As a coach, you always have to discover what it is that your players can do and what they cannot do. All of them have something you can't fix. Sometimes it's slow feet. Sometimes it's awkward lateral movement. Sometimes it's as simple as arm strength or leg strength. You take each player's limitation and you massage it, you hide it, you create another way to do it, but you don't do it in a way that exposes his weakness. You find another way that allows him to succeed.
It's like this: If you give a guy who has no arms a glass of water, you're not doing him any good. He's real thirsty, but there is no way for that guy to drink that glass of water. How are you going to get him that water? Give him a straw. Now he can drink the water.
Suppose someone you know is afraid of heights and the only way to get to the other side, where you've got to go, is to walk across a bridge suspended high above a canyon. 'You're afraid of heights?' you ask. 'Okay, then,' you say, 'close your eyes. You don't have to look. Close your eyes, give me your hand, let's go.' You find a way for him to cross that bridge.
Now, that doesn't mean it always works. Maybe that guy needs to cross a bridge and you're not around. Maybe he needs to drink that water and there are no straws. Then what? What you do then is give him options, a safety net. You devise a plan for what he can do when he finds himself in a situation where he knows he doesn't usually find a lot of success, and you find him a way to get across that bridge.
The example I think of most is what happens when you get on an airplane. You get on and sit down, and the flight attendant walks down the aisle before you take off and tells you that if something happens, here's the mask, here's the oxygen. She's telling you that if something bad happens, this is what you do. She's saying, now, we don't want anything to happen. The pilot shouldn't screw this up, but if he screws it up, here's the mask, here's the lifejacket, here's the door, and here's how you kick it open. She's given you a plan so that you don't panic if something happens.
With players, it's the same thing. The last thing you want them to do in a situation on the field is panic. With panic comes chaos, and chaos leads to more chaos. So you talk about all the bad things that could happen: The wide receiver zigs in when you were expecting out and you aren't the fastest guy on the planet; they call a blitz when you weren't expecting it and you've got slow feet. Well, here's what you do: You play the angles and cut off that receiver, and when you see the blitz, well, son, you'd better get rid of that ball. You put a player in a position to succeed, even when the situation threatens to expose his weakness.
When I was coaching John Lynch in Tampa, I knew what he could do very, very well. And I knew what he couldn't do well, which I'm not going to reveal here because John Lynch is one of my best friends and the godfather to our son, Marcus. I'd hate for some coach to pick up this book and suddenly John's out of the league. But early on, I said to John, 'Here's what you do good. And that's what I want you to do every time. But if you find yourself in a situation where this over here happens, I want you to do this.'
When we changed quarterbacks during the 2002 season in New York, I knew I had to give the new guy all the help I could. Vinny Testaverde had been struggling, and I decided that our backup, Chad Pennington, was going to have to take over. Here's a young guy getting his first start on a team that commands about the most media coverage in the entire country. He's a kid who came from a tiny school in West Virginia (Marshall),where he made some big-time passes to Randy Moss and made a name for himself, and he's suddenly being called on to play savior to our team, which at the time happened to be 1-3. I couldn't have Chad panic. I couldn't have his weaknesses exposed. Not in the first game, not when the expectations were so high. I believed in Chad's abilities, and I believed he was ready to meet the challenge. But I also believed that the kid could perceive this as being fed to the lions.
Vinny Testaverde handled his demotion with the most class I've ever seen from someone in that situation. I know it had to be hard for him, but he never showed it. He had seen how Chad handled being the number two guy for two years, being nothing but supportive, and Vinny returned the favor, working with Chad all week long on everything from reading defenses to footwork.
I picked a home game on purpose for Chad's first start, figuring that the home crowd would be behind him and the opponent off guard because it had seen him for only a few downs the season before, and yet because of that, he had a certain familiarity with who he was facing.
We lost the game in the final minute, but I was heartened because we were still in it at that final minute. Even though we lost, I told the team, 'We're OK. We competed for 50 minutes.' That's all I wanted. In my mind, Chad had succeeded. His confidence wasn't shot because he had us in the game until the very last minute.
If you're a history teacher and your students hate the idea of having to learn about events that happened long before their time, find a way to make it a game or set up a contest to see who can contribute the most or figure out the puzzle first. There's competitiveness in all of us. If you're in charge of employees who are habitually late, find a way to reward those who make it on time-even though that's already a part of the job requirement.
What this means is, you assess a situation, find out what people's strengths and weaknesses are, and then develop a plan that invites them to either correct the weakness or fuel the strength.
I've always thought the penalties for drunk driving were good and harsh, which they should be. When I did some research and found out how many repeat offenders there are, I began thinking we need to step up those penalties a little. But then I heard about a program that rewards people for staying sober behind the wheel. The Anaheim Angels give their fans free admission, free food, and free sodas if they agree to sign a form saying that they will be a designated driver. It's been very successful, and the number of DUI convictions after games in Anaheim has gone down dramatically. People like to feel good; they like to be rewarded. Play to that strength and make them the good guys in addition to tearing down the bad guys. Drunk driving is nothing to mess with, but successful solutions come in many different packages.
I believe there is always something you can do to make the situation success-friendly. Your son is failing math-find one of his classmates and ask him to tutor your son after school for a few dollars. Your wife is worn down and cranky because she's under the gun at work and can't even get a break to go for lunch-take lunch to her or make it for her in the morning before you go to work. You can't make it through a day on your diet-throw out the junk food. A little action can create the environment for a better result. Your son passes math. Your wife comes home happy, and you lose a few pounds. You put everybody in position to succeed.