The Power of Purpose: A football storytelling tradition

I had a dream last night that was similar to many, but completely unique. I don’t remember most dreams, and I don’t attempt to place a lot of value on those that I do remember. One type of dream, however, occurs consistently. I am a fan at a basketball or football game at my college or high school. Something goes wrong and they desperately need me to play. I struggle to find the right jersey, pads or helmet, but eventually I get on the field or court and try to help the team. I usually wake up before the game finishes, but I have these dreams enough and remember enough details that it’s not surprising when it happens. This morning, I woke up surprised. This time, instead of asking me to play, my coach asked me to tell a story:

The team stood in the locker room, waiting for Coach T to deliver one of his inspiring pre-game speeches. He was going to tell a story that convinced them to commit to each other even more today than they ever thought they could, to give that one extra percent of effort, to focus more than they ever had before. I waited in anticipation in the background with the rest of the team. Coach T looked ready to go, but couldn’t get the words out. He turned and asked me to tell the story. I knew every word. I stepped in and told the story of the legendary player who tore his ACL in the preseason, recovered for just over a month, and then returned half way through the season without an ACL. In the final game of the season, against our arch rival, he ran for 250 yards to clinch the conference championship. I told the players how hard he had worked every year; how Coach T never worried about whether he would be in shape every August; how he left every summer to go south to be with his family and always came back bigger, stronger and faster; how the injury almost devastated the team, but together, they fought through the adversity of losing a star, and put it all together for a legendary victory.

(This is a true story and, as a former player and assistant coach, it is one I’ve heard many times before. When I shared this post with Coach T, he reminded me of a a few key details that I had forgotten. In the final game, our team faced a 4th and 5 and needed the first down. During the timeout, this player turned to his coaches and said, “Give me the ball. They can’t stop me.” They got the first down and later scored a touchdown on that drive to clinch the game.)

I’ve never had to tell a story to a team in a dream before and I don’t know how many of you outside of our team, football, or the sports world will find that story as interesting as I do. The importance of storytelling, however, goes well beyond athletics. As I reflected today, it wasn’t the story that stood out the most. It was something I had not considered before: how storytelling gave our team purpose. Coach T is a brilliant coach – he developed players athletically, he called the right plays at the right time, he made brilliant half-time adjustments – but his greatest talent may have been storytelling.

I never planned to be a football player. I barely weighed 100 pounds in 8th grade, but my dad talked me into taking a break from soccer and giving football a try. I enjoyed it enough to play again as a freshman in high school. I was good enough to feel like I could contribute, my brother and most of my friends were going to play, and the high school coach had a personality that invited even the skinniest kids to stick with it. His passion for the sport was infectious, but looking back, it was the sense of purpose he instilled in us as a group that played a significant role in our success.

During my 8th grade year, I was the team manager (my brother was already there so I might as well tag along), and I got to hear the stories and take part in the traditions before I joined the team as a player. During preseason team meetings, chalk talks about plays would inevitably turn into history lessons about his previous players. I graduated in 2000 and the 1984 state championship could have easily been a distant memory that a group of teenagers dismissed, but Coach T brought them to life, narrating the entire film. (The highlight film with a brilliant “Eye of the Tiger” montage helped, too.) The 37-game win-streak in the 70s could have felt like awkwardly nostalgic, but he told them with such joy and love that we all simply hoped that someday he might share stories of our Saturday afternoon heroism with his future teams.

Coach T is a legend. He completed his 53rd season as head football coach last fall (his last as a head coach), and coached baseball and basketball for many years. His football teams won over 300 games and more than 30 conference championships. He could have remembered only the greats in his stories, but Coach T told stories about the 150 pound running back who had to become a lineman or the tiny backup cornerback who made one important tackle with as much passion as the story of a game winning touchdown. Every player he coached was important. Every player he coached had the chance to live on in a story.

Three Keys to Motivation

In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”, he writes about the three factors most important to an individual’s motivation – autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Great leaders, like Coach T, don’t tell you that they are providing these for you. Some great leaders, like Coach T, probably don’t even think about the fact that they are providing these for you. They may not even provide them all equally.

Autonomy – To be honest, autonomy was limited. We ran the plays Coach T wanted us to run, the way he wanted us to run them, when he wanted us to run them. There was some freedom once you started blocking or once you had the ball. You could even get away with doing it your own way, as long as it worked. But that freedom came after proving you could do it the way Coach T wanted in practice. With time and experience, you might suggest a play or an adjustment, and he would genuinely listen to you and consider your suggestion. (Often he would tell you why your suggestion wouldn’t work, but he did listen.)

Mastery – Coach T and his assistants were such good teachers that, even when you felt like a small and insignificant freshman (because you were by sheer size), they would find a moment to celebrate a small success in a way that kept you going. As you grew into more significant roles, they taught you the finer points, knowing that success was in the details and execution. Their preparation was second to none. We knew that their game plan gave us the best chance to win that any coaches could. Every week was a chance to get better, and regardless of our opponents, with focus and effort we had the opportunity to succeed.

Purpose – This was the difference maker. Coach T’s stories provided the connection, motivation, and meaning during a long, difficult season that helped us care about each other and stay focused on our goals. All athletes, everyone really, wants to be good at what they do. We also want people to recognize when we are doing well. But when it’s hard, when the other guys are better than you, when your team is losing, when you’re not getting into the games, the only way to stick with it is if you have a purpose bigger than yourself. Purpose has to go beyond personal success.

You don’t need 53 years of coaching experience to provide purpose . I played for coaches who were great motivators and storytellers of programs that had only a few years of team history. And thought Coach T was a brilliant storyteller in year 50, I guarantee he did it well in years one through five. Those coaches know that true motivation extends beyond the scoreboard. Don’t get me wrong – on game day, Coach T cared about winning. But in between, on all those long practice days, you knew there was something more. That your time and effort meant more.

Stories create purpose and connection

After playing for four years, and definitely after being an assistant coach for another 15, the stories become a bit repetitive. Instead of focusing on the story, I look at the player’s faces, the look of awe in their eyes, the innocent excitement to learn something new; each story was like an invitation to the family. It reminded me of the first times I heard the stories, even the second and third. They made us laugh, they made us care, they helped us connect. We would recite them to our friends at lunch. We would tell them to our parents on the car ride home. Our team tradition wasn’t just about the jerseys, numbers, or helmets. Our tradition was about the stories.

Coach T’s stories gave us the motivation to get up at 7:30 am on a Saturday in the middle of August, when our friends were sleeping in and all we could think of was the hot sun and wet grass that we’d be rolling in an hour later. They gave us the inspiration when we were standing in the cold rain on the sideline with ours hands tucked under our pads to keep them dry and sort of warm while we watched the starters slop through mud. They gave us connection in the hallways during school. They gave us friendship and laughter when we returned to the sidelines as fans.

Whether you are a coach, teacher, or school leader, don’t forget the importance of storytelling. I am not a natural storyteller, but I remind myself frequently of its value. Stories motivate players to work a little harder in practice, students to take on a brand new challenge in class, and teachers to give the new schedule a try. Of course, you’ve got to win a few games, be praised for taking on the new challenge, and find success as a result of the new schedule. Stories without results will feel empty, but their power is evident. After two and half hard years of school, our teachers and students deserve an inspirational story and meaningful results.

I said earlier that my recurring sports dreams include other teams. It’s true. Most of the time, however, I am returning to a high school football game. It is not a knock on any of my other coaches, because I’ve played for a lot of great coaches. It simply speaks to the power of Coach T, the power of storytelling, and the power of purpose.

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