"It was an easy decision."
That's how Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll describes his choice to go with third-round rookie Russell Wilson. The 5'11" former Wisconsin Badger (and North Carolina State before that) and one-time Colorado Rockies prospect was never a sure thing. Critics (including this columnist) called him "too short" and a "career backup." Wilson set out, with Carroll's help, to prove everyone wrong.
"Well, it was a hard decision in the sense that not many people would do it," Carroll said.
Carroll realizes he's a bit of an "odd man out" when it comes to NFL coaches. It's not that he thinks outside of the box; it's more like he has no idea where the box is, what it looks like or why anyone would care what people in the box say.
When asked to describe his philosophy, Carroll replied: "It's about being the very best you can be. Nothing else matters as long as you're working and striving to be your best. Always compete. It's truly that simple. Find the way to do your best. Compete in everything you do."
He's coined the phrase "Win Forever" as the name of his coaching philosophy. "Win Forever" has its own Twitter account, a New York Times bestseller, wristbands and a group of guys set to teach you (yes you!) how to "compete for life."
One of those guys is Dr. Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist who has more to do with the Seahawks' success than many of their fans might realize. He's worked closely with Coach Carroll on developing this coaching philosophy and believes the sky is the limit for any athlete.
Well, maybe the sky isn't the limit after all.
Dr. Gervais worked with Red Bull sky-jumper Felix Baumgartner, as the free-faller was worried less about falling from space and more about how cramped his way up would be. With the help of Dr. Gervais, Baumgartner got over his claustrophobia and made history.
It is that kind of effort the Seahawks tap into day after day. They won 11 games in 2012 and are getting ready to face the Atlanta Falcons Sunday in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
Carroll explained the core of his message: "Competition is essential, so you gotta live it."
So, it made complete sense that a quarterback competition before the season between Wilson and Matt Flynn (along with Tarvaris Jackson) would be just that: an actual competition.
"We gave three QBs a chance to compete so we could figure out what we're dealing with," Carroll said. "Started to unveil their talents. We saw them perform throughout the process. Most people would conventionally think, 'Start the older guy.' We didn't do that. We knew we were paying one quarterback the more money. That never factored in."
The turning point for Wilson was a make-or-break third preseason game. The Seahawks staff, according to Carroll, hadn't yet made a decision, but it felt that Wilson had earned the opportunity for an extended look.
"He kicked ass," according to Carroll. "That's the philosophy working for you."
Competition, for Carroll, probably doesn't mean what you think it does. Dr. Gervais explained how the original Latin root (competere—thanks, prep school education!) means "strive together" and that it always meant a communal goal while the American sense of the term so often takes on a one-on-one, dog-eat-dog mentality.
So, even as young men on a team compete with one another for playing time, Coach Carroll asks them to think of bigger goals and less immediate returns as they strive together for greatness as a team, as a family.
More from Dr. Gervais:
"We see every day as an opportunity to compete and be the best version of yourself. Being more present on a daily basis as you engage with whatever you do alongside society as a whole. Relentlessly competing to be your best self is an extremely rewarding process...It's not this ugly competitive spirit, it really is a rewarding experience."
Dr. Gervais pointed to Michael Jordan as a good example of someone who suffered immediate setback when he failed to make his varsity basketball team at 15. Rather than focus on the external motivation (that he wasn't good enough), he focused on his own internal drive as he worked on mastering the skills that would eventually make him the best athlete on the planet.
Closer to Coach Carroll's wheelhouse, Matt Cassel is another great example of someone who bought into the "Win Forever" philosophy. Even as he failed to crack the starting lineup of the USC Trojans, he continued to work until he eventually became an NFL starter.
Gervais explained that it is that kind of internal drive that Carroll has always looked for in athletes—that they are driven by their own internal motivation to be the best. The Seahawks will be looking for more of that type of young man in the 2013 NFL draft and beyond.
Once those players are inside the system, Carroll explains, it's all about providing communication.
"The message has to be clear," he said. "As we engage, figure out who the learners are. [We] can throw out a bunch of thinking, but if you don't know who you're talking to, they can miss out on the point of the message. The building blocks are very simple. [Athletes] need to hear you, know you believe in something, know you support them."
Dr. Gervais also explained that feedback has to be part of that communication. The Seahawks would never cut a guy who didn't know exactly why he was being let go. There are no secrets in Seattle when it comes to performance.
"We provide as many opportunities for objective feedback to see how you compete. It's an opportunity to see how well you've mastered a skill set. It's an opportunity to gauge how well you're doing."
Perhaps most importantly, Gervais called the philosophy "athlete first, execution second." It's not about winning on Sunday, or about winning a Super Bowl. It's about creating the type of atmosphere that drives athletes to want to win every day, together.
In a league that so often becomes "what have you done for me lately" and that often seems like a zero-sum game both for players and for coaches, Carroll is showing the Seahawks (and the NFL) that there is another way. A better way. A winning way.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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