History will judge Bill Belichick as one of the greatest coaches ever. Not just in the NFL, where he coaches the New England Patriots, but in all of sports. He’s also incredibly smart.
In his keynote address at the “Sports Medicine and the NFL: The Playbook for 2013” symposium Belichick offered a rare glimpse into his thoughts on mental toughness and leadership.
In the end, our ability to perform under pressure is critical. In that light, it really comes down to two things. No. 1, the team process, all of us being able to work together and perform productively in the way that we need to do to win. We use the term ‘mental toughness’ a lot, and to me that term means doing the right thing for the team when things aren’t right for you — maybe a guy that’s not getting the playing time he hoped for, maybe he isn’t getting as many opportunities to do whatever it is he’d like to do. We all have to give up a little bit of something in this sport, and mental toughness is going out there and doing what’s best for the team even though everything isn’t going exactly the way you want it to. That’s what defines mental toughness in my mind.
Balancing the need for individual performance in a team sport
We’ve all heard the saying ‘there’s no I in team’ but in my mind I think there is a balance on that. There is an ‘I’ in ‘win’ and that stands for individual performance. Without strong individual performances from all members of the team, again regardless of what that person’s role in the game is – whether it’s the head trainer, the head coach, the offensive play-caller, the left defensive end — the individual performance of each of those people is what determines whether we can win the game. We can all stand around in the locker room and hold hands and chant ‘Team! Team! Team!’ all day and that isn’t going to do anything. We have to go out there and individually perform. There is a balance there.
… Sometimes it becomes a fine line between doing what’s best for the team and your individual performance. The way we try to handle that, or manage it, is that your individual performance is critical for us to win, and your mental toughness is doing what’s best for the team in every situation. So being solid and doing your job, and if you’re prepared and everybody around you knows that you are prepared and they can count on you, and you’re dependable to go out and do your job, then it makes it a lot easier for the person beside you to go out and do theirs. So if I’m playing right tackle and if I know the right guard is prepared – he’s studied, he’s dependable, he’s going to do everything he can to do the right thing, well, I’m just going out there and doing my job, I’m not thinking about whether he’s going to be here, or be there, and if we call this is he going to get it or not get it?
“I get asked about this a lot, the leadership part of a team and how it develops. Can you build chemistry? Can you build leadership? How do you make guys into leaders and that kind of thing?
What I’ve always told our team, and what I thoroughly believe in, is that every member of our team – players, coaches, support staff and so forth – is a shareholder. They have a share in the team. Are they all exactly equal? Of course not, but they’re all shareholders. Every member of the team has an opportunity to show positive leadership or negative leadership. That’s really what it comes to. The question for that person is ‘How are they going to do that? How are they going to control that?’ Positive leadership, in my mind, comes from two things: No. 1, doing your job. If you don’t do your job, I don’t see how you can give any leadership. A lot of people who aren’t very good at doing their job, and who try to give leadership, are just looked at as ‘Look, buddy, why don’t you just do your job? Why don’t we start with that instead of trying to tell everybody else what to do?’ So No. 1 [is] do your job. No. 2 [is] put the team first. If those two things are in place, then that person is going to give positive leadership to the team.
Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes
I can say through almost 40 years of NFL experience that leadership comes in a lot of shapes and sizes. I’ve had players who were very vocal that were great leaders. I’ve had players who were vocal that weren’t great leaders. We’ve had other players that would never say a word. Troy Brown. He is never going to say a word. He’s just going to go out there, do his job, and do it the best he could and do what’s in the best interest of the team. He would never be one to stand up before a game and give some big team speech. That just wasn’t his style. But nobody had more leadership than Troy Brown did. So it’s not about giving a team speech, it’s not about having some big presentation or anything. Leadership is about doing your job and putting the team first. When Troy Brown played for us, he returned kicks, he covered kicks, he caught a lot of passes in the slot, he blocked and when we needed him in some very critical situations he went over and played defense against some very good teams and very good players. Was it always perfect? No, but he competed as hard as he could. He did the very best he could for the team and that’s all you could ask for; it didn’t matter what it was. Here is an example of a guy who was as good of a leader as I’ve ever coached who said probably less than any player of his stature that I’ve ever coached. So it’s not about volume or who’s the most talkative guy. It’s the guy who does his job and puts the best interests of the team and organization in the lead.
Either you’re going to make changes or they’re going to change you …
One of the things that I deal with, and I’m sure many of you do too, is just a volume of people. We have 53 players, and then guys on the practice squad, guys on injured reserve. So before you know it, you’re well into the 60s, sometimes 70 players. It’s impossible to deal with every one of those guys on an individual basis on a daily basis. You pick your spots with guys here and there, but you still have to connect with the whole team. One way is to stand there and address the team on a daily basis, which I definitely do. But another important way of connecting with your team in terms of leadership is your captains. As it relates to whatever organization you have, you have other people responsible for other people below you, and I’ve always felt that having the right people as captains was critical. We let the team vote on that, and I would say that most of the time, in the 90th percentile, that the team would vote for the same people that I would. But I would say that when the team is not voting for the people that you’d think are the right people, then you probably have problems all the way through your team. If you don’t have a good team, and they’re voting guys into leadership positions, you know you have problems all the way through. So you have to make changes. Either you’re going to make changes or they’re going to change you – one or the other.
If you have a solid group working for you all the way through, those captains will be the right people because your team is made up of the right people. So my communication with that group of people on a weekly basis or bi-weekly basis, the captains, is important to the overall communication of the team. They represent everybody – the offense, the defense, special teams, linemen, skill groups, and there are a couple guys on the younger side, a couple guys on the older side. So some of it’s football-related, some of it’s not football-related. It’s a good way for me to get a good pulse of the team but also to hear their message, and in some cases, deliver my message to them because it’s going to carry some weight [with other players] when it comes from them. It’s been a very good way for me to help manage the team and develop leadership. Once those guys are in those positions, they’re not just out there to walk out there for the toss of the coin; that’s really the least of their responsibilities. Their job really comes more to setting an example, showing leadership, and most importantly communicating one way or the other – whether it’s from the players to me or from me to the players – what we need to get done. …
Bringing people together
“It’s hard when you have a large group of people, and all of them have their own individual interests, that you collectively have to try to bring everybody together to see it through, as much as you can, one set of eyes — one vision — is challenging on a lot of levels. In the end, I would say the biggest key to it is the communication and having people that have a passion for the same thing you’re trying to do.”