Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Cannibal Effect: Every Dart You Throw Hurts You

I have been reading quite a few articles and books this quarter on team culture and what coaches and captains can do to influence and impact this vital aspect of championship programs. Jeff Janssen has a website and excellent books that help athletic leaders to think through the dynamics of athletes, parents, coaches, and teams.

I have also had a chance to have some amazing and productive discussions with coaches, parents, and students at my school as well.

And though I am still learning, I have felt inspired to write out some thoughts on what I call, Cannibalizing Your Team. Cannibalization is literally 'eating your own team'. And cannibals can be found among any and all parts of a team or surrounding community. It can be players, coaches, fans, parents, media.... and usually is a combination of those that forms a 'contrary wind' to that team.

By the way, the cannibals are always there..... human nature is always breeding more. The existence of cannibals is not deadly unless there are too many OR the cannibals are KEY CONSTITUENTS of a team or organization.

Cannibals eat away so many things.... but the overall impact is a loss of opportunity, a loss of positive momentum/energy, or the erosion of core values.


I once worked with a coach ( a great coach by the way) who was very upset about the way we did a certain aspect of our football team. This practice was a by-product of a fundamental piece of our philosophy.

As the season went on, he would say in the head-sets, "This is not going to go well". And he said it EVERY SINGLE TIME the game situation dictated that decision because of our philosophy. And this went on.... game 1, game 2, game 3,4,5,6..... and then, in game 7... his prediction finally happened. Oh my goodness!....the 'I TOLD YOU SO' that came from him was as loud and obnoxious as any I have ever even IMAGINED.

The next coaches meeting, he was armed and ready. When we got to that place in the film, it was obvious that the decision was what it was.... but the execution of the decision was the major problem for failure.

I stopped the film.... "you know... I have been listening to you on the head-set for 7 games in a row. You have predicted this EVERY SINGLE time. Your prediction FINALLY happened... but that is like me predicting rain everyday during a five year drought until it finally rains for 5 minutes. Congratulations!" You could have cut the tension with a knife.

And that coach did not stay in the program after the season was over. As good a coach as he was, his unwillingness to buy into this was a constant corrosion. He wanted to be SO RIGHT... that he was DEAD RIGHT.

A lot of teams begin new seasons with so many cannibals, that they are already losing... even with a record of 0-0. I often hear coaches tell me how frustrating it is when parents pass along a 'group think' of the sound bites of what is wrong with a program or coach before a season even begins.

About halfway through a season a team will be .500 or below and this group of parents will be right... want the coach fired... and feel so let down because the window of opportunity to play high school sports is small.

What they don't realize is that the negative talk became a self-fulfilling prophecy and they 'cannibalized' their own team.... 

I had a parent call me one time and was upset that a dad had begun a negative campaign against the coaches. He said that the reality was that many of the parents liked the coaches and were satisfied and he was afraid that all we hear about were the complaints. I asked the dad why he didn't confront the one parent who was the loudest and most vocal.... and sadly, he was afraid to.

Finally, the day came where the upset dad called me to meet.  He came in and in pretty bold and aggressive ways expressed his opinion that we were bad coaches. He spoke on the authority that he had played in college, coached these players in youth leagues, and couldn't believe the school even hired (our head coach) in the first place- "did you know this man has never even coached a varsity team, he was just a freshman coach in his previous job!"

Looking back, I probably should not have had this conversation. If I were doing it over today I would have sent him straight to head coach... but I was young and dumb enough to think I could help.

When it was my time to respond.... he didn't like what I had to say. 'Mr ________, your son came to me yesterday because he knew we were going to be meeting today. And I had a phone call from another dad recently. In both conversations, I asked them to come talk to you and both said they were afraid to.

This is going to be hard to hear, but you are hurting your son and a lot of parents are not happy with your behavior at games. Both have asked me to ask you to stop it.

You were a great college football player, I have heard a lot of stories about how good you were. But when you yell at your son from the stands on how to play his position, you are telling him to (do  a technique) that we don't use (we ran a different system) it is opposite of what he is being coached to do and it embarrasses him. 

There were more issues in the meeting- college recruiting - we weren't tough- it wasn't a great meeting and he was hacked that his son and that dad had gotten in tough with me.

"I love our coaches and I know they are doing a great job, loving your son, coaching your son. I'm asking to to stop being loud and negative... I don't think I will change your opinion... but you are hurting the team by spreading negativity. You are hurting your son! Go home and talk to him about that, and don't go off on him... he loves you and he is trying to live up to what you want him to be!"

It did not go over well. He got red faced and stormed off. He never really got loud again, but now I was on his list as well.

Sadly, this did not go away. It grew. 

We made the playoffs that season and went to an away playoff game. It wasn't our best effort in the first half. We threw two interceptions and were having a rough time against a great defense. As we were coming into the locker room, this same dad (and at least 4 others who believed as he did) were waiting on me at the chain link gate. We had to get outside that gate to go into the visitor locker room.

He stepped in front of me and stopped me! "What are y'all doing! Thus is embarrassing! Run the ball!"

I walked around him without saying a word, and he yelled in my ear as I passed him, "This is our last game!"

And then I blew up in his face "This is halftime _______. Get away from me!"

Now what is bad about that was that it happened in front of everybody and it was a scene.

When I walked into the locker room, it was like a funeral.

Here is the crazy thing.... we were only losing 6-0!

But in that halftime, I had nothing I could tell my offense to muster them for a 2nd half charge. I tried, but they didn't believe in us, didn't believe it what we were doing, and there were just enough cannibals to let the season end....  kind of like a mercy killing.

Ironically, a few year later, we were in the semi-finals and were going in a halftime down six points. And instead of the angry mob- our fans were at the gate "Go Lions, Y'all got this! Way to go!" And we won in double overtime on our way to the state championship.

Now, am I naive enough to believe the difference in positive and negative reactions were ALL the difference? NO

But the prevailing belief (also called pre-supposition) can influence the outcome and be a type of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I used to have the newspaper article from Cleveland that had the headline story about the Browns firing Bill Belichick, "Goodbye to the Worst Coach in the History of the NFL". Belief is a pretty powerful thing!


Here is another OPPOSITE illustration of negative cannibalism.

In 1999, we lost our ALL-State Tailback on a freak play to a torn ACL... the last play of the first half. It was mid-season, we lost the game, and people were beginning to wonder if we could win back-to-back state titles. It looked doubtful.

We played two more games with a quality back-up and personnel packages and won those. But we were not the dynamic offense we had been. We still had an elite defense and as far as our record, we were still a favorite to win it all.

Our head coach, Fred Yancey, surprised all of us in week 8 of the regular season by announcing a DRAMATIC move. We were going to take our starting SAM linebacker and move him to Fullback and move our Fullback to Tailback. What made this even more startling is that neither player had played those positions ALL YEAR! And the linebacker had never run with the football in his entire football life!

Immediately, there was the typical assistant coaching pushback...but Coach Yancey was adamant. This was a HC decision and he walked out.

I was offensive coordinator... but both defensive assistants AND offensive assistants kept pressing me to change Coach Yancey's mind.

I simply looked at them and said, "Guys, this is his team.. this is his decision. So, we have two choices.... gripe and moan OR get to work to make this work." And we did.

Now don't get me wrong... THIS WAS NOT EASY... and the early results were flat ugly... but we worked it with positive energy and we won the State Championship. The tailback was MVP of the game and the fullback scored on 3rd and goal at a critical time early in the game.

Winners, champions, and competitors learn early in their battles that cannibals never win. Dream killers and blame game hand wringers get it right by their own actions and beliefs. And then they get mad about it!

We do it to coaches as well..... I wonder how many programs would be more successful if they embraced their coach instead of tearing him down in endless opining of opinions. You know what a good play call is? One that works. And a bad play call doesn't.

I'm not saying that you never make changes... but I KNOW of teams who stole away their opportunities to be good because of cannibalism.

Now, one more important point is this. A lack of virtue is a type of cannibalism. We live in a world that seeks to tear down our rivals.


Coach Bryant taught the State of Alabama to do it differently. He taught me as a fan and later, as a player to show class and respect toward the opponent. It is more honorable to beat a worthy opponent than to beat an unworthy one.

But we tweet 'hate week', and we spew venom, and we ridicule and mock the opposing team... so is it really a great victory if we beat them?

An example 1965 ALABAMA:

Alabama opened against Georgia on a blistering hot day in Athens for the 1965 season. Tom Brakefield was with the Bear Bryant show film crew, wiping away sweat, and enjoying every snap of a fierce contest pitting Coach Bryant against Vince Dooley.

Even though Alabama struggled all day, even going in at halftime down 10-0, Alabama rallied in the 2nd half and took a late 17-10 lead.

What took place next in the game was recently ranked by The Bleacher Report as #3 of the 12 greatest plays in college football history.

Coach Dooley called it 'flea flicker' but today is more known as a 'hook and lateral'. Kirby Moore threw the ball to Pat Hodgson who then flicked it to Bob Taylor who ran for a 73 yard touchdown to bring the score to 17-16. Georgia converted the 2 point extra points to win 18-17!

The problem was.... it looked very clear to the Alabama faithful that Pat Hodgson's knee was down, thus making the play 'dead' on the catch and the touchdown should have been disallowed!

You have to think that Alabama fans felt snake-bit. It was the first game since Joe Namath had seemingly been robbed of a game winning TD in the Orange Bowl and now they lost the opening game to a missed call in Athens!

Tom Brakefield saw a clean angle and knew he had a camera all over it. He carefully noticed which canister was going to have the field level proof!

Sure, enough, the Bear Bryant Show crew had indisputable video evidence that 'Bama had been robbed by the Bulldogs!

When Coach Bryant came in that Sunday morning to prepare for the live telecast that afternoon, he shocked everyone! As soon as he saw the clip he stopped and said as clear and forceful as he could:

"Men, I never have won a game on Sunday because of film. Please take this clip out and give it to me."

When the show went live from Channel 13 that Sunday, Coach Bryant taught the entire state on how to lose with class.

And Tom Brakefield used it to teach an even bigger lesson!

"You want to know the biggest part of that story?  We lost to Georgia, we TIED Tennessee- but still upset Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win the National Championship. At Alabama, Coach Bryant started a lesson that, even today, we understand.... if you do it right... you always have a chance!"


I am going to make a plea to every athlete, coach, and parent reading this. Don't be a cannibal! Don't be that person who always focuses on the flaws. Don't create small circles of whiners and complainers who whisper in the dark and throw darts.

A winner is hopeful... even to the very last snap, he believes he can find a way to win. And in the end, that relentless optimism gave him MORE of a chance... where a doubtful pessimist robbed his team of the opportunity.

Competition with honor is rewarding... win or lose.

Winning without honor... is never really a victory.

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