Leadership lessons from youth football

by Col. Mike Monson
86th Mission Support Group commander

“Hit someone, anyone,” yelled the enthusiastic youth football coach from the sidelines. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, the coaches on both sidelines screamed all kinds of “advice” to their players. “Hurry up,” “Line up,” and, my favorite, “Block someone,” rang loud across the field. Amidst all the excitement, I noticed there seemed to be an indirect correlation between how much the coaches yelled and how well their players performed. That is, the more they yelled generic statements of “encouragement,” the more confused and stressed the kids seemed to become and the worse they played as a team. 

Youth football players — like adults — need to know what their job is first, before they can be successful. Telling a 10-year-old offensive lineman to “just block someone” is like me telling my secretary, “Just schedule someone for an appointment, anyone.”

In football, for an offensive play to work, all 11 players must work together, make the proper blocks on the right defensive players and run through the correct hole. Even a poorly executed block on the correct defensive player is better than a perfect block on the wrong player. 

Just think of the possibilities if those young, energetic offensive linemen were trained to know their jobs as well as our 900-plus Airmen in the 569th U.S. Forces Police Squadron and 86th Security Forces Squadron. Whenever I visit our defenders on post, I am always greeted with a sharp salute and the offer of a post briefing.

What is a post briefing, you ask? While at attention, the Airman proudly and confidently tells me what his mission is that day, what his communication modes are, what types of weapons he is armed with and who his chain of command is. It is his way to demonstrate that he clearly understands his job and is ready to execute his mission to perfection.

The late NFL Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi used to say, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

The reason the Green Bay Packers went from a dismal record of 1-10-1 prior to his tenure, to winning five NFL championships in nine years with basically the same players, was Lombardi’s relentless focus on doing the little things right, putting the team first and achieving excellence in everything they did (sound familiar?). Those dominating Packer teams of the 1960s were known for their strong defense and a simple offense consisting of their bread and butter play — the power sweep — that they ran to perfection again and again.

I’ve seen many youth football teams with less than 10 offensive plays in their play book beat more talented teams who were running college level spread offensive schemes. Those winning teams practiced and ran their 10 plays to perfection. Each lineman knew who to block, where to block them and which type of block to execute. Each running back knew their roles and when and where to hit the holes.  
Unfortunately, I’ve seen many good-intentioned leaders throughout my career who resemble the team that tries to do too much and loses sight of excellence, ultimately resulting in an underachieving team. Contrast to that are leaders who focus on the basics of knowing their mission, taking care of and developing their people and striving for perfect mission execution.

Off and on throughout the last six years, I’ve had the tremendous opportunity to coach both of my sons, Grant and Zack, on the football field.

Those experiences are times I will cherish forever, both from a family standpoint and from a leadership learning perspective. They taught me that Lombardi was right; often, you have to take a back-to-basics approach in life and work. 

The secrets of success, according to the great coach, are as applicable today as they were 50 years ago: know your job, do things the right way, and commit to teamwork and excellence.

As a commander, I am proud to say that nowhere are they more evident than in our Guardian Eagles and defenders of the 569th USFPS and 86th SFS who protect and defend us every day and are always willing to give you a post briefing.