It was just 11 days ago, on January 8th, 2018, when University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban once again hoisted the National Championship Trophy after his Crimson Tide team surmounted an improbable comeback to beat their arch rivals from the University of Georgia 26-23 in overtime. For the legendary coach, the postgame celebration was nothing new as it marked the 5th time his team has been crowned champions in the past nine seasons and the 6th time in his storied career. With trophies and accolades pilling up on a seemingly annual basis, in an industry where competition is fierce, Saban’s inconceivable levels of success have captivated the sports world and further exasperated the opposition.
Despite the fact that it’s easy to assume Saban’s greatness can only be explained by some superior Xs and Os strategy rival coaches can’t figure out, the truth is that his success has been built upon a much simpler approach that isn’t exclusively reserved for the gridiron. Fortunately for us, this means that regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in or what we hope to achieve in the future, we can methodically move ourselves towards greatness by understanding and utilizing Nick Saban’s process. The legendary coach introduces us to his championship formula by telling us:
The process is really what you have to do day in and day out to be successful, we try to define the standard that we want everybody to sort of work toward, adhere to, and do it on a consistent basis. And the things that I talked about before, being responsible for your own self-determination, having a positive attitude, having great work ethic, having discipline to be able to execute on a consistent basis, whatever it is you’re trying to do, those are the things that we try to focus on, and we don’t try to focus as much on the outcomes as we do on being all that you can be.”
The Psychological Foundation of Nick Saban’s Process:
Before being named as the 27th head football coach in University of Alabama’s history on January 7th, 2007, Nick Saban honed his coaching prowess while leading the programs of three other highly respected universities and the Miami Dolphins of the NFL. It was during his tenure at Michigan State University (1995-1999), his first major collegiate job, when the now iconic coach began formulating the ‘process’ which eventually led to six championships and a place amongst the greatest college football legends of all time. It was during the 1998 season, to be exact, when a then 47-year-old Saban, who’d become passionately curious about sports psychology, began consulting with a psychiatry professor named Dr. Lionel Rosen about the mental aspects of coaching and playing the game.
As the team was preparing for their biggest game that year, on the road in hostile territory against top ranked Ohio State University, Saban had Rosen teach his players a form of process thinking that was originally popularized by the legendary founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Aaron T. Beck. What the eccentric psychiatry professor, who’d soon garner the nickname ‘Lonny Graybeard’, taught the team was to focus all of their efforts on winning one play at a time and not to worry about the scoreboard or how much time was left in the game. Although the Spartans fell behind early and still trailed in the 3rd quarter by a score of 24-9, they mustered a miraculous comeback and pulled out the unlikeliest of victories 28-24. It was directly because of what occurred on the field that day in Columbus that Nick Saban’s process was born.
The Saban Way:
While Nick Saban’s process has garnered much attention from the media and opposing coaches alike, it wouldn’t be fair to attribute it alone to the success the future Hall of Fame coach has attained. It’s certain that if he didn’t possess a brilliant football mind, to go along with an unmatched ability to recruit the best players in America, none of his accomplishments would be possible. Yet still, it’s also safe to say that neither would they be feasible if he wasn’t able to keep himself and his team committed to his strategic approach that’s build upon the foundational bedrock of process thinking. By understanding what Saban believes to be the most important mental and behavioral practices for building the character needed to achieve the unthinkable, each and everyone of us can individually set out to achieve our wildest aspirations. With that being said, let’s now explore the various strategies that collectively make up the Saban Way:
Focus All Your Energy in the Present-Moment:
For any individual who sets out to achieve truly ambitious goals, it can be nearly impossible to stop themselves from thinking about the final results and the beneficial outcomes that will come about. Without even realizing it, however, proceeding in this way takes them away from the place where true success is created. Because Nick Saban has learned that achievement is only possible with focused effort in the present-moment, he insists that his players, assistant coaches and himself give all of their energy to the here and now. The legendary coach tells us:
Becoming a champion is not an easy process… It is done by focusing on what it takes to get there and not on getting there.”
Remember that Everything Matter:
While there are many success strategies that’ve helped Nick Saban rise the ranks and become one of the greatest college football coaches to ever roam a sideline, two of the most important can be found in his commitments to pay meticulously close attention to the details and mold his players into champions of life. Instead of being only concerned with how well his teams preform on the field, which Saban obviously considers to be very important, he makes sure they full understand that the little things matter and his expectations for them is to become champions in everything they do. The reason, of course, is due to the fact that poor habits and disavowing ways of thinking can easily seep from one area of life into another. Saban proclaims:
I think everybody should take the attitude that we’re working to be a champion, that we want to be a champion in everything that we do. Every choice, every decision, everything that we do every day, we want to be a champion.”
Eliminate Distractions & Outside Noise:
In the world we live in today, there are a seemingly endless number of distractions that keep us from doing the things that’ll help us achieve our goals in the most timely fashion. Smart phones, televisions and social media, for example, are just three of the many temptations that move us further away from the success we crave. Additionally, because of the overly connective nature of society, it’s all too easy for us to become negatively effected by the things we read, hear and see on TV. Although we tell ourselves that just a few minutes of screen time won’t hurt, the truth is that those minutes quickly add up into hours and days all the while we’re exposing ourselves to outside opinions that may give rise to faulty beliefs and limiting doubts. It’s for these reasons that Saban is adamant about eliminating the clutter and outside noise. He tells us:
Eliminate the clutter and all the things that are going on outside and focus on the things that you can control with how you sort of go about and take care of your business. That’s something that’s ongoing, and it can never change.”
Relinquish Your Attachment to Outcomes:
Despite the fact that Alabama fans hold Nick Saban and his teams to the unreasonable standard of winning a championship every season, the iconic coach and his players aren’t as concerned with trophies and accolades as we may assume. In fact, one of the staples of Nick Saban’s process is to detach yourself from outcomes because it’s the only way to maximize your potential and overcome the inevitable setbacks you’ll encounter. Of course, wins and championships are the Crimson Tide’s goal but Saban’s message is that true greatness is only possible by similarity letting go of past failures and dreams of success while maintaining your focus on becoming the best. Of the downfalls that come from being overly concerned with winning, he tells us:
The more one emphasizes winning, the less he or she is able to concentrate on what actually causes success.”
Develop Toughness & Discipline to Face Adversity:
For any avid football fan who’s watched Saban’s teams over the years, it quickly became clear to see that they’ll always be tough, disciplined and unwilling to crumble when their backs are against the wall. There’s good reason why the iconic coach puts his players through an offseason workout program so taxing that numerous folklore stories originate from it, and that’s because he knows champions must develop an unyielding willpower to meet the demands of any challenge long before the moment occurs. Saban tells us of making the decision to go through the pain-filled process of developing discipline:
There are two pains in life. There is the pain of discipline and the pain of disappointment. If you can handle the pain of discipline, then you’ll never have to deal with the pain of disappointment.”
Compete Against Yourself while Being Accountable to Others:
Although there is much truth to the old sports adage that tells us there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’, Nick Saban knows that the whole can only be as good as the individual parts. It’s for this reason that he demands his players unceasingly compete against themselves, to become the best student, athlete and people they can become, while simultaneously holding themselves accountable to the team. With this message alone, the legendary coach is able to create a culture where the personal standards of individuals continuously rise while they remain committed to the team first approach. He tells us:
The good is enough attitude is not what we’re looking for, we have got to use every opportunity to improve individually so we can improve collectively.”
Refuse to get Comfortable:
While all of the success strategies we’ve examined thus far assuredly play an important role in Nick Saban’s process, the single most important reason for his incomparable accolades can be found in his unwillingness to get comfortable. While most individuals, across all walks of life, easily become appeased after tasting just a bit of success, Saban has never become satisfied and remains unwilling to allow himself and his teams to see their accomplishments as good enough because he knows it’s not sustainable by thinking this way. He reminds us:
It’s not human nature to be great. It’s human nature to survive, to be average and do what you have to do to get by. That is normal. When you have something good happen, it’s the special people that can stay focused and keep paying attention to detail, working to get better and not being satisfied with what they have accomplished.”
Utilizing Nick Saban’s Process In Our Own Lives:
Based upon what’s been discussed up until this point in the article, we now know that Nick Saban’s been able to achieve iconic levels of success by developing and relying upon a champion’s mind. While there will only be a selective few number of individuals who’ll be fortunate enough to learn the winning formula from the legendary coach himself, this doesn’t mean we can’t utilize Nick Saban’s process in our own lives. Above we outlined six of the most important mental and behavioral practices that Saban and his teams relies upon, and each of us can individually use these to measure ourselves while on the methodical grind towards greatness.
To fully utilize Nick Saban’s process in your own life, regardless of where you find yourself or where you want to go, it’ll be most important to focus on the process of becoming the best person you can become, in all facets of life, by unceasingly doing the right thing to the best of your ability without attaching yourself to the results. Just as Nick Saban has discovered by taking this approach, each of us can learn how these will inevitably take care of themselves. Now, to end this article, let’s once again return to the inspirational words of the iconic coach:
Champions are rare. Everybody has some chance, some opportunity to change and improve, but not everybody takes advantage. Be somebody who does.”