Competing One Game at a Time

The most important game of the season is the game you are about to to play.

Posted May 22, 2020

Jogging joyfully towards the visitors’ dressing room at Cleveland Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium, the Pittsburgh Steelers had just snapped a four-game losing streak, crushing Cleveland, 24-9.

Barking out orders that late Sunday afternoon was Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin as he trotted with his victorious Steelers through the stadium inner tunnel.

Courtesy of Sam Carpenter/Flickr Commons
Head coach Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
Source: Courtesy of Sam Carpenter/Flickr Commons

“Shower-up, get dressed, and let’s get out of here,” Tomlin commanded. We’ve got a game Thursday night and only four days to get ready—let’s go.”

Move on and get ready for the next game.

The victory evened the Steelers record at 5-5. They followed with a 28-7 pasting of the Indianapolis Colts that Thursday night—Thanksgiving, 2016—on their way to a nine-game winning streak that ended with a 36-17 loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game.

A season on the brink of disaster after four straight loses was transformed into a winning run that left the Steelers one step short of Super Bowl LI. 

Exemplary leadership—like the example above—is a major reason for the Steelers’ continuous success.  Since 1970 the team owns a 480-305-2 record (including post-season play), reaching the playoffs 30 times.  Over that stretch they have won their division 22 times, played in 16 AFC championship games, and won six of eight Super Bowls.

Successful teams like Pittsburgh don’t waste time and energy dwelling on the joy of victory or the pain of defeat. They’re too busy preparing for the next game.

GAME OVER—MOVE FORWARD

The Baltimore Ravens’ locker room scene was unexpectedly subdued after a Justin Tucker 32-yard field goal—with no time remaining—delivered a thrilling 23-20 come-from-behind road victory over Cleveland in September 2014.

Surprised by the calm, I asked Ravens’ veteran defensive end Chris Canty to explain the lack of excitement.

Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons
Chris Canty, Baltimore Ravens
Source: Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons

“Well, if you had been here right when we came off the field, you’d have seen excitement, but these guys aren’t a bunch of high school kids, replied the 6’-7”, 317-pound Canty. “High school kids don’t stop jumping around and whooping it up after a win.”

“These guys are professionals,” continued Canty, sweeping his massive arm towards his teammates. “They’re already getting ready for the next game.”

As legendary Nebraska head football coach Tom Osborne said, “I celebrate a victory when I start to walk off the field. By the time I get to the locker room, I’m done."

Priceless wisdom from Tomlin, Canty, and Osborne for coaches and athletes, regardless of their sport or competitive level. Win, lose, or tie, move on to the next game.

IT’S NOT JUST THE WINNING AND LOSING PART

Stunned

That’s the best I can do to describe the Pittsburgh Steelers moments after the infamous helmet-bashing incident involving Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett and Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph, on November 14, 2019 IN Cleveland.

A brawl between the teams with 10 seconds remaining in that game, climaxed with Garrett swinging his helmet on the bare head of Rudolph.  The Steelers lost, 21-7, a mere footnote to one of the darkest moments in NFL history.

Events like that—in life and sport—can come out of nowhere.  How will you and your team react?  It’s a choice point. Do you choose to dwell on it or move forward with purpose?

How did the Steelers respond?

“You move on with it and focus on your job,” said Steelers offensive guard David DeCastro in the aftermath of Garrett/Rudolph incident. “We’re about action. Come back to work, come back to practice. All that matters is a win”

Several Steelers echoed DeCastro’s point.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Bealls/Wikimedia Commons
David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers
Source: Courtesy of Jeffrey Bealls/Wikimedia Commons

“Adversity hits all the time and we’ve got to be able to fight through it,” outside linebacker Bud

Dupree said. “We can’t let that (the brawl) get in the way.  Focus on actually winning the game.”

Explained Matt Feiler, Offensive tackle, “These things can be a distraction if you let them. That kind of stuff can make people lose focus on the game instead of what’s actually going on in the game. We take great pride in being professional, making sure the guys have a one-track mind.”

Center B.J. Finney offered, “You know, you’ve got to tune all that stuff out and make sure that you’re doing your job well enough to win. We’ve got a lot of bigger goals to attain and achieve.  We’re going to keep moving.”

Invaluable lessons: Focus on what’s next, don’t dwell on the past, and move forward with purpose and committed action.

The Steelers moved forward, winning their next three games, including a 20-13 home victory against Cleveland two weeks after the brawl.

How does a team achieve such a unified, effective approach?  It starts with coaches with clear purpose, effectively communicating that purpose, and living it.

Coach Mike Tomlin in his post-brawl game press conference repeatedly deflected media questions about the fight with “no comment” or “I’m not talking about that” responses. Translation:  The Pittsburgh Steelers are moving on.

Zach Banner, Pittsburgh offensive tackle, said it best.

“The good coaches, they try to tone it down”, he explained. “The good coaches—and Mike Tomlin is a good coach—he’s going to tell us not to buy into that BS and just play your game. Worry about us and let’s go get a win.”

A pivot from stun to the next game.

LESSONS FOR COACHES, YOUNG ATHLETES, AND PARENTS

A team’s ability to focus on the next competition, and not dwell on wins, losses, ties, unexpected circumstances, etc., leads to consistently positive results.

The excitement of success, the despair of failure, or the chaos of the unexpected can keep athletes firmly stuck in the past, something many coaches, athletes, and parents of young sports participants do not understand.

Successful teams consistently move forward with purposeful, committed action, and that doesn’t happen accidentally. Leadership, teaching, and good example by coaches, parents, and athletes—are required.

Young athletes, especially, need the guidance and example from coaches that fully grasp the above. Such a leader is veteran coach David Barkley.

Barkley has coached volleyball for over forty years, including a stint as head woman’s coach at Villanova University (1988-91) where he won Big East Coach-of-the-Year honors in 1991. He has since established a high school coaching and teaching career in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Amassing a 350-58 career high school record, including six Colorado 4A state championships, and eight Colorado 4A volleyball Coach-of-the-Year honors, Barkley is a coach you listen to.

Much goes into such success, including the challenge of keeping teenage athletes focused and moving forward.  Barkley offers much regarding that daunting task.

Courtesy of David Barkley
Volleyball coach David Barkley
Source: Courtesy of David Barkley

“I always say to the kids, ‘what’s the most important match we’re going to play this season?’” Barkley explained.  “And the answer is ‘the one we’re about to play.’  I want them to put their effort into the match we’re about to play, not the one we just finished” 

Being a high school coach and teacher—not to mention parenting three daughters—he understands the importance of repetition and example to make his point.  

“It’s about role modeling,” Barkley explained.  “A common mistake of coaches is over-celebrating, or overly-criticizing, a win or loss. You can high-five, say ‘nice job, good win,’ and tell them what we did well. Now it’s on to the next match.”

“I let them celebrate a win,” he continued. “Part of the fun is winning, but there’s a time when that ends. ”When they go home that night, they should now be on to the next match. We’re done with that (the win) by the time we walk into the gym the next day, ”

Barkley takes a similar approach with losses, with an instructive twist.

“I let them mourn it (the loss), but I don’t want them to mourn it with me pointing it out to them that they failed, because they already know,” he explained. “They don’t need to be embarrassed by being told the same thing.”

Which reminded Barkley of another common coaching mistake that can distract.

“Something I see way too often is the coach who’s still on the court (after the match),” he shared.  “The loss involves the coaches’ ego. So, after the match they take their team to a corner, sit them down, and for 20 minutes or more ream the kids out for what they already know.

“This takes away something very important to me,” Barkley continued. “Which is allowing kids to play through mistakes, make their mistakes, and not be afraid to correct them. So, now (with the critical coach) every time those kids are touching the ball, they’re worried about what coaches will think and say about the mistake they might make.”

“I would say the longest I’ve ever spoken to a team after a match—three minutes,” he estimated. “Normally, it’s under a minute and in that minute, we take a turn towards the next match.”

“Turn towards the next match”—the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Tom Osborne would agree.