Practice makes champions: Lessons from Super Bowl 49

When clients or colleagues ask about my passion for simulations or other experiential learning, I go back to the counsel of an old baseball coach. I hated certain fielding drills, because I thought I already knew what do. But Coach reminded me that knowing what to do wasn’t my problem, the problem was that I had to think about it. In other words, when I — or any other fielder — had to recall what to do, we’d often go blank or get nervous.

The value of practice is clear in every field. Among other things, Malcolm Gladwell is famous for his 10,000 hour rule, which is “an extraordinarily consistent answer in an incredible number of fields … you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good.” Of course, the untalented can’t simply work their way to genius, there must be some natural ability. He does say it doesn’t apply to sports, but I believe that caveat rings hollow if one has actually read Outliers. There are plenty of examples of sports genius manifest through practice, especially in complex team sports. More on this point later…

So what about that Super Bowl? Surely you don’t believe that Malcolm Butler’s last-minute interception was a matter of talent and luck? Let’s go to my favorite football site, Football by Football. Brady Poppinga, a former Packer linebacker, lays out how Butler not only made the play, but he had practiced it repeatedly…and had been beaten on it repeatedly.

Malcolm Butler had been given multiple opportunities to defend that same play in situational practice periods. “I’ve seen the route at practice. And Josh Boyce beat me on it in practice and Bill was telling me, ‘You’ve got to be on it,'” Butler said Monday on “CBS This Morning.” “So memorization and preparation took over and I just said jump the route and make the play.”

In a separate interview with ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Butler hit on why practice got him ready — he made his mistakes before the game:

At practice I got beat on that play. I took steps back in the end zone, and when game time came I just didn’t back up. I just had confidence and believed what I saw.

Of course, Butler wouldn’t have even been out there if his coaches hadn’t known he was the right man for the job. His closing speed and fearlessness set him apart, even as a prospect from a small school. Which brings us back to Gladwell’s point about the interdependence of talent and practice. Leaders need to know the talents of their staff, decide on the best roles for those colleagues, then prepare them accordingly. That is what sets the Patriots and Bill Belichick apart. Poppinga’s quote from NFL Network analyst and former Patriot fullback Heath Evans nails it:

“The one thing that makes Bill such a special coach is that he will never ask a player to do anything outside of his own natural play-making ability.”

No amount of practice will make someone excellent at something they can never do well.


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