Every Victory Is Won Before the Game Is Played: The Power of Attitude
I left the collegiate ranks in 1976 to sign a five-year contract to coach the New York Jets of the National Football League. This was one of the two or three most coveted coaching positions in pro football, with an organization known for its professionalism. Owner Leon Hess, an NFL pioneer, was a great leader who gave his employees maximum support. New York's football fans were knowledgeable and second to none in their enthusiasm. It was an ideal situation for any coach. Yet I was unhappy almost from the moment I took the job. Every time a problem surfacedand no pro football team can go through an entire season without its share of travailsI immediately thought, "This isn't working out." When the Jets went an abysmal 3-10 during my first season, I resignedonly eight months into my contract.
Now let's look at the flip side of that experience. In 1983, the University of Minnesota hired me to coach their football team. Five coachesand three assistant coacheshad refused this position. The reason? Minnesota's football program had been in shambles for some time. The team, known as the Gophers, had just compiled an ignominious 17-game losing streak in which they were outscored by an average of 34 points per game. No one believed the school could quickly reverse its fortunes.
I declined the job when Minnesota's administration initially offered it to me. Besides having the same doubts as my colleagues, I couldn't see myself living in the tundra that was Minnesota. Harvey Mackaythe world-famed entrepreneur and best-selling author ofHow to Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alivehad to use all his considerable persuasive powers to convince me to accept the position. Am I glad he did. Minnesota proved to be a great place to live. The people were friendly, the fans exuberant, and the climate not quite arctic.
I made up my mind early on that we were going to create a winning atmosphere. Fan morale was low when I took over the team. Attendance had declined for years; Minnesota often played its games before a half-filled house. However, only one year after I joined the Gophers, we sold 54,000 more season tickets11,000 more than had been sold at any time during the school's 103-year history. Our winning record earned us an invitation to play Clemson in the Independence Bowl. You couldn't have asked for a more rousing success.
What made the difference between my experiences with the Jets and Gophers? Attitude. I joined the Jets suspecting I might fail; I came to Minnesota determined to win. With this positive outlook, I wasn't flustered when obstacles appeared. I knew we would overcome them. All that had changed was my perspective and, with that, my results. If I ever coach pro ball again, I promise you I'm going to bring that same "can-do" attitude with me.
Your talent determines what you can do. Your motivation determines how much you are willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it. For example, imagine you're a high jumper with the musculature to leap 6 feet 10 inches. Your pride of performance motivates you to practice and enter events. But if, on the day of the event, you don't believe you can hit 6 feet 10 inches, you're going to fall short of the mark. Your negative attitude will cut inches from your performance. However, compete with a certitude that you will clear 6 feet 10 inches and you will consistently match or better your expectations. A positive attitude is the key to attaining superior altitude.
Sweeter Than Any Bowl of Cereal
No one can control your attitude but you. Yet too often we let other people or external circumstances determine how we feel. In 1991, our team, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, was selected to play the University of Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Florida's Gators were formidable opponents. Their coach, Steve Spurrier, was (and is) a brilliant leader and tactician. Gator quarterback Shane Matthews was a superior talent blessed with a strong arm and a field commander's presence.
No one thought we could win this game. In fact, we were such a decided underdog that many people wondered if we could even hold the score close. But I believed we were poised to upset the Gators. Our team couldn't have been better prepared, and I knew our players were brimming with confidence.
A few days before the Bowl, I took my family to dinner in Orlando. We were talking about the upcoming game and my family could see how optimistic I was about our chances. I felt like I was on top of the world. While taking our order, the waiter scrutinized me a bit before asking, "Aren't you Lou Holtz, the Notre Dame coach?" When I told him I was, he said, "Let me ask you a question. What's the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios?" I didn't know. He answered, "Cheerios belong in a bowl, Notre Dame doesn't." It was meant to be a joke, but I couldn't find any humor in it. You want to talk about a radical change in attitude! I am here to tell you I was upset.
However, I remained outwardly calm. I said to the waiter, "It's my turn to ask you a question. What's the difference between Lou Holtz and a golf pro?" He said, "I don't know." I replied, "Golf pros give tips, Lou Holtz won't." Now if I didn't believe with all my heart that we were going to win that game, I would have left that dining room in a permanent funk. Those pesky gremlins of self-doubt would been working at my ear. I may have started to question our ability and, believe me, that would have adversely affected our performance.