Random thoughts on sports, goals, outputs, and outcomes

Part of my life has been spent writing grants, reading grants, and awarding grants.  One of the things you learn about in this world is the concepts of goals, outputs, and outcomes.  Every grant application has its way of getting you to tell the funder what is the affect you are trying to get (goals); what you are going to do to get that affect (outputs); and what you specifically expect to achieve (outcomes).  Of those, the one you have the least amount of control over is the one that in many ways matters most, the outcomes.

In sports the outcome is the most important thing.  It is what gets coaches hired and fired, yet as in fundraising, it is the thing the players and coaches have least control over.  Very few coaches at a high level understand this.  The ones who do are usually the most successful.  Take Nick Saban for example.

In everything I have read about his now fabled “Process” he never emphasizes winning games (outcomes). The Process centers on making everyone in the program better (goal) by doing the right thing the right way every time (outputs).  The choices are always simple.  X is the right way, Y is the wrong way, always do X.  It is just that sometimes X is harder and there appears to be no benefit to doing it that way.  That is why there must be accountability to make people do the right thing.

The Process teaches the players (and coaches) to control the things you can control.  You can control what you eat, going to class, how hard you work in the weight room and on the field.  You can control lining up correctly, doing your homework, and getting to bed at a descent hour.  You cannot control what the referees will call during a game, the weather, or how the other team will line up across from you.

Sports writers and talking heads speak of Saban’s Process as if it is some kind of magic formula.  It isn’t.  It is quite like something you learn from many philosophies and theologies, particularly Eastern philosophies.  No matter what your goal, the actual outcome is out of your hands.  You can only work towards that goal and its outcomes to the best of your abilities.  There are too many factors out of your hands as to whether you achieve your desired outcome to concentrate on that outcome.  In sports it particularly hard to win even one game because of all the things outside of your control: the other team, the officials, the weather, the field conditions, etc.

It seems counter-intuitive that in a sport that is all about winning the best way to approach it is to stop caring about winning.  It does make sense that the sport where this type of thinking is becoming a bigger trend is football.  It is the one sport where the coach does control everything making it easier for him to force his players to concentrate on all the things surrounding winning and not on winning.

I’ve realized this sounds like I am saying these coaches don’t care about winning.  They do care about winning, but they are trying to make winning seem like the logical outcome of all the work they are doing.  The goal is to make the team and individual players better, the outputs are to do the right thing the right way all the time, the outcome is winning.

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