Thinking Outside The Box: A Book Review

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Everybody knows that the ability to think outside the box is a desirable quality.  A smaller number of people hold the ability to think outside the square as desirable.  I feel sorry for those people.  They can’t even recognise that the world is 3 dimensional  They are in for a shock if they ever make it outside, but I digress.  The ability to think outside the box, or to be able to consider new paradigms, is the quality that is most often applied to US college football coach Mike Leach.  I first came across him a few years ago in an article written by Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball.  He is exactly the kind of character / coach that interests me the most, i.e. one who wins in ‘unconventional’ ways.  So because of that, and because I haven’t read enough biographies of coaches, I bought his autobiography, Swing Your Sword, as soon as I came across it.  I was not disappointed.

For all the talk about boxes and innovation, what I read was as close as I have found to a common sense textbook of coaching.  From a straight out coaching perspective (i.e. independent of the sport), he goes into quite some detail about what to do and when and most importantly, why.  The ‘why’ is most important because the ‘why’ that he describes is never ‘because that is how it has always been done’.  The ‘why’ he describes is always practical, simple, and sensible.  From a tactical perspective (i.e. football specific) his tactics are grounded in a very strong and complete logic, which is apparently based on looking outside of that box.  My interpretation is a little different.  His tactics were so simple that I liken it more to getting outside the box and looking back inside, but from a different angle.  That analogy seems to resonate more strongly to me.  He hasn’t reinvented anything, he is still playing by the same rules, with many of the same basics, but what he has done is to challenge conventions.  For example, he is known for throwing the ball a lot more than normal.  Convention says that a balanced offence is one in which a team throws and runs roughly 50% of the time each.  Leach’s says a balanced offence is one in which every part of the field can be attacked at any time.  If you were an alien (or even a recent sports science graduate) who had never seen football before I am confident this is exactly the kind of offence you would design, based on the rules of the football and simple game theory.  But if you are bound by convention, or paradigm, or a box, or the same point of view, you can never reach that place.  One of my favourite Einstein quotes is, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”  To continually improve you must not only challenge the things you are doing, but the way you are thinking about them.

As I said, I think this book could easily be reedited or restructured into a coaching textbook.  Some interesting quotes.

“The best coaches are the ones who best connect with their players”

“It’s vital to make things more complicated for the opponent.  (There are two ways you can do that.) One is to have a whole bunch of plays.  But the trouble is that your offence has to deal with as much complexity as their defence does.  The other way is to have less plays, and run them out of lots of formations.  That way you don’t have to teach a player a new assignment, just a new place to stand.”

“It’s not about tricks.  It’s about execution….Technique is more important than scheme.”

“How do you get the most out of your offence? You utilise all your players.”

About not having a playbook… “As a coach there is a tendency to take short cuts and not be as precise in your teaching when you can lean on a playbook.  As a player there’s a tendency to think you can just look it up in the playbook, study it like you’re cramming for a  test. … (Not having a playbook) raises the level of focus.”

“90% of teams don’t run an offence, they run plays.  (They) just run plays but without a concept.”

“Discipline is not just focusing on the negative aspects and scolding your guys when they don’t do something the right way.  Discipline requires encouragement.  Discipline requires support.  Discipline requires sharing a new perspective so the person can gain the confidence he needs to be successful.  Sometimes it’s about making it more convenient for your guys to perform the desired behaviour rather than the undesired one.”

“You’re either coaching it, or allowing it to happen.”

I could go on, but I won’t.  Check out the book.


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