“Within each player or coach is the root or seed of his motivation. As a leader, even when you’re motivated to learn and improve, you may still be creating an environment that frustrates those around you, and zaps their motivation. Leaders have to work from the places that motivate those around them.” Victor Santa Cruz, head football coach, Azusa Pacific University
The intensity of coaching a college football program is well documented. Just consider how many hours of media are dedicated to breaking down coaching decisions and analyzing critical in-game moments. Coach Victor Santa Cruz of the Azusa Pacific University Cougars is no stranger to this intensity and scrutiny, both of which reached new levels in 2012, the school’s inaugural season as an NCAA Division II program.
As we detailed in our previous Film Room installments, Entering the Film Room, and The Slide, coach and his staff envisioned conference success during the 2012 season. What they weren’t prepared for was losing their first seven games. Nor were they ready for the interpersonal stress and agitation the losing would spawn.
The night before their homecoming game coach Santa Cruz did something perhaps even more unimaginable: he guaranteed a win in front of the crowd at the school’s annual Dinner Rally fundraiser.
“We lost big to our homecoming opponent the first time around,” coach Santa Cruz reflects. “They were leading the conference, and we were 0-7. On paper, there was no way we were going to win.” As school officials highlighted ways the football program was dealing with adversity, and preparing its players for life beyond the sport, coach Santa Cruz seized the moment. “When I was done I sort of looked over at our athletic director and said, ‘I think I just guaranteed a win.’”
What was behind coach’s confidence? To understand what clicked during week eight, and what continued to click for the rest of the season, let’s revisit weeks four through seven to get a better idea of the turnaround.
Rebuilding trust from the ground up
The turning point actually started during APU’s week-four loss. “We got physically handled,” coach Santa Cruz says of the lopsided defeat. “During the game I started to realize that if we were going to change, it had to start with me. I needed to consciously focus on how I managed myself during every interaction with every member of my team and coaching unit.”
By then, coach was aware of the ripples that had carried through the program as losses mounted. Many came in the wake of his actions and reactions to the games and their outcomes. He’d disconnected from the emotionally resilient mindset he’d spent the past few seasons cultivating, and slipped into a command-and-control mentality in the rush of adrenaline and emotion. While lashing out may feel cathartic in the moment, the lasting ramifications can be detrimental to creating long lasting results. Coach had inadvertently undermined the program’s mission of “building champions while pursuing championships,” and had unwittingly inspired an atmosphere of fear and distrust.
“I wasn’t just losing my players, but I was losing my coaches as well,” coach Santa Cruz relates. As the clock wound down during week four, he readied himself to begin doing the work of rebuilding relationships. “I saw just how impactful my negative words were. The ripples cut their way through the entire team—coaches and players both. I decided to do everything in my power to send positive ripples instead.”
In the weeks that followed—even as the team lost three more times—coach maintained an emotionally engaged mindset. “I made sure I stayed positive. I watched my words. I explained myself and invited others to explain their thinking as well. We slowed everything down. And believe me, there were moments when I wanted to return to that command-and-control approach simply because it would have been easier.”
On the coaching side, coach’s recommitment helped speed up the process of repairing a number of damaged bridges. “The environment of trust returned faster and more authentically than it would have otherwise. We started seeing our disagreements not as clashes of wills, but as differing opinions. Once we began to recognized and regulate our emotions, we were able to move forward as a group.”
As for the players, the change, at least on the field, took a bit longer.“We lost a tough one at home in week five, then in week six came out strong. But then I saw our guys pull back. We switched gears and started playing ‘not to lose.’ I realized just how fragile our mental confidence was, which had a lot to do with the newness of our team.”
When a win becomes a streak
In sports or business, hot streaks and long-term success don’t just happen by accident. More and more, they’re the result of an adaptive, agile mindset that sees the terrain for what it truly is, understands changing conditions, and willingly adjusts. Coach Santa Cruz came face-to-face with old patterns during the difficult 2012 season. In slipping back, he was momentarily blinded to the actual situation—he had a young team that hadn’t learned how to win playing in a brand new environment. Once he lessened his grip, he opened up to the talents and insights of those around him, and set a new tone that inspired confidence. Standing at the Dinner Rally fundraiser on the eve of their homecoming game, none of this was exactly on coach’s mind. But he did sense a shift coming.
“We’d been doing the work week-to-week. Our guys were hungry. We were ready.”
Coach also felt that once the team won its first game, more wins would follow. They did, with the Cougars ending the season on a four-game winning streak. For coach Santa Cruz, the streak, and the positive environment under which the team was now operating, was a culmination of a season full of learning moments.
“I can talk all day about the Xs and Os, just like any coach. What interests me more is what it means to be a learning organization. To me, a learning organization never assumes it’s going to win, or that it’s simply entitled to win. And a learning organization never fears losing. It stays hungry to compete, and to be the best it can be.”