a data-driven strategic business strategy. Or it could be something that feels reactionary, like choosing the least crowded checkout line at the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. There are differences between the two, of course, but both require us to process and act upon quantified information accessible at the time of the choice.

‘Successful’ decision-making requires practice, repetition, a willingness to learn from mistakes, cross-role knowledge, an understanding of the team or system’s end goal, and patience—patience to analyze, patience to evaluate, patience to decide.

Whether the action occurs on the football field or in aisle 9 at Kroger’s, many times it is observable data that informs our course of action. Sometimes we make a choice that leaves us patting ourselves on the back, and sometimes we are left wondering later ‘what was I thinking’. Right or wrong, praise worth or head-scratching, all we can do is rely on how what we see meshes with our intuition, and use the combination to make the most-informed decision as possible at that time.

Decisiveness

  • 1:34: And I don’t like the runner’s pause…because he can’t wait that long to make that cut. I can’t block them long enough for that to happen.
  • 2:50: Now he chose to go out because his read told him to; had his read told him to go inside the big play would have been downhill. But you have to live with that run. If you’ve told him his read is the end man on the line of scrimmage he clearly goes out…he bounced it to the top because that’s what his read was and you’ve got to live with those, you’ve got to say to yourself what is the best way for this to function (i.e. follow and trust the process).
  • 5:33: ….but that’s a part of the world of 1-cut. Live with it.

Using data and resources to make a decision is only part of the process. The other trick is decisiveness. Scrap hesitation and shun second guesses. Make the decision and run downhill—the time to evaluate the choice comes a little later.

In football, business, relationships, or crowded grocery stores, the window of opportunity to act on an idea or vision is too small to waver. The time for movement is now.

When the football play concludes, or quantifiable results become available for a new business initiative, then we can scrutinize, evaluate, and adjust the game plan based on new information if necessary. Until then, stay the course by trusting in the informed decision. Forward progress won’t happen while looking backwards.

**

Sports do not define our values. As this video demonstrates, though, sports can emphasize, practice, teach, and focus these beliefs. And this is something almost as important.

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