Jun

21

I am reading a very interesting book, The Score Takes Care of Itself by the late 49ers coach Bill Walsh. One of Walsh's key messages was that, at the highest levels of competition, victory cannot be summoned at will. Those who would achieve great success must endure failure. One must handle failure appropriately, learning lessons to improve future performance without becoming despondent.

Upon taking the reins of the 49ers, who had had the NFL's worst record the previous season, Walsh implemented his Standard of Performance, a set of expectations for continuous improvement for everyone in the 49ers' organization. The Standard of Performance detailed skills expected at each position and appropriate behaviors. "Winners act like winners (before they're winners)", said Walsh.

The standard was perfection. "If you aim at perfection and miss, you're still pretty good", wrote Joe Montana in the book's foreword. Walsh insisted on precise execution. If a play called for the receiver to turn after 12 yards, the receiver needed to turn after exactly 12 yards, not 12 yards and 15 inches.

Walsh prepared his team very thoroughly and had exhaustive contingency plans. He was known for scripting the first 25 offensive plays of each game in advance. This practice enabled the players to visualize the opening minutes of the game in advance and reduce pregame jitters. The contingency planning, done deliberately and thoughtfully in advance, led to much better decisions than those that might have been made on the spot under extreme pressure.

When Walsh found himself saddled with lemons, he found a way to make lemonade. Early in his career, he was the quarterback coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, an expansion team with little talent. The Bengals could not successfully run the ball against stronger teams. They would have to score by passing. Unfortunately, starting quarterback Virgil Carter was considered to have a subpar passing arm. Walsh noticed, however, that Carter had great composure, could read defenses well, and was very nimble. Walsh therefore designed plays that would make the most of Carter's abilities: short passes to any of four or five receivers spread out across the field. This strategy was the prototype of what later came to be known as the West Coast Offense.

Walsh treated his players and assistants well. When an assistant was considered for a head coaching job elsewhere, Walsh would give a good recommendation even though the assistant's departure might set back the 49ers. He reduced hard contact in practice in order to have the players healthier for games. Word spread quickly around the league, and many top players and coaches wanted to join the 49ers. Like Jack Aubrey, Walsh paid close attention to the leaders among the players, who might support or undermine his leadership. He was quick to remove bad influences from the team, even if they were talented players.

Co-author Steve Jamison previously collaborated on a similar book with John Wooden. The Score Takes Care of Itself is targeted at a business audience, but many of its insights might also be useful in our field.


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