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Vince Lombardi on the Hidden Power of Mastering the Fundamentals

Vince Lombardi on the Hidden Power of Mastering the Fundamentals
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It was July of 1961 and the 38 members of the Green Bay Packers football team were gathered together for the first day of training camp. The previous season had ended with a heartbreaking defeat when the Packers squandered a lead late in the 4th quarter and lost the NFL Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Green Bay players had been thinking about this brutal loss for the entire off-season and now, finally, training camp had arrived and it was time to get to work. The players were eager to advance their game to the next level and start working on the details that would help them win a championship.

Their coach, Vince Lombardi, had a different idea.

“This is a football.”

In his best-selling book, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi, author David Maraniss explains what happened when Lombardi walked into training camp in the summer of 1961.

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He took nothing for granted. He began a tradition of starting from scratch, assuming that the players were blank slates who carried over no knowledge from the year before… He began with the most elemental statement of all. “Gentlemen,” he said, holding a pigskin in his right hand, “this is a football.”

Lombardi was coaching a group of three dozen professional athletes who, just months prior, had come within minutes of winning the biggest prize their sport could offer. And yet, he started from the very beginning.

Lombardi’s methodical coverage of the fundamentals continued throughout training camp. Each player reviewed how to block and tackle. They opened up the playbook and started from page one. At some point, Max McGee, the Packers’ Pro Bowl wide receiver, joked, “Uh, Coach, could you slow down a little? You’re going too fast for us.” [p.274] Lombardi reportedly cracked a smile, but continued his obsession with the basics all the same. His team would become the best in the league at the tasks everyone else took for granted.

Six months later, the Green Bay Packers beat the New York Giants 37-0 to win the NFL Championship.

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    Vince Lombardi is carried off the field by his players after defeating the New York Giants 37-0 to win the 1961 NFL Championship. (Image Source: Green Bay Press-Gazette Archive)

    Fundamentals First

    The 1961 season was the beginning of Vince Lombardi’s reign as one of the greatest football coaches of all-time. He would never lose in the playoffs again. In total, Lombardi won five NFL Championships in a span of seven years, including three in a row. He never coached a team with a losing record.

    This pattern of focusing on the basics has been a hallmark of many successful coaches. (For example, basketball legends John Wooden and Phil Jackson were known for having a similar obsession with the fundamentals. Wooden even went so far as to teach his players how to put on their socks and tie their shoes.)

    However, it is not just football and basketball where this strategy is useful. Throughout our lives, a focus on the fundamentals is what determines our results.

    It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one critical event or one “big break” while simultaneously forgetting about the hidden power that small choices, daily habits, and repeated actions can have on our lives. Without the fundamentals, the details are useless. With the fundamentals, tiny gains can add up to something very significant.

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    Simple Ideas, Deeply Understood

    Nearly every area of life can be boiled down to some core task, some essential component, that must be mastered if you truly want to be good at it.

    Fitness: There are plenty of details you can focus on in the gym. Mobility work is great. Analyzing your technique can be important. Optimizing your programming is a good idea if you have the time and energy. However, these training details will never substitute for the one fundamental question that all athletes must answer: Are you stepping under the bar and getting your reps in?

    Love: Displays of affection are wonderful. It’s nice to buy your loved ones flowers or to spread joy with presents. Working hard for your family is admirable (and often very necessary). It’s wonderful to upgrade to a larger house or to pay for your children’s schooling or to otherwise advance to a higher standard of living. I’d like to do these things myself. But make no mistake, you can never buy your way around the most essential unit of love: showing up. To be present, this is love.

    Web Design: Building a website is like painting on a canvas that never gets full. There is always space to add a new feature. There is never a moment when something couldn’t be optimized or split-tested. But these details can distract us from the only essential thing that websites do: communicate with someone. You don’t need fancy design or the latest software or faster web hosting to communicate with someone. The most basic unit of any website is the written word. You can do a lot with the right words.

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    Mastery in nearly any endeavor is the result of deeply understanding simple ideas. For most of us, the answer to becoming better leaders, better parents, better lovers, better friends, and better people is consistently practicing the fundamentals, not brilliantly understanding the details.

    “This is a football.”

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    Featured photo credit: Charamelody via flickr.com

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    More by this author

    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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