Coaching Lessons from Super Bowl XLVI

Maintaining his principles while adapting his tactics was one of the key coaching lessons that enabled Giants Head Coach, Tom Coughlin, to reach the pinnacle of his profession.

On Sunday evening, the Giants and Patriots treated more than 110 million fans to a classic Super Bowl game, long on intensity and down-to-the-last second drama.  Innumerable sports writers and football experts have analyzed the many key moments in the game.  I wanted to share today four lessons that stem from the weeks, months, and years leading up to the game – focusing principally on Giants Head Coach, Tom Coughlin, and quarterback, Eli Manning.

Coaching and Leadership Lessons

  • Maintain your principles, adapt your tactics – Throughout his long college and NFL coaching career, Tom Coughlin has been known as an “old school” disciplinarian.  When his teams have won, this has been seen as a virtue; when losing, a vice.  Early in his tenure with the Giants, Coughlin’s approach was feared to be too intense and inflexible to reach today’s players.  He re-thought his approach during that off-season and started the next year more flexible, while still retaining his trademark intensity and focus.  A few years later, he was a Super Bowl winning head coach for the first time (2008) … and now again.
  • Age stereotypes are just that – stereotypes – At age 65, Coughlin became the oldest Super Bowl winning coach.  Separated from most players on his roster by a full two generations, it would be easy to assume that he would struggle connecting with “Gen Y” or “Millenial” generation stars.  Yet, in post-game interviews, player after player cited Coughlin’s heart-felt pre-game speech about his love for his players as a key motivator for them, and emblematic of how he has interacted with them throughout the year. 
  • Diamonds in the rough sometimes turn out to be … diamonds – Throughout his career, quarterback Eli Manning has been derided in the New York and national media as falling far short of the other-worldly talents of his 4-time MVP older brother, Peyton.  A few weeks before leading his team on its magical Super Bowl run in 2007, Eli was even characterized as “skittish” by his own general manager (a damning indictment for a football player, particularly a quarterback who serves as the metaphorical “field general”).  Earlier this season, he was the object of scorn for answering “yes” when asked if he considered himself an “elite” quarterback.  Two Super Bowl MVP awards later, the Giants are surely well-pleased that they saw and stuck with Eli’s promise despite his early stumbles.
  • Resolve and focus trumps personality – Despite being well-spoken and thoughtful, Eli’s “aw, shucks” manner and habit of deferring credit to his teammates has been criticized as not demonstrating necessary leadership traits.  Humility belies a steely resolve and intense focus on the job at hand, though.  When asked what Eli said in the huddle on the game-winning drive, a teammate replied, “Nothing.  We knew what we needed to do.  He just let us do our jobs.” He did his job expertly, not flinching under the Patriot’s onslaught.  Still waters run deep, indeed.

Sidenote: Interestingly, many of the same principles can be seen at work in the story of Patriot’s tandem of Head Coach, Bill Belichick, and quarterback, Tom Brady.  Example: Belichick – long known as a brilliant defensive mind, rebounded from a failing first stint as a head coach with the Browns, reinventing himself as he began a 12-year run of nearly unprecedented of success with the Patriots (i.e., maintaining principles, adapting tactics).  Brady, now regarded as a sure-bet first-ballot hall-of-famer, began his career as an unheralded (if not openly derided) 6th-round draft pick (inconceivably low for someone headed for a brilliant career) – thus, the diamond in the rough principle at work, again.


What other leadership and coaching lessons do you draw from the Super Bowl or other athletic events that are relevant to leading organizations?

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