With six National Championships, University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban is one of the greatest college football coaches of all time.
But for someone whose name has become synonymous with winning, Saban doesn’t place much emphasis on the end result. He doesn’t care what the final scoreboard says. Instead, Saban tells his assistant coaches and players to just focus on the process. Here’s what he says:
“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
It’s a refreshing perspective. In winner-takes-all fields like sports, results are all that matters. You either win, or you lose. There are no moral victories or consolation prizes. If you don’t win, you don’t eat.
So why does Nick Saban focus on the process then? Let’s steal a few lessons.
Sports is inherently complex.
There are many variables that affect the outcome of the game. Most of these variables are not within the control of players or the coach. There are too many plays, statistics and countermoves for a person to remember them all. To try and control all of them would be sheer madness.
But after speaking with psychiatry professor Lionel Rosen, Nick Saban realized that the average play in football lasts just seven seconds.
It’s impossible to read and execute every play to perfection for the entire game. But seven seconds? Anyone can do that. Execute, rest, repeat and you eventually have a game.
Excellence is a matter of steps. Excelling at the first thing, then the second, and then the next. The process is about staying in the present and laying siege to the obstacle in front of you. It’s about not getting distracted by anything else that comes your way.
Saban’s teams have done that—and then some. They started by winning games. Now, they are winning championships.
Even after winning a game—often with a big margin—Nick Saban would still be seen scowling on the sidelines. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that he was the coach of the losing team.
So why then, is Saban upset? As he told ESPN:
“I know I get criticized for that. Everybody says, ‘He just won 31–3. What’s he complaining about?’ But it goes back to the inner scoreboard versus the outer scoreboard. Which one is more important? If you’re going to accomplish your goals, it’s always the inner scoreboard.”
It’s the little things that gets him fuming. Maybe someone didn’t execute the play that he drew up. Or someone was in the wrong position. It could be that the team didn’t give enough effort.
You’d think that these errors could be forgiven if the team got the win. Not for Nick Saban. Even in practice, the coach tracked everything.
Saban knew whether a player had completed his workouts. He made sure that every drill was run perfectly. He tracked how closely they adhered to the dress code. He had a rule that players could not droop their shoulders—even though it was a normal response—when they were exhausted.
Small things always snowball into big things. Games are won at the fringes. Do more things right than your opponent and you will eventually come out ahead. Saban knew that and made sure all the little things went right. If his team didn’t execute them, he knew they didn’t deserve to win.
The outer scoreboard doesn’t always reflect what you’ve done right. That’s why we should keep an inner scoreboard.
Goals aren’t conducive for action. You don’t know what you need to do to achieve the goal.
The process gives you a mental checklist of items to tick off. There’s always the next deliverable and something you can do to get better. You know exactly where you stand. There’s nowhere to hide.
Goals are short-term. They give you an adrenaline rush when you conquer it, but it also causes you to become complacent. And if you fail, it’s difficult to get back up and on track.
On the other hand, the process ensures that you always have something to do. If you make a mistake or miss your workout, you simply aim to hit the next one. The process gears you towards long-term thinking. It’s about committing and adhering to a plan over time.
“Macro patience, micro speed” is what the entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk preaches. It’s also the spirit behind the process. We’re impatient and worry about what’s going to happen in a few years, but we spend the days making bad decisions and wasting our time away.
The process is the antidote to this problem that we all have. Don’t become so enamored with your goal that you forget what you have to do right now. Pick your goal, design your process for achieving it, and commit to the process. As Bill Belichick, Nick Saban’s former mentor, said, “do your job.”
The process is a philosophy that simplifies the complexities of life.
At its heart, it’s about learning to focus on the things that you can control. It’s also about realizing that there are more things you can control than you realize. You can’t control every outcome—sometimes the scoreboard doesn’t reflect how good you are—but you determine where you’re headed in the long run.
And as we trust the process, we will gradually fall in love with it as well.
This post was originally published on Constant Renewal.