You cannot allow the pressure of what you're trying to achieve keep you tied up in knots. You have to find a way to relax, to have fun, to enjoy the moment, but stay alert. I don't mean relax and go to sleep. It's relax, but be alert.
The pressure was never greater on our team than in the playoffs in 2001, my first year as head coach. We had just beaten the Raiders on a field goal to end the regular season, and we found out that we had to go back into the black hole for the first round of the playoffs. I could sense the team tightening as it dawned on it that we were going to have to beat the Raiders twice in Oakland in barely two weeks if we were going to stay alive in the race for the Super Bowl. The guys weren't themselves. They seemed nervous and uptight, and this was not a nervous, uptight group.
I knew I had to do something. So after practice the day before we were to leave, I announced that on the charter flight, we would be holding a best-looking sweat suit contest, the winner of which would get $100 directly from my very own pocket. I could feel the mood start to lighten. The thought of taking money from the coach who issued fines for almost anything was too much for my guys.
So on Friday morning we're getting on the bus getting ready to go to the airport and here comes our quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, in one of the ugliest velour getups that I had ever seen. I mean, it was bad. It must have cost him $250 at one of those really bad stores somewhere I'm sure I've never been to. And then I look at his feet and he's got the Jordans shoes that match. When he walks onto the bus, we are all falling down laughing. We find out later that he spent hours at the mall trying to find the perfect outfit. We get to the hotel in Oakland, and I announce third place, second place, and then, as everyone's cheering, I announce Vinny as the winner. 'Who else?' I ask. He says, 'Give me that money, bro.'
Even though we ended up losing the game, the tactic worked. I needed those guys to loosen up. Instilling a little fun was the perfect way to do it, and having the quarterback buy into it the most was big-time. It didn't mean we lost focus on what we were going to do; what it did was break through the tension and the pressure and let us appreciate where we were and the opportunity we had earned.
I had told them at the beginning of my reign in New York that we were going to do things a little differently. I said, 'Guys, one thing you're going to learn about me is, this is how I feel, this is what I do. We're going to be relaxed, but alert. We're going to have fun, go practice, and play. We're going to do both to the best of our ability, but we're going to be relaxed. That's how we're going to call it. That's when we're at our best.'
At first, they thought I was crazy. I kept hearing, 'This coach is crazy.' But you have to keep in mind that these guys were used to doing things differently. This way was my way. Pressure breeds pressure unless you find some way to crack through it. The sweat suit contest was my way. I just believe that people are at their best when they are relaxed and forging ahead at the same time.
A relaxed and alert teacher with a classroom of unruly kids finds a way to bring calmness to the room. That doesn't mean that she doesn't see the kid in the back who's shooting rubber bands at another kid, nor does it mean that she's lost sight of the lesson she's teaching. It means that she disciplines the rubber-band guy, teaches the lesson, and passes her demeanor on to her students.
It's always important to know what's going on around you, but it's just as important not to let pressure, tension, and stress interfere with what you see. Even in marriage, you have to be careful not to let things at work affect the way you deal with your spouse. And you have to be very alert to how your wife or husband is doing-you don't want problems to fester, and you don't want to be surprised by them, either. Relaxing your mind, your body, your attitude allows you to more clearly see a path to success. It's the people who panic, who are overcome by outside issues, who can't find their way.
I do know that if Vinny hadn't come on that bus looking like a really bad lounge singer, we wouldn't have cut through the tension everyone was feeling, and we would have gone into that situation scared and timid. Actually, I remember thinking at the time that velour never looked so good.