You Play to Win the Game - Leadership Lessons Westside Toastmasters, in Santa Monica
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Create Visions, Not Dreams

To me, dreaming is when you fall asleep and you dream and you're having all these thoughts, and then you wake up and go on to something else. You still had that dream; you just didn't act on it. A vision is a dream with a plan.

For example, say you're dreaming of becoming a concert pianist. You think about it all the time, imagining yourself on the stage playing in front of thousands of adoring fans. You dream and dream, but you never take a piano class. When you have a vision, you first dream of becoming a great pianist, then you find out where and when the piano classes are held, how much they are going to cost, how you're going to get the money to pay for the lessons, and how you're going to get to the classes, and then you sign up and show up for class. It's saying, 'This is what I want to accomplish,' and then asking, 'Okay, how do I go about doing it?' It's creating an understanding about where you want to go and how to get there and not letting circumstances alter that goal.

You can visualize all you want about what you want to accomplish, but unless you put that visualization into action, all you have is an image.

When I was young, if someone had told me I would become head coach of the New York Jets, I would have looked at him like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I didn't know exactly what my vision was way back then, but looking back now, I can see that I eventually created a vision of being who I am today.

Early on I knew I wanted to be a professional football player, if not a professional football coach. Because of that, I put a plan in place. I had help from a lot of coaches I seemed always to be surrounded by. My father was a serviceman, so he wasn't home all the time. My mom worked, too, to help support our family. So basically I grew up around coaches. They taught me a lot of life skills through athletics-trust, being on time, how to work with different people. Many of those lessons cross over from sports to real life. I learned that it didn't matter if one guy liked this kind of music and that guy liked a different kind of music, or if this guy was driving one kind of car and the other guy didn't have a car at all. When you come together for a common cause-like winning a football game, for example-all the little differences among you get thrown out. You are brought together and bound by a goal: to play the game as it should be played on the biggest stage with the highest of expectations. Somewhere down the line, that became my long-term vision, and everything I've done since has been about figuring out what it is that I need to do to get there.

I knew that it would take a lot of hard work, which is something I've never backed away from. I also knew that I needed to learn as much as I could about playing football, and so I devoured anything I could find about the game. I watched football; I talked football; I lived and breathed football. I questioned my coaches about everything they were teaching me, which at times got me in trouble. In fact, I asked so many questions that many of them began to consider me something of a rebel.

You have to remember that I was a teenager in the 1960s. And even though students all across the country were questioning everything from Nixon and the Vietnam War to drugs and music, it wasn't happening in football. Several of my coaches were stuck in the 1950s, in the 'Yes, sir; no, sir,' era, in which nobody, and I mean nobody, questioned why the coach told you to do something. Nobody except me. I have always wanted to know why I was being asked to run a certain drill or perform a certain task. It's not that I was obstinate, it was that I was curious and wanted to know everything I could about what I was being asked to do.

That didn't sit well with a lot of the guys who were coaching me. But I certainly didn't let their views alter my vision. I realized that their opinion of me became an obstacle only if I let it become one. Most people thought I'd never get out of Seaside, never make it to college, never play pro ball, and never coach. Had I dwelled on what they thought and let their judgment eat at my psyche, I might have proved them right.

Instead, I focused on my vision and refused to let anything get in the way. I talk to my players all the time about not letting circumstances or obstacles threaten our vision. I tell them, 'Let me handle that part; you just focus on what we're trying to do.'

I realized, on my way to becoming the head coach of the Jets, that sometimes pursuing the vision means breaking down the vision. In the 2002 and 2003 seasons, that meant breaking it down so far that the vision amounted to simply winning a game. Just one game. I gathered my team together at crucial points in both of those seasons and told them to focus simply on getting one win. 'Just win the next game. That's all you've got to think about. Just win the next game.'

I told them to let me worry about all the hits we were taking from the media and the fans and, oddly, even our own guys. Both seasons it came down to, 'You guys just do your job. Concern yourself with the details of our vision to win the next game and how to get us there. Find out what it is that you need to do and do it. That's it. Nothing else.'

And once I broke it down to the simplest of terms, my point finally got across, and we were able to get back on track. We finished both seasons strong and with the pride that we had not let circumstances push us completely off the path that would lead us to our goals.

It's like a student who is going to college to become a teacher and something happens at home with his family. Well, he can still become a teacher. He doesn't have to let his family situation keep him from achieving what he's set out to achieve. Circumstances may alter the path a bit, but you can't let them turn you back around. All the time we see people using a negative situation to justify why they didn't become what they set out to become. They see the situation as a way out of pursuing their goals, rather than something they need to push through to accomplish those goals.

You can't start running for the fire exit when there's no fire. You have to keep to your vision, stick with your plan. Dealing with hardships and obstacles is part of the process of obtaining success. It's a necessary part of learning. If you can find the strength to battle through and stay the course, you are bound to reach the pinnacle that you are aiming for.

I created my vision early in my life, and I've now been in professional football for 25 years. I didn't do it by myself, certainly, but I did do it by staying focused and by weathering the things that threatened to derail my plan. It's an important concept that I try to give to all the children I meet in the various camps I help organize and even children I just meet through daily life. Dreaming is great, but dreaming with a plan and a vision can make that dream come true.

You Play to Win the Game - Leadership Lessons Westside Toastmasters, in Santa Monica
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