Bill Walsh and Perfectionism


The NFL coach is part mentor and part strategist. No play is run without his fingerprints on it in some capacity, and it is this quality that makes an NFL game less a battle of teams and more a duel of grandmasters.

And perhaps nobody more approached the apex of coaching genius than Bill Walsh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and architect of the team's dynasty years in the 1980s. A sensitive, mercurial, and brilliant man, Walsh transformed the modern game through both his tactics on the field and his approach to preparation off of it. There is no team in the NFL that does not rely on the concepts and systems he pioneered, perfected, and predicted.

But the tragedy of Bill Walsh is that the same fanatic perfectionism that led to his enormous success was also his undoing. The stresses of the NFL season ate away at him, and he retired a spent and broken man.

I've been thinking about the relationship between high performance and perfectionism and wanted to document how perfectionism both pulled Walsh to the top and dragged him down to the depths. All quotes below are from the ESPN article The book of coach. (Emphasis mine.)

On the cost of his perfectionism, both existentially:

He always coached through existential torture, with alternating bouts of believing that he was brilliant and that he was incapable of fulfilling his own idea of greatness.

And in the day to day:

His offense became so precise that it couldn't be stopped when executed perfectly, so Walsh became obsessed with always executing perfectly. "It would grind on him," says longtime friend Dick Vermeil. "He was so perceptive and detailed and emotional, and he put so much of himself into a game plan, that he took it personally if it didn't work."

And the specific physical toll:

By the late '80s, as Walsh's definition of success became so narrow as to be unattainable, the Walsh Way started to cripple the coach. He would sit dazed in his hot tub even after wins, despondent that he had miscalculated a play or two. "I was a tortured person," Walsh later told biographer Harris. "I felt the failure so personally ... eventually I couldn't get out from under it all. You can't live that way long. You can only attack that part of your nervous system so many times."

On how perfectionism interferes with the job:

As Peterson neared completion, Walsh's perfectionism kicked in. Walsh suddenly wanted the book to be about coaching and business, a niche read and a bestseller, everything to everyone.

But, the reward of obsessive perfectionism:

Craig spent eight hours a day in front of a VCR, staring at grainy footage, a glimpse of a man whom he seldom saw as a child and struggled to understand as an adult. Walsh had a solution for every situation, from planning pregame meals to always calling basic plays in the tightest situations to give the players confidence. "You realize how complex of a man he was to have all of this going through his brain," Craig says. "How could he have ever relaxed? He didn't."