Playing To Win

Do you think like a champ? Coach Mike Shanahan of Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos fame offers winning strategies to keep you on top of your business game.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the September 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Look at any industry-leading organization, and you'll find a leader who had the courage and character to get it there. The Denver Broncos have such a leader in head coach Mike Shanahan.

Shanahan's focus on discipline, preparation, mental toughness and physical effort has led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl victories--a feat accomplished by only three other coaches in NFL history.

In his new book, Think Like A Champion: Building Success One Victory at a Time (HarperBusiness), Shanahan offers insight into the principles of creating a winning organization any entrepreneur can learn from. Here are a few of his tenets for success to help you stay on top of your game.

Mike Shanahan has been coaching for more than 25 years. Adam Schefter is a sports writer for the Denver Post.

Give It Up

Most people think natural ability is the most important power a person possesses. It's not. People who achieve the highest level of success have an unbelievable work ethic--and the desire to sacrifice.

Everybody thinks San Francisco's Jerry Rice is the best wide receiver out there. He certainly is talented, but I guarantee you he's not even close to being the most talented. He's neither the strongest nor the fastest. But he is the most determined.

During my three seasons in San Francisco [as offensive coordinator], he used to tell me, "I want to be the best wide receiver ever to play the game." In my mind, he already was the best. He already held the all-time NFL records for receptions, receiving yards, seasons with at least 100 receiving yards, consecutive games with a touchdown, and on and on.

But Jerry's mindset was that nobody was going to work harder, prepare better or sacrifice more. He convinced himself he was going to outwork every receiver who came into the league relative to conditioning, lifting, studying--everything. It didn't take me long to understand why every time we got to the fourth quarter of a game, while most of the players were slowing down, Jerry could run as fast as he did on the first play.

On the days he trained, Jerry would cap off his physical work with mental work. He would immerse himself in game films of the league's top 10 wide receivers, studying how they ran their routes and what moves they used to get open. It was amazing to me that he had so many of the all-time records, and he still was working harder than anybody.

Of course, sometimes the demands of your business are going to be greater than you could ever imagine. But exceptional people don't shrink from them. They're willing to sacrifice not only for themselves, but for others as well.

Follow The Leaders

To succeed, you absolutely need to gain more knowledge in your selected field. How do you go about doing that? One of the most fruitful ways is from the living lessons role models provide. It's easy to become a winner if you're simply willing to learn from those who have been winners themselves.

Find out who has had the most success at what they do. Watch their technique. Observe their methods. Study their behavior. By finding the best people in your [industry], you'll learn what their routines are, the mistakes they made along the way and the various scenarios they're forced to confront on a day-to-day basis. Then not only can you imitate their habits, but you can also imitate their results. It can be that easy.

A perfect example: In 1967, an aspiring basketball coach named Mike Jarvis attended his first coaching clinic. The man conducting it was Indiana [University's] basketball coach Bobby Knight. At the clinic, Jarvis spent $1.50 to buy Knight's book on basketball tips and to learn the finer points of man-to-man defense. Almost a quarter-century later, Jarvis was hired as St. John's [University's] basketball coach. In the 1999 NCAA college basketball tournament, St. John's played Indiana. And Jarvis ended up beating the man whose book he committed to memory.

Learning To Persevere

I'm sure you've heard that adversity builds character and strength. And these are, in my mind, the two most important components of perseverance.

During the Broncos' 1996 season, we built more character and strength than even I could bear. In our opening playoff game, following a 13-3 record and what was then the best regular season in franchise history, Jacksonville beat us 30-27 in Denver. It was one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history. The Jaguars, an expansion team, were only in their second year of existence. We didn't take them as seriously as we should have, and we paid dearly for it.

Throughout the off-season, I reviewed our preparation the week prior to that Jacksonville game. The way I had addressed the team, the way we had designed our game plan and the manner in which we had implemented it. No matter how many times I broke it down, my realization was the same: I did not prepare the team as well as I should have. We did not approach the game with the sense of urgency you need to win. Period.

At the start of the next season's playoffs, we vented a year's worth of rage during our opening round 42-17 playoff win over Jacksonville. That began our journey to our first Super Bowl victory, during which I learned a valuable lesson: You can't keep winning unless you know how much you hate losing.

Good Isn't Good Enough

In every mutual-fund prospectus is a line in fine print that you'd miss if you didn't look closely. As small as it is, it's extremely important: "Past performance is no guarantee of future success."

This is well worth remembering. As I often remind my players, it's easier to get to the top than to stay there.

[That's] why, on the first day of our spring 1998 minicamp, I assembled our team and informed them that success could be tougher to battle than any competitor we would face. I challenged them to be better than we had been when we won Super Bowl XXXII. I told them we had the foundation and the nucleus to be the best team ever to play the game. But I told them that for us to be the best team ever, the standard for our practices had to be so high, we couldn't falter, even when no one but us was watching.

I wanted to make sure we didn't let down one bit. Our players didn't. Knowing we had to work even harder than we did the season before, 38 players attended every one of our off-season workout programs. And not surprisingly, 13 games into our season, we were on pace to do what I asked, and expected, of them. We were a perfect 13-0.

But then, all of a sudden, we stubbed our toe against history and the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins. We lost back-to-back games. They would turn out to be the only games we lost during 1998. In the end, we couldn't say we were the best NFL team ever. But, after we beat the Falcons in the Super Bowl, we could say we were the best NFL team in 1998.

Moments after our victory, as our team huddled inside our locker room at Miami's Pro Player Stadium, I announced to them: "Off-season workouts start tomorrow. Because we're going for three!"

I was facetious when I said tomorrow, but I wanted to send the message that this isn't over. It never is. In the race to success, there is no finish line. It constantly outdistances us.

Game Plan

Mike Shanahan's 15-point plan to help you become a better team and teammate:

1. Teams matter more than individuals.

2. Every job is important.

3. Treat everyone with respect.

4. Share both victories and defeats.

5. Accept criticism.

6. Keep the boss well-informed.

7. Focus on your work ethic, not others'.

8. Allow for differences in lifestyle.

9. Be more creative than predictable.

10. Let go of bad ideas.

11. Employ structure and order.

12. Reward those who produce.

13. Find different ways to motivate your employees.

14. Keep your employees fresh.

15. Protect your system.

From Think Like A Champion: Building Success One Victory at a Time by Mike Shanahan with Adam Schefter. Copyright 1999 by Mike Shanahan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.


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