From Al Pacino’s speech in ‘Any Given Sunday’ to Kurt Russell’s pep talk for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Men’s hockey team featured in ‘Miracle’, coaches in fact and on film have been finding creative ways to motivate players for decades.
Hollywood has definitely played its role in what those on the outside of the sports world envision motivation can be — a coach giving an inspirational speech to the team during halftime of the championship game, as in the case of the movies mentioned above, or Denzel Washington’s decision to force his players to run to the location of the Battle of Gettysburg in ‘Remember the Titans’.
But what goes on behind closed doors? What happens in the film room, where media and the general public are usually never permitted? How is one person able to manage the personalities of so many players to achieve the same goal?
That’s the question former NFL quarterback and host, Scott Mitchell, attempted to shine some light on in a recent episode of the Helmets Off podcast.
Former NFL quarterback on what it takes to motivate players
“I’ve had really good coaches and I’ve had coaches that I really didn’t care for,” Mitchell said when looking back on his coaches in the NFL. “None of them had the same style. In fact, none of them used the same techniques. None of them were even close in their personalities.”
In Mitchell’s 12-years playing in the NFL, he would come to find out what worked and what didn’t to motivate players, while playing for six different coaches: coaches who screamed and yelled, coaches who were hard-nosed and tough in practice, and coaches who showed the team motivational videos and would send them motivational quotes.
Coach Bobby Ross’ teaching moment
One of the coaches that Mitchell distinctly remembers was head coach Bobby Ross, who coached the Detroit Lions during Mitchell’s ’97 and ’98 season, going 14-18 between the two games, and his approach to motivate players.
“Bobby Ross was a very detailed oriented coach and he was very much into every little detail in every facet of the game, offense, defense, special teams,” Mitchell recalled.
Coach Ross would often break down film on three separate monitors, highlighting good and bad plays that the players would make.
“You dreaded this, because everyone, every single one of your teammates, was going to see you on this video,” Mitchell says. “Part of it was a teaching moment, but part of it was to call players out.”
“Now, he did it both ways where he showed something that was really good. And, quite frankly, you could really manipulate players and perceptions by using this tactic,” he added.
Mitchell also mentions the time when coach Ross asked the team whether they wanted him to be the coach at all.
“He did something I’ve never ever seen a coach do ever and it totally blew me away,” Mitchell says. “He got up in front of the team, getting ready to pull out his videos and show what you did or didn’t do right and he said, ‘You know, I’ve coached in a lot of places, and I’ve been very successful and I know how to coach and I know how to do all this stuff but I’m just not getting through to you. I want to be your coach but if you don’t want me to be your coach, I don’t want to be your coach. So I want you all to sit in here and talk about it and vote on it and get back with me and let me know if you want me to be your coach or not and I’ll do whatever you want.’”
Eventually, the team captains came to the conclusion that they wanted Ross to stay as the head coach but they wanted him to change the physicality in practice. Coach Ross was convinced that it was his way or the highway.
“I talked to a few players who played for him when he was coaching the San Diego Chargers and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, he did the same thing to us’ and I said, what did you guys do? Did you vote him in or out and they go, ‘Well, we voted him out but he didn’t leave,’” Mitchell recalled.
Then Mitchell realized the true meaning behind coach Ross’ proposal, “This was a way to motivate or try to get the attention of your team. He had no intention of leaving, he just wants a reaction. It was a bold thing to do and it certainly got everyone’s attention but I will tell you, it had no impact on how well the team did or didn’t do.”
Ross would ultimately stay as the head coach of the Detroit Lions until the end of the ’00 season.
Don Shula’s commitment to perfection
“Which brings me to Don Shula. When I played for him, I didn’t always like playing for him. It was it was uncomfortable at times and it was somewhat manipulative at other times,” Mitchell said. “The thing that I always appreciated about coach Shula was, he never told you what you wanted to hear.”
Coach Shula is most known for leading the ’72 Miami Dolphins to the only perfect record in NFL history. He was the head coach through Mitchell’s tenure with the Dolphins.
“You could see that there was this there was this commitment to perfection in every play, in every day, in everything that we did. Then I left and I saw other programs, I was like, ‘oh…they don’t think to do this’ and I could see the brilliance in how he was as a coach and it was so different from [the] other things that I have seen.”
Shula’s approach to motivating players was in his work ethic and his acknowledgment of the fundamentals of football and never taking a shortcut. It started at the top and filtered all the way down to his players. This focused approach eventually led Coach Shula to end his career with over 340 wins on a .665 win percentage, winning two Super Bowls and leading the league in regular season wins as a head coach.
Which, Mitchell says, makes it even harder to pinpoint what truly makes a great coach and what it’s going to take to get your players to play at their best day-in and day-out.
“I believe that it’s not your knowledge of football or your knowledge of sport but it’s your ability to maximize the potential of all of the people that you coach. That makes a great coach and I’m not sure that there’s one hard, fast way of actually doing it and maybe it’s a combination of all those because I’ve seen many, many different styles and tactics have success and work,” Mitchell says.
To hear more from Scott Mitchell, feel free to download and subscribe to the Helmets Off podcast on KSLNewsradio.com or listen to the full segment below.
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