The military loves football. We watch it. We play it. We identify with it, and obviously we should. Football is a metaphor for combat. When needed, it’s a substitute. Its two units, in an organized conflict, trying to take over each other’s territory. This is why if you go to any military course, you can’t get through the first hour without hearing at least one football analogy. (Doesn’t hurt that all the lieutenants are fresh out of college and think UN, NATO and NCAA are parallel in status.)
Oliver North had a ritual of having his guys play a pickup football game the day before combat patrols. He felt it calmed the nerves increased unit cohesion. North was one of the most successful platoon leaders in Vietnam, so maybe he knew what he was doing.
Just as the military can learn from football, football can most certainly learn from the military. With that in mind, I give you these seven lessons in winning from a military perspective.
1. Make yourself hard to kill.
This must be an individual mantra. It means become familiar with the individual behaviors that your enemy exploits to kill you. Then train that behavior out of yourself. Do not make his job easier. This is done by studying tape of your opponent and all the people he exploited before you. Sniper operating in your battle space? Train yourself not to loiter in open spaces. Read Option QB in your division? Drill yourself on individual position discipline. Coaches, make sure these target behaviors are well known. Post them in the locker room. Dedicate a pair of eyes on the sideline to spotting and calling them out every time they occur.
2. Develop small unit leadership.
The smallest defined unit in the Marine Corps is the four man fire team. Even at that level, the Corps stresses having a competent and clearly defined "fire team leader". Its great that the platoon commander (or coach) might have a great operational plan (game plan) but when the bullets start flying, that four man fire team needs to have one designated guy who shouts "get down" or "shift left" or "rally on me" and the others know to react to his orders.
Plenty of NFL teams say they stress "leaders" in the locker room, but stitching a "C" on your shirt and saying the right things in the locker room is not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about identifying guys for their respective position groups who will make calls in the moment. Some of this already develops naturally (MLB, C, etc) we must embrace and formalize it. Deangelo Hall should know he’s responsible for what happens in the backfield. Rambo, and Amerson should be cued up that amidst all the other chaos, when they hear Hall’s voice they need to tune in to it and react.
3. A good plan now is better than a perfect plan later.
4. Speed and Violence of Action
Ok, I’m cheating a bit. 3 and 4 are two pieces of the same idea. Be decisive and execute that decision quickly and thoroughly. Indecision kills. Your receivers are covered and you think you might have room to run? RUN. Or, don’t run. Either way, realize that standing there hesitating wastes your chance at succeeding at either. (Think QB taking a half step towards a lane, then second guessing and standing still in a collapsing pocket). RB not sure you hit the right lane? Just drive. LB not sure you’re tracking the ball? Just go blow something up.
This is by no means advocating hasty, poor decisions. It is simply pointing out that statistically, an imperfect plan executed with speed and violence has a MUCH better chance than a perfect plan executed timidly or too late.
5. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.
I know. This appears at odds with what I just said. Its not. 3&4 were about executing a decision. 5 is about not going through your steps any more quickly than you can do smoothly and cleanly. CQB teams can clear a house with lightening speed, but that speed isn’t from moving fast. Its from moving in smooth lanes with no stumbling, collisions, readjusting or wasted motion. They’re fast because the movements are perfect that first time. There is no point rushing if it means sloppy execution. Whether its finding a running lane, staying with your blockers or going through QB progression, calm down and don’t rush yourself. Tony Romo is a functionally good passer, but we see what happens when we get him trying to move faster than he’s able.
6. Intel drives ops
Intelligence – information which allows you to make sound decisions. Officers talk about their "OODA loop" (Observe Orient Decide Act). Continually finds ways to complete your loop and disrupt enemy's. Obviously, this means film study, but go beyond the basic "how fast are they, what scheme do they like" and learn the personalities of the enemy. How does the other coach think? How does the other player intend to play me? The goal is to know ahead of time answers like "if I make this move, how will that player respond to it?"
Embrace intelligence analysis. Employ researchers and critical thinkers. GO BEYOND STATS and look for meaning. IT IS NOT ENOUGH to know other coach runs on 3rd and 5 80% of the time. WHY does he do that? WHAT was different about the other 20% of the time? These are not just questions, they are intelligence gaps. Assign someone to fill them. Learning how the enemy makes decisions enable you to predict his decisions or better yet, dictate them.
Collect data. Build theories. Test theories with more data. Formalize knowledge. Win football games.
7. Hydrate and change your socks.
What? Seriously? Yes. Not changing your socks leads to foot problems and grunts live on their feet. Not hydrating leads to dehydration and passing out. Grunts address this religiously. Look at the rest stops on a forced march and you will see corpsmen (medics) walking up and down the line, checking on everyone’s feet. Grunts go so far as to monitor the color of their urine for clues of hydration.
The point? Preventative health care is gospel. A grunt doesn’t wait until his feet are blistered up to address it. A running back should not wait until his bursitis flares up to speak up. Supplementation, massage, stretching etc. Push this stuff from day one. Make it routine. Educate your players. It will limit the health breakdown late in the season. Empower the team medics to address issues before they are issues. Just like the corpsman checking feet, team docs should be actively engaging issues. I am NOT talking about doctors telling players not to play. I am talking about watching practice, noticing who's limping and asking them what's up on the break. The same issue that benches a guy in week 10 might have been treatable with ice and motrin in week 2.
I'm not proposing that these lessons are as culture changing or innovative as introducing an ipod or a smoothie bar, but they are the way towards winning engagements.
Go Navy. Beat Army.