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Urban Meyer on How to Win

What Coach Urban Meyer learned and unlearned about the effect of all-out effort

Bud Meyer believed in bottomless, all-out effort with the fervor of a preacher. Hard work, he said, solves every problem.

Bud Meyer applied that philosophy to his work as a chemical engineer and to the upbringing of his children, including his son Urban.

When Urban Meyer disappointed his father by striking out in a high school baseball game, Bud told him that he was unwelcome in the family car. So Urban Meyer walked home. It was ten miles away.

Days after high school graduation, the Atlanta Braves signed Urban to a contract and shipped him off to rookie ball, the lowest level of minor league baseball.

In rookie ball, Urban Meyer floundered. He simply couldn’t hit at that level of competition. Urban—a seventeen-year-old playing minor league baseball 1,200 miles from home—told Bud that he couldn’t hack it, and that it was time for him to give up the baseball dream.

Bud told Urban that if he quit, Bud never wanted to see him again. Never. Urban would be permanently unwelcome in the Meyer family home. Urban could call his mother once a year on Christmas, but when he did Bud would not be coming to the phone.

Urban didn’t quit. He played out his first and then second minor league seasons—both in rookie ball—and then the Braves released him from his contract. He was no longer a baseball player, but you could not say he hadn’t tried his hardest.

Urban, however, was not through with sports. After a stint playing college football, he began a coaching career that would one day take him to the top of the college football profession, winning two national championships at the University of Florida.

Far from being critical of his father’s zealous belief in total effort, Urban himself was quick to credit his father’s teachings for his professional success. He lived Bud’s lessons and he was still welcome in his father’s home. No one could outwork him.

However, it was Urban’s all-encompassing effort that nearly drove him from the game.

At the University of Florida, one of the most important and cherished rituals Urban initiated was called Victory Meal. After a win, and only after wins, the entire team gathered for a jubilant postgame dinner. The meal was a reward, a celebration, a chance to strengthen bonds across the team. No one would dare miss the meal—it was what they played for.

As the winning seasons piled up, Urban began skipping some Victory Meals so that he could get a few hours more work done preparing for the next game.

Years later he ducked his head into a Victory Meal on his way to his office to watch some game film. Opening the door, he was shocked by the quiet. As he stepped inside, he saw why it was so quiet. The room was nearly deserted. Just a handful of players and two assistant coaches were quietly eating dinner. Reluctantly, his conditioning coach revealed that when Urban stopped coming to Victory Meal, so did the players.

Urban was pained that in the name of working hard to advance the team, he had undermined his own team-building effort.

Within a few weeks, philosophical concerns gave way to something far more alarming. Urban was lying in bed struggling to breathe. There was a pain in his chest. He rolled out of bed but couldn’t get himself off the floor. As his wife dialed 911, Urban Meyer thought he was having a heart attack.

While the episode was terribly frightening for the family, doctors said that he had not suffered a heart attack. Instead, the stress and unhealthy habits that accompany twenty-hour workdays had simply overwhelmed him.

Convinced now that being the hardest-working football coach in America was a threat rather than an accomplishment, Urban walked away from one of the biggest contracts in the game and declared himself retired at the age of 46.

With time to reflect about the way he pursued his work, Urban came to believe his all-out effort had hurt his team, himself, and most importantly his family. He ultimately agreed to come back to football—to head one of the most storied programs in the game, at Ohio State—but did so only after signing a contract with his family. He agreed to set maximum work hours and minimum family time in his weekly schedule. He agreed to follow various rules to protect his health and mental well-being. And, he agreed that bottomless effort would not make his football team successful, but smart effort would. And it has.

Research backs up the lesson Urban Meyer learned the hard way. Burke and MacDermid found, for example, that far from getting ahead, an all-out workaholic approach was associated with less career success and 16% less job satisfaction than those who took a more relaxed approach.*

Smart effort is a good thing. It might well win Urban Meyer and his Buckeyes another national championship. But bottomless, pull-your-hair-out effort produces more stress than success.

*Ronald J. Burke and Graeme MacDermid, (1999),"Are workaholics job satisfied and successful in their careers?" Career Development International 4: 277 – 282.

Photo credit: Adam Glanzman/Daily, obtainted via Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Originally posted on Flickr.

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