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The most important lessons I learned playing in the NFL

September 2, 2019 - 12 min read

The Most Important Lessons I Learned Playing in the NFL

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What motivates athletes on the field

How to raise the stakes in the office

Framing your competition

Damian Vaughn, captured in conversation by Kasey Fleisher Hickey

Four hours. That’s how long it takes to play a single game of football. There is a winner and a loser. No matter what, it is always about you and your team vs. their team. For months, players and coaches work out strategies and sweat it out practicing on the field with a single goal in mind: to win. That’s the nature of the game and it taught me almost everything I know about how to be a motivational leader that can bring a team together to fight an opposing force.

When I played in the NFL (first for the Cincinnati Bengals and later for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), I learned some of the most important lessons of my life. I learned that the most demanding teams are also the most fun. And that timing really is everything. I took these lessons with me when I pursued my PhD but I kept coming back to this: the greatest teams understand how to balance excellence with playfulness, and it comes down to three key concepts: urgency, opposition, and yes, fun.

The greatest teams understand how to balance excellence with playfulness, and it comes down to three key concepts: urgency, opposition, and yes, fun.

What motivates athletes on the field

There are two very important elements to sports: urgency and opposition. We have a clear opponent and we have only so much time to beat them at our game.

In sports, urgency is crucial to success. On the field, time is compressed: you have a relatively short, amount of time to win, so the sense of importance is fundamentally higher than in a situation where ‘the end’ feels distant and undefined. Without the urgency, players wouldn’t be under so much pressure to apply their skills to meet these high stakes challenges.

But there’s more to winning the game than just knowing you have only so much time to play. Competition is at the core of every sport: it’s us vs. them, and only one of us can persevere. We intensely study our opponent to understand their strengths and weaknesses and leverage our own strengths and weaknesses to beat them. Now, as a team, we not only share a constrained goal, but we also share a threat, which motivates and bonds us.

The difference between great teams and mediocre teams comes down to how the players internalize these components. This is where fun comes in. While the sense of urgency and opposition are largely out of our individual control, the ability to enjoy an experience is something that can be learned and intentionally manifested. The pursuit of fun is fundamental to success.

A veteran of the U.S. women’s volleyball team, Courtney Thompson, told the Los Angeles Times, “We used to be super serious, and you’d get in the game and you’re cold and stiff. [It wasn’t] working…When we’re jumping around, we’re having fun and we’re keeping it light, then when we go in you feel that fire and you feel aggressive. It’s fun.”

Now, you’re (probably) not about to get tackled in the office, but there are some very realistic ways to create a shared sense of urgency and responsibility while emphasizing the fun factor, and it has everything to do with how you approach goal-setting and competition.

How to raise the stakes in the office

In an office environment, tasks at hand are often perceived as not so urgent, or not challenging enough to feel very important. Or worse, they’re seen as unrealistic and thus, not achievable.

When we try to overcompensate for the lack of urgency, we tend to set goals with phony deadlines in the hopes of stirring up excitement.

When we try to overcompensate for the lack of urgency, we tend to set goals with phony deadlines in the hopes of stirring up excitement. That’s hardly motivating. In fact, according to Psychology Today, “when fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.” It’s no surprise that employees meet “stretch goals” only 10% of the time they’re set.

Employees meet “stretch goals” only 10% of the time they’re set.Click To Tweet

But there are some very realistic ways to create a shared sense of urgency and responsibility, without setting unattainable goals. This is where putting on your ‘coach’ hat will help.

Real ways to create a (believable) sense of urgency, while still having fun

Motivation is driven by urgency. Most built-in milestones, like  budget reports and quarterly financials rarely feel urgent because they’re often:

  • Not meaningful or personal due to not being directly tied to individual work
  • Are not reviewed frequently enough to respond to changing factors.
  • Don’t always feel high-stakes (e.g: “We’ll hit our goal next quarter” or “Even if we don’t hit this goal, it’s not like we’ll go out of business and you’ll lose your job”).

Instead, think about how you can shorten the intervals between projects, heighten the stakes to sustain your teammates’ desire to achieve, and create a sense of enjoyment around their work.

  • Don’t just stick to quarters. Having a two week sprint for a smaller project can motivate your team to complete the task on hand. This tactic is commonly used by developers to work on projects that take no more than two to four weeks.
  • Break up long projects into individual milestones.Parkinson’s Law states that work tends to expand to fill the time allotted to it. Give your team a yearlong project, and you’ll find it’ll take them a year to complete. But, break it up into individual milestones and you’ll find that everyone will rise up to the occasion of achieving these smaller, individual goals.
  • Recognize mini-milestones. Studies have shown that recognition at work leads to happier employees who are, in turn, more productive. Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences writes, “Recognition serves as a tool for reinforcing the behaviors that drive an organization to excellence and gives a vital boost to employees’ engagement that has a “ripple effect” that reaches beyond the recipient.” The evidence is clear: more recognition, at more stages of a project, lead to more motivated teams.
  • Communicate a willingness to fail and tolerate mistakes. There’s a common phrase in the business world: “done is better than perfect.” In sports, there’s a shared understanding that you will never be perfect at your game, but you’ll continue to practice your skill to be better. Remember how I said that the most demanding teams are also the most fun? That’s because their purpose is first and foremost to get into a state of flow — to feel that “fire” that U.S. Olympic volleyball player Courtney Thompson so aptly identified. Make it known to your team that your goal is to complete a project to the best of your abilities in the allotted timeframe, but that setbacks along the way can happen and these shouldn’t take away from the enjoyment of the pursuit. Use these learnings as opportunities to improve upon what you’re working on and re-evaluate a deadline if they need more time.

Just remember: the greatest teams, and the ones that achieve the best results, are also often the most fun. So while creating a sense of urgency is meant to motivate ‘players’ to perform, maintaining a culture of play will keep your team motivated for the long haul.

Framing your competition

Numerous studies have shown that competition drives performance in sports. For example, in a study at Arizona State University, participants who were tested in a competitive group lifted 11% more weight than those who did so on their own.

Great coaches and leaders can create opposition by drawing upon external or internal forces to galvanize a team in a concerted effort to transcend prior versions of themselves, even if there’s no clear opponent in your category (e.g. no Pepsi to your Coke).

  • Establish a deeper purpose (long-term strategy). Introduce a sense of social responsibility or isolate a global threat to societal or environmental well-being to establish a deeper purpose for your business.
  • Identify a direct or indirect competitor (short-term strategy). Whether it’s during team-wide meetings, scrawled across a whiteboard in a  conference room, or in an email, make your competitive set visible to your team.
  • Introduce a threat of substitution (short-term strategy). Highlight a window of opportunity that’s about to close. The very idea that you could be replaced is a strong motivator.
  • Take the Nike Grit approach (short-term strategy). Think about what you’ve achieved in the past or what issues you want your organization to overcome. Focus on rewriting your future by competing against the threat of complacency, doubt, or the status quo.

Motivating your team comes down to developing a recipe that’s unique to your needs, but in my experience, a combination of urgency, opposition, and fun is what it takes to succeed in the long run.

Damian Vaughn, PhD  is the Head of Programs at BetterUp. He is a research psychologist in positive developmental psychology and a Clinical Professor of Strategy, Leadership and Innovation at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business, Sports Product Management Masters Program. A former NFL player turned entrepreneur, Damian has coached senior executives in Media, Entertainment, Technology, Hospitality and Finance industries as well as elite athletes in the NFL, MLB, NHL, and Olympics.



Published September 2, 2019

Dr. Damian Vaughn, PhD

Chief Programs Officer

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