Bill Walsh's Finding the Winning Edge


There's an insatiable market for pop-business tell-alls where championship coaches breezily share the keys to their success, with offerings like:

  • Tom Coughlin's Earn the Right to Win
  • Doug Pederson's Fearless
  • Sean Payton's Home Team
  • Jimmy Johnson's Turning the Thing Around
  • Jon Gruden's Do You Love Football?!

Bill Walsh's Finding the Winning Edge is not that kind of book. It's a football coach's manual by the greatest football coach of his era (and to some, the greatest of all time), and it exhaustively covers every aspect of what it means to be a coach.

I've never coached football, and these days I barely follow the NFL season. So why do I care about this book at all?

Some reasons are more personal than others. In addition to my childhood affection for the 49ers and my aesthetic admiration for Walsh's offense, I've always found coaching and organization building to be the most interesting part of professional sports. And no matter the subject, I love seeing an expert share the details of their craft.

But beyond that, sports is a microcosm of the larger world: its wins and losses, its euphoria and despair, and its constant striving toward success. Sport intensifies and clarifies fundamental ideas about who we are and what we could be. This is why it's so magnetic, whatever the form it takes. And as a book focused specifically on coaches and organizations, Finding the Winning Edge clarifies what separates a championship, world-beating organization from the also-rans.

As a non-coach, I can hardly do the book justice or even break into the marrow of it. But as I did yesterday, I want to pull out some of the quotes and ideas I find most salient.

The coach

At all times, the focus must be on doing things properly. Every play. Every practice. Every meeting. Every situation. Every time.

(Inspiring! But also see my post on the cost of Walsh's perfectionism).

The book starts from the coach and radiates outward.

The advice is what you might expect, but Walsh spells out the consequences in a way I find helpful:

  • be yourself because your insincerity will seep through and affect everyone around you, and because this is the only way you can maximize your strengths;

  • be committed to excellence because the talent pool is relatively even. The only way to get ahead is through exceptional effort and sacrifice, and if this doesn't become habitual, your team won't follow suit;

  • be positive because a negative attitude damages lines of communication and distracts your team;

  • be prepared because you must be ready to notice and seize the opportunities that come your way;

  • be organized because your time and resources are limited. Being so also has enormous ancillary benefits (such as helping people believe in your competence);

  • be accountable because deflecting blame destroys your credibility and your ability to influence and lead;

  • be a leader because it enforces the habits and standards of the rest of the team;

  • be focused on measurable results that keep you accountable without losing the bigger picture;

  • be ethical because doing otherwise destroys the team and the organization;

  • be flexible because the situation is constantly changing underneath you, and if you stick with the old ways out of habit, you'll lose.

This section of the book ends with some of the tools that help coaches overcome adversity. One of these tools naturally stands out to me:

Sound fundamentals and skills that have been firmly entrenched by weeks, months and years of training, practice, rehearsal, and direct competition. In order for these to be the appropriate tools for you to handle the situation, they must be an extension of your unique talents.

Coaching and teaching

No aspect of coaching is more important than teaching.

Walsh was most proud of his ability to teach others, and his legacy lives on through the dozens of NFL coaches and personnel in his extended coaching tree.

While reading through Walsh's teaching notes, I was a little chagrined to see how few teachers, professors, managers, and textbooks I've encountered have actually followed his timeless advice:

  • Use straightforward and common language, with specifics where necessary;

  • Use clear and concise language that gets to the point and makes the point clearly;

  • Convey your enthusiasm and passion for the subject. Attitude matters!

  • Constantly monitor your audience's attention and attention span;

  • Test knowledge of the basics before moving on.

One last quote:

Far too often, the "art" of coaching is lost when coaches fail to realize the depth to which the game should be and must be taught.

Those unfamiliar with professional sports routinely underestimate the sheer amount of study and practice it takes to be competitive. Learning effectively is an immense advantage, and teaching effectively is an immense multiplier for the entire organization.

The organization

The situation is constantly changing, and the organization must change with it. The coach must create clear lines of responsibility for every task, and the organization must prepare for contingencies. There's also a strong emphasis here on fostering young talent and giving it a chance to grow and thrive.

I'm less interested in this right now and will revisit it in a later post.

The people

Never overlook the fundamental reality of the teaching axiom, "quality repetitions are the mother of all learning."

Much of this section deals with player evaluations and specific roles on offense and defence, but there is still some general advice here. In particular, Walsh revisits teaching here and the importance of meticulous practice sessions that fit a player's needs and mentality:

Evaluate the players' performance on a daily basis to ensure that they are progressively mastering the techniques required ...

While this could err into micromanagement, I certainly would love daily metrics on how I use and spend my time.

The game and the business

These sections of the book deal more specifically with game planning, selecting plays, managing the salary cap, and other more tactical issues. Still, there are some nuggets here for the general reader.

On the mental fundamentals:

Virtually every activity in which a person wants to excel requires concentration and focus.

On the cost of stress:

Of all the factors which have a negative impact on an individual's level of focus and concentration, perhaps none is more important than stress.

On bearing the immense stress of the game (a point often forgotten by the casual fan):

Realize that anxious, sometimes panicked, even hysterical thought can occur during a game.

On enhancing an athlete's performance through fundamentals:

Recognize the fact than an athlete's consistency of performance is established and fortified through the acquisition and development of a complete "inventory" of fundamentals. Only through constant repetition can these essential fundamentals be retained.

On the cost of a long losing streak:

Some individuals associated with the team ... may be driven to extreme levels of the survival mentality by losing continually.

And a long winning streak:

Be aware that a team on a winning streak is also susceptible to experiencing a phenomenon that can best be described as "losing their nerve" once the streak ends.

There's also some advice on managing stress, but given Walsh's temperament, I think this is more "do as I say, not as I do."