Guest post: Five things I learned from the football team


Players from Nebraska and Penn State gather at midfield before the big game. (Associated Press)

Here, writing in defense of the gridiron, is Alice P. Gast, president of Lehigh University. She tells how even college presidents can learn something in the huddle.

With intercollegiate sports in the spotlight and the negative public opinion filling the airwaves, I want to share my appreciation for student athletes, coaches and the lessons I continue to learn from them.

Last year, I began watching Lehigh University football games from the sidelines with the players and coaches. I wanted a closer look and a better understanding of the game. It has been wonderful to get to know the players, their majors and their perspectives. Down on the field, you get a different view of the human side of the game.

Before I watched my first game from the sidelines, Joe Sterrett, the Murray H. Goodman Dean of Athletics, recommended that I learn more about what the student athletes experience. He asked me to come to a practice and stay for a strategy session. The team even invited me to breakfast on game day.

I gained a tremendous amount from these experiences, and I think other campus leaders could benefit from the regimen. Many of us have, after all, been leading our own campus teams of faculty and staff through strategic planning and execution. I have been an advocate for repetition of message, a fan of metrics, somebody who says, “What gets measured gets done.” Experiencing football strategy sessions, practice, game preparation and execution is a great way to see strategic planning, implementation and readjustment unfold in real time.

Lesson one: Know the competition, and know your own strength.

It sounds like a chapter out of a business strategy book: Know the competition. Strategy sessions focus on films and on plays. Here are the opponent’s plays, here are the circumstances, and here are the strategies. Building confidence in what our team can do well against a given opponent is an important part of these strategy sessions. Understanding what we can achieve despite opposition is critical. A new vocabulary emerges – code names such as rick and rack or rock to indicate the field position and planned play. Student athletes are told to study this, replay that, notice this, and focus on that. There are hundreds of details to remember. A laser pointer draws attention. The coach calls on a player to recite a plan that would work in a specific situation. It makes the high-pressure scenes in The Paper Chase seem like a piece of cake.

Lesson two: Commit to the rigor of practicing the desired outcome. Be disciplined.

At Lehigh University, we pride ourselves in taking theoretical concepts and putting them into practice. Athletes take all that is learned in study and put it into practice. They replay a rigorous set of drills, practice plays and rehearsals. Offense and defense are deeply in concentration, competing against teammates who are channeling the opponent. The coach yells, “Third and eight,” and the Lehigh defense snaps into attention as the mock enemy sets up one of their plays. A horn sounds, and the coach yells, “Second and ten, red zone,” and they all know what that means. Coaches teach, players learn. It gets dark, the lights go on, and it’s practice, practice, practice.

Lesson three: Contemplate and concentrate on the task ahead.

The morning before a game is a very personal time. Players are “in the zone” contemplating the task ahead of them. They are focused, they concentrate, and yes, they eat large breakfasts. The quiet and meditative nature of the pregame breakfast was striking to me. It is awe inspiring to sit among such large and fit individuals who can yield so much power on the field, and find them so quietly and calmly thinking about their game.

Lesson four: Be prepared to adjust your strategy as reality unfolds, anticipate the changing landscape and keep your weight balanced and ready to shift.

The game looks different from the sidelines. I used to watch football, like most fans, by following the ball. Now I realize the full extent of the teamwork that the 11 players are putting into every play. Most of the action occurs away from the ball. Sometimes from the sideline, you can’t even see the ball. What you do see is an incredible example of execution of a strategy and real-time adjustment to the situation as it unfolds. At a recent game, I saw a look of recognition cross the face of one of our lead linebackers when the opponent set a man in motion; it was a look of understanding that caused him to shift and end up making a sack. He remembered what he had learned, knew where they were heading, and was ready to move in the right direction. Thinking on your feet never looked so good.

Lesson five: Keep a long-term view while concentrating on near-term execution.

During a coaches meeting, both near-term and long-term strategy is developed. Concentrating on “one play at a time, ­one game at a time” is an important aspect of effective team execution. For players, focus on the task at hand is essential. Coaches, however, must look ahead at the schedule, the team’s trajectory, and internal progress relative to the future competitors, as they assess the improvement of different players. Measuring performance against expectations and assessments, and initiating the education and training plan that will be applied later in a season are the coaches’ responsibility. Balancing short-term requirements with the demands of a long season is a test of a coach’s leadership.

Watching our coaches teach and our players learn, I see how hard they work to achieve the desired outcome. I see this in all of our athletics teams. We have also taken our trustees to a basketball practice, where they appreciated the coach’s role as educator, and the work that students and coaches must do to prepare.

From leadership lessons to life lessons, intercollegiate athletics can offer so much more of value than current headlines would have us believe.

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