You Play to Win the Game - Leadership Lessons Westside Toastmasters, in Santa Monica
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Don't Let the Quicksand Suck You Under

When something bad happens in a football game, most players spend too much time trying to figure out what happened, and then all of a sudden they make another mistake or two and a quarter goes by and the bad guys score another TD and we're down by 14. And then they start to press, and when you press, it makes things worse. You press, and things keep going bad, and you get more frustrated because you start thinking about the situation you're in. And then we're in more than a battle to win the game. We're so far behind that we're trying to catch up. And when you're trying to catch up, it puts even more pressure on you by causing you to do things you really shouldn't be trying to do.

Nobody's quitting, but the frustration is killing them. All they can think about is the missed tackles, the mistakes, and the muck I call quicksand. It keeps pulling you under, and the harder you struggle, the more you get sucked under because you haven't adjusted your thinking. All you can think about is what went wrong, and you start questioning everything you do.

I try to teach my players that when something bad happens in a game, let it go right then. Don't try to analyze what happened, don't try to think through it, don't even think about it one second more. There's plenty of time for all that after the game. But for the moment, while they're in the moment, they've got to think about the next play-what they're going to do, not what they did. That keeps their focus on the task at hand and keeps them from getting cautious, being afraid to make a mistake. Because when you're cautious, you really don't have the ability to make any plays. And at the end of the day, you've given up a ton of yards and a ton of plays because something happened to you early in the football game that got you back on your heels. There are going to be times when you're going to play a little soft, but I don't want our guys playing cautious because that sinks you into that quicksand in a hurry. When you're cautious, you never have the ability to make the big play. You never play the football, and when things are going badly, that's what you need the most.

Often it's not an easy adjustment to teach. Anybody's natural reaction to making a mistake is to panic a little. You put on a bathing suit, for example, and you look in the mirror and you don't like what you see. In fact, you're really unhappy with how bad you look in that bathing suit. 'I'm pathetic. I'm fat. I'm a disgusting fat person,' is what you say. And you panic. And then that's all you can focus on, and then you get sucked under. You abandon your diet completely because you think it hasn't been working and there is no hope. You grab the ice cream, the cake, the chips and soda, and before you know it, you are being sucked into the quicksand and you're not climbing out anytime soon.

But it doesn't have to be that way. You don't have to go on a fast spiral into the abyss. Just because you don't like what you see doesn't mean you have to get sucked under. What you do is take note of yourself, but quit focusing on what didn't work. You say, 'Well, I still don't look like I want to look. I'm still upset by the way I look in this bathing suit. But I've been working pretty hard, and I know I would look worse if I hadn't been trying hard, so I'm going to keep going.' You let the moment go and focus on the next thing you need to do, which is to keep from going to the fridge. You changed your thoughts, you dismissed the thing that threatened you most, and you avoided the quicksand.

Getting sucked under is easy with work, too. If I don't take care of problems the day they come up, or at least by the next day, then I know they're mounting up to a point where either I'm going to explode and say something I regret, or I'm going to be so overwhelmed that nothing gets taken care of.

Sometimes this means being really proactive. Say there's a stack of papers on your desk that you haven't gotten to, and it's already 7 p.m. and your family's waiting and your first instinct is, 'I'm leaving this. I have no shot at getting these papers done. I'm throwing in the towel. The project is doomed.' Instead, I'd sort through them, find the most important, get one of them done, and then go home and vow to start up again the next day. That keeps your head above water a little and gives you something to start on the next day.

The quicksand nearly got us as we began the 2003 season. It was our worst start ever. And when that happens, the room for error becomes much greater. The anxiety level becomes, 'Oh, no, we can't lose another one.' I was afraid my guys would keep thinking about the bad start, the losses, and consider what we had ahead to be impending doom. My job was to keep them from panicking, and it was hard, really hard.

I'm the head guy, and I see all these other teams with bad starts where it becomes total chaos. And here, with the Jets, we're in the fishbowl of all fishbowls. So I'm trying to hold my guys' hands, doing a lot of reaching out, trying to make them understand why we're doing what we're doing. I've got to get them to focus on the process at hand instead of the process that happened. I told them, 'This is when you find out if you really enjoy what we're doing right now. This is when you're playing for that other guy, that guy next to you.'

I got them to think about practicing hard each day we practiced. We weren't going to cut anything short; we weren't taking a day off. I wasn't letting them retire after five games, even though we were 1 and 4. I was not about to let them quit; I was making them finish the thing out. To some guys, I said, 'You're going to be miserable just like us. I'm not going to pay you to go home now, five games into the season.'

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