Monday, January 20, 2014

Another Reason Why I Love My Hawks

The article that intrigued me came out in August of 2013. A reporter for ESPN wrote an indepth feature on how Pete Carroll's coaching style was different. Very different. If you haven't met me, let me introduce myself. My name is Judy and I'm a crazy Seattle Seahawks fan. Pete Carroll is the Seahawk's coach. And, as it turns out, he does things the way I think they should be done.

In Alyssa Roenigk's ESPN article she gave me a behind the scenes peek at what kind of coach the Seahawks were working with. What she described thrilled me, but also scared me. 

Was it possible to go against the hard core way football has been coached for decades, and still have a winning team? 

In August of last year, as Coach Carroll's plan was still basically in beta mode, all I could do was cross my fingers and hope.

Ms. Roenigk described an atmosphere of support and encouragement (imagine that). After having a bumpy ride as an NFL coach, then being knocked down to coaching on the college level, Pete Carroll had been making notes to himself for years, hoping and praying he got a chance to coach in the big time again. He knew if he got a second chance, he'd do it differently.

Just like in effective parenting, Carroll had never felt like yelling and demeaning players was an effective way to motivate them. He decided that he'd try a more radical, upside down approach. 

Why not accept the fact that his players were people? People who sometimes didn't get enough sleep, or had troubles at home. Why not bring in a specialist on meditation and teach his guys to be more in touch with themselves? Why not insist that everyone in the organization, from the top specialty coaches to the guys sweeping floors, be affirmative? He did all of that and more.

This change started on day one of his tenure as coach. In his very first team meeting he made a subtle request that said a lot more to him than any stats sheet could. He simply asked the players to get up and change seats, to get a new perspective. 

Matt Hasselbeck was the quarter back at the time and he remembers it this way. "One guy in the back of the auditorium didn't switch seats. He was a big-money guy, a starter. And he was gone a week later. Pete didn't care about the seats. He just wanted to know who was with him."

The way he picks his players also employs a new strategy. He looks for the guy who is good at his position, but also has a positive demeanor that will fit with his philosophy. Not all players appreciate the more touchy-feely style of coaching. So my coach needs a roster of players who are open to a new way of thinking. 

One trick I especially love, which I should try on my teenagers some day, is the deliberate turning off of the air conditioners in the team buildings, just to see who the complainers are and then helping them with their attitudes. I think his players might fare better than my kids would. He has also taken prospective players bowling, to see how they handle winning and losing, at a game that has nothing to do with a leather ball.

His changes shook up the way things were run all the way to the place where players went for nutritional nourishment. Carroll not only has experts on staff to help players get the right kinds of foods in their diet, he has set up the cafeteria with signs bearing suggestions about which foods would pair best with the one in front of a player. Not only are their fruits and vegetables grown locally on organic farms, the food waste from the cafeteria goes to a nearby chicken farm to be fed to chickens that will then, in turn, be served to players.

Practices and team meetings are set up to be hard work, but also fun. 

Carroll has a DJ on the side of the field at team practices, and the meditation expert is often seen walking through the players on the field, just in case anyone needs a reminder to be settled and in control. Carroll allows players to be themselves, as long as they do their jobs when it counts. And if they don't? There is no yelling and berating. There are meetings where changes are made in a respectful way and players are asked, "What do you think is keeping you from playing your best? Let's fix it"

Who would have thought we'd see the day where we actually desired to be treated like a six foot six, hard core football player when we're at work? Carroll's guys go to a pretty desirable place when they leave home to 'go to work'.

He had no idea if it would work, or if he'd just create a locker room full of soft pansies, but he was determined to try it. He insisted that his players work a yoga routine into their training schedules. He hired physiologists to be available to any players who might need an ear. Instead of seeing how tough a rookie was by allowing hazing, he worked hard to make them feel like an important part of the family, right away.

Doug Baldwin, a Seattle Seahawks wide receiver, likes the way his coach does things. In a Sports Illustrated article, written by Doug Farrar, he spells it out.

“I think the perception of football players and football coaches is that everything has to be structured in a sense that it has to be hard and difficult and there’s no fun — football is not supposed to be fun,” he said. “That’s just not the case. I think that the teams that are the most successful are the teams that have fun doing what they’re doing. It just goes against the grain of what the perception is of what football is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be hard and rigorous and you fight for your wins. Here, we have a fun time practicing, we have a fun time in our meetings, and that ultimately leads to us having a fun time out there on the field game day — which I think contributes to our success.”

Richard Sherman, one of the Seahawk's cornerbacks and one of the best at his position in the NFL, agrees with his teammate. In the same Sports Illustrated article he explains his perception of his coach.

“He’s not soft, but he’s easygoing. He’s loose. As loose as you can get out there. He allows his players to be who they are within the confines of the team, as long as it doesn’t hurt the team, he allows guys to be themselves. If you’re a reserved guy that’s always focused, that’s always locked in that like an Earl Thomas is, he allows you to be that guy and be locked in 100 percent of the time. If you’re a loose guy and you dance at practice like I do, he allows you to be that guy. As long as when you’re on the field you do exactly what you’re supposed to do."

The players aren't the only ones catching Carroll's vision. The Seahawk's assistant head coach, Tom Cable, used to be one of the aggressive coaches. He welcomed the new approach and has realized something very important.

He had this to say in the Sports Illustrated article: "If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am. I'm attacking his self-confidence and he's learning that if he screws up, he's going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here (under Coach Carroll), it's going to get fixed."

I'm a lover of football and a lover of my Seattle Seahawks, but I'm mom before all of that. I appreciate a coach who will call his players to be the best they can be on the field, while also supporting their efforts to be the best they can be off of it also. He's a dad himself so he appreciates respecting his players' time with their families in the course of a busy football season. He knows firsthand the importance of not missing a three year old's birthday party.  

It's a great example to my own children, about leadership and seeing others as part of the human race first, above the title they may or may not hold. I'm proud that this is my team, and my team's coach. 

And as for the concern I had in the back of my mind about how a program run on encouragement and total support could fare in the NFL, I didn't have long to wait, to see what the answer would be. 

The Seahawks had the best season they've ever had, in their 38 year history, starting with winning all four of their preseason games, then finishing the regular season by winning 13 and losing only 3. 

Two days ago they won their Division Championship against a pretty tough San Fransisco 49ers team. Their next stop is the biggest game in American football.

As for Coach Carroll, and the file full of notes he made to himself while he waited for his second chance as an NFL coach, he sums it up pretty well for me.

"I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?"

Well Coach Pete, you have your answer. You make it to the Super Bowl.

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