Great NFL Coaches: Belichick and Walsh


“The Patriots won, because they cheated,” Patriots’ haters say when asked to explain the unprecedented level of success the Patriots enjoyed between 2001 and 2018. I am not a Pats fan, but I am not a hater. I did not enjoy the long-term level of success they achieved, but I did appreciate it from afar. As much as I’d love to join the chorus of the haters, the cheating charge doesn’t explain the nine Super Bowl appearances made in the Belichick, Brady, and Kraft era. Even if they were 100% guilty of the offenses the NFL found (“And those were the times they got caught!” haters add) it doesn’t taint their six (SIX!) super bowl trophies. Even the most outspoken Pats hater has a tough time explaining how underinflated balls helped the Patriots appear in eight straight AFC Championship games between 2011 and 2018. “Tom Brady could grip the ball better,” they say. So, underinflated balls explains how the Patriots managed to achieve the only undefeated 16-game regular season, and the fact that they came one miraculous play away from beating the hottest team in football that year? During the Kraft, Brady, and Belichick era, the Patriots completed 19 consecutive winning seasons from 2001 to 2019, and they boast a .784 winning percentage against their division opponents. In Brady’s 18 seasons as a starter, the Patriots played in 50% of those Super Bowls, and they won 33% of them. Charging them with cheating might make those of us who grew tired of seeing them in the Super Bowl feel better, but somewhere deep in our heart (in an area no one will ever be able to see) we know it doesn’t explain that level of success sufficiently.

Hockey fans gave me one explanation about a decade ago. Hockey fans, not hockey insiders or analysts, but fans suggested that they thought their team had a better chance of winning in the coming year based on some of the hierarchical changes their team made in the off season. I always knew, in the back of my mind, how important everyone from the general manager down to the scouts was, but I didn’t consider how institutional they were to the long-term success of my team.

A professional team in sports have a few winning seasons here and there if they’re lucky enough to draft some key players and surround them with enough talent. They might even win a championship or two if the ball bounces the right way. If they don’t have the organizational structure of talented people throughout the hierarchy, they’re not going to win long term. As Jeff Benedict’s The Dynasty points out owners, general managers, talent scouts, and everyone in-between build a dynasty. The owner, in the case of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, was a businessman who had an obvious eye for talent. He also knew that after he found and hired that talent, his job was to back away and give them enough room to succeed. Some professional sports’ owners display too much micro level management (Jerry Jones), and some are too macro (Arthur Blank). As The Dynasty points out, Coach Bill Belichick made unpopular and jaw-dropping moves throughout the dynasty years, and Kraft didn’t approve of many of them, but he allowed his hire as coach/general manager to make whatever decisions he needed to make to sustain success. Those moves, more often than not, panned out over the long term.

One thing The Dynasty does not cover (because it’s probably of no interest to anyone but the football junkie) is the plethora of talent that Belichick and co., managed to find in the late rounds of the NFL Draft and in the various groups of undrafted free agents (UDFAs) that the Patriots hired. Were they lucky? Luck is involved of course, as even the best NFL scouts have a poor batting average, but the sheer number of successful moves the Patriots made in this regard that eventually paid off is an astounding comment on their long-term success. A number of my Patriot hating friends would love to claim that the Patriots might have been the luckiest team in NFL history in this regard. For twenty years though? I heard that Tom Brady once looked around the huddle of his teammates on offense and said, “How many of us are late round picks and UDFAs?” Look at Patriots’ rosters throughout those 20 years. How many of their players on their roster were late round picks and UDFAs? Now, take that number and compare it to the rest of the NFL? The Patriots use multiple sources, both inside and outside the organization to inform their moves, but how many of those in-house advisers went off to other teams? How many of them were able to maintain that level of success picking players for other teams? Is it all about Belichick’s final say, or were Belichick and his coaches able to take those players to another level? How many of those same players went onto other teams to achieve the same level of success? How many coaches, from Belichick’s tree, went onto success with other teams?

If Belichick is such a genius, why didn’t he do it in Cleveland? What author Jeff Benedict points out in Dynasty is that Belichick couldn’t do what owner Robert Kraft did, Robert Kraft couldn’t do what Belichick did, and neither of them could do what Tom Brady did. The dynasty of the last two decades was a matter of stars aligning perfectly. If Robert Kraft didn’t buy the team, Tom Brady probably would’ve left the team after a few years, as he and Belichick didn’t see eye to eye on some matters and Kraft did everything he could to keep them together as long as possible. If Belichick remained a Browns or Jets coach, Robert Kraft’s Patriots might have won a Super Bowl or two, but six? If Brady went to another team, the Patriots might have won a Super Bowl or two, but six? Tom Brady might have won a Super Bowl on his own, but six of them? As The Dynasty points out, the Patriot dynasty was all about the stars aligning from the top down and a number of people played a role, but most of those people came and went, and the three most important players stayed for almost twenty years.     

“Bunch of cheaters is what they are,” just about every Patriots hater says anytime the subject of Patriots’ long-term, sustained success over twenty years comes up. “Right on!” is what I’d love to say before giving that feller a mean, emotional high-five. I’d love to say that the reason the Patriots always beat my team is because they cheated in big ways and small ones, but it just seems too easy.

The Patriots were accused of filming the signals of the opposing teams’ defensive coordinators. An important note here is that the general practice of filming opposing coaches wasn’t illegal, but they couldn’t do it from their sidelines.  

Another element of what we called Spygate is that the Patriots filmed the Rams’ walkthrough practice before 2002 in Super Bowl XXXVI. If you call filming a team’s walk-through practice, before a game cheating, then the Patriots allegedly cheated, but this opposing team’s walk-through practice occurred on the field, in pre-game warmups. That practice was available to everyone, and if the other team suspected the Patriots of being cheaters, why did they reveal secrets about their game plan on the field for all to see? They should suspect the Patriots of cheating. They should suspect every team of cheating and adjust accordingly. If this practice provided the Patriot’s enough information to win a game isn’t it on the opposing team to prevent the Patriots from learning their secret game plan. “It was against NFL rules for the Patriots to film that practice session.” True, but if this action led the Patriots to win even some of the games they did, then I have to wonder why my favorite team didn’t do it.

Another cheating scandal is Deflategate. Deflategate is quite simply a joke that Patriots’ that haters cling to to diminish the Patriots’ incomparable level of success. In both of these cases, the Patriots faced unprecedented scrutiny in the aftermath of the accusations, and in the case of Spygate, they went onto lose the Super Bowl thanks to a play some consider one of the best, most fluky plays in Super Bowl history. In the aftermath of Deflategate, they went onto win the Super Bowl.

The first thing Patriots’ haters and lovers, and all sports’ fans should admit is that we take some of these issues much too serious. Sports are a pastime. The literal definition implies that we are supposed to watch football to pass the time until the more serious things in life come along. The human being has been distracting themselves from the daily drama of their lives for centuries. Romans called it the bread and circus effect. As long as Romans were supplied food and entertainment, the politicians could get away with whatever they want. How many Americans know every single detail of these controversies, versus those who know similar minutiae about local, state and federal politics? With that level of apathy, how far are is America away from the fiddling politicians of Rome that some suggest led to the fall of that civilization? When I witness two grown men argue over politics to the point that they almost come to blows, I can’t help but think of The Simpsons’ kids saying, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” on a car trip.

Bill Walsh

When it comes to professional football, we consider former 49ers coach Bill Walsh a genius among geniuses. Some place him up on the Mount Rushmore of the greatest NFL coaches of all time. Bill Walsh had a long and storied career coaching in the NFL and college, and he earned many of the accolades he achieved in his career. As another coach, Bill Parcells, once said, “You are who your record says you are.” Parcells also said, “Once you win a Super Bowl, no one can ever take that away from you.” No one can take Bill Walsh’s three Super Bowl rings away from him, and no one can deny that the man won 60.9% of his regular season games. He won 10 of his 14 postseason games along with six division titles, three NFC Championship titles, and three Super Bowls. He was NFL Coach of the Year in 1981 and 1984, and in 1993, and the NFL elected him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bill Walsh headed a team while coaching the 49ers that selected some great players. A number of those players played in a number of pro bowls, and a number of them ended up in the Hall of Fame. Other than selecting Hall of Fame talent, some experts credit Walsh with developing the West Coast Offense, but he even admitted he based his system it on a system developed by Don Coryell, called “Air Coryell”. Still, Walsh took the influence, matched it to his talent on the field and won three Super Bowls and an overall winning percentage of 60.9%. Did Walsh coach those players up to the point that they were better than they were? Their winning percentage in the regular season and the post season, in a highly competitive National Conference, says yes. Walsh’s coaching tree also suggests he was a great leader. Walsh, like all great coaches, benefitted from talent, great advisers and scouts, and a whole lot of luck. 

As for the talent he/they selected, no scout can guarantee that a college player’s talent will translate to the pro game. In that vein, we can say that selecting Joe Montana was something of a gamble. Yet, Joe Montana led Notre Dame’s 1977 team to a national championship. He was hardly a jewel in the rough. Another heralded move by Walsh was the trade for Steve Young. Steve Young’s talent didn’t appear to translate well in the NFL, as he had some poor years in Tampa Bay, and various NFL insiders deemed him a bust. With that in mind, we could say that Walsh’s trade involved something of a gamble, but Young finished his college career at BYU with the most passing yards in BYU history, he finished second in Heisman votes in his senior year at BYU, and he was selected number one in the USFL draft. He was hardly “a find” by Bill Walsh.

When it came time to select what some considered a true jewel in the rough, in the 2000 draft, to succeed the recently retired Steve Young, Walsh advised the 49ers to select Giovanni Carmazzi. Bill Walsh loved Carmazzi. He said he thought, “[Carmazzi] was a lot like Steve Young, only bigger.” Prior to the Carmazzi pick, Bill Walsh rejoined the 49ers front office and encouraged the 49ers to take Carmazzi with the 65th pick. Who, in the 49ers organization, would go against Bill Walsh? With the difficult transition from college to pro, it’s unfair to put a “miss” on any person’s resume, but imagine if Walsh “spotted” a starting quarterback from a power five conference who made numerous comebacks in his collegiate career versus a quarterback who some considered extremely raw from a Division I-AA school. Imagine what “spotting” Tom Brady would’ve done to Bill Walsh’s otherwise impressive resume.

To be fair to Walsh, many judged Brady almost comically lacking in athletic ability. He was the prototypical definition of a drop back, stay in the pocket quarterback and many believed the game was “now” so fast and the quality of offensive lineman was dropping so precipitously that every NFL now needed a quarterback with Steve Young’s athleticism. Walsh’s thought process probably accounted for that on both players when he encouraged the 49ers to select Giovanni Carmazzi with the 65th pick. (Giovanni Carmazzi never played a down in a regular season game.) Not that it matters, but the Brady family were 49ers’ season ticket holders for 24 years prior to the 2000 draft, and Tom Brady was a die-hard Montana, then Young fan, and the Bradys were hurt when the 49ers did not select the local boy from San Mateo. Brady was, at the very least, a hometown kid gone good in the California area. We have to imagine that his athletic accomplishments at Michigan put Tom Brady’s name in the 49ers draft room, and we can only guess that Walsh tired of the “Tom Brady conversation”.

Imagine if this genius among geniuses saw something most people missed in Brady, and his recommendations involved the 49ers going from Montana, as the starting quarterback, to Young, and then to Brady. Imagine if Brady accomplished half of what he did in New England for the 49ers organization. Those of us who loathed the 49ers in the 80’s and 90’s wouldn’t be able to tolerate the “genius among geniuses” discussions. This article wouldn’t be possible, because there would be no denying that Walsh was an unqualified genius.  Had the Patriots not selected Brady, we can only guess that Brady loved the 49ers organization so much that he may have accepted just about any undrafted free agent contract from the 49ers.

Unrealistic and Unreasonable Expectations


“Try to avoid unrealistic and unreasonable expectations,” I say to my son when he becomes frustrated that he isn’t as great in sports as he thought he should be, and he throws the same fiery, embarrassing temper tantrums I once did.

“What makes you think you should be great?” I ask him. “How have you arrived at such unrealistic and unreasonable expectations? How much work have you put in? How much instruction have you received? Is it because you’re not great at hitting the ball? How long have you been playing this game? You have unreasonable expectations of yourself, and that will not serve you well in life, trust me.”

‘Why can’t I jack the ball out of the yard every time?’ he asks himself. ‘I’m already seven-years-old, I should be able to do this by now.’ Perhaps it has something to do with the idea that I have unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of him, and I’ve passed it along. I’ve tried hard not to be that parent, but as someone who had unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of myself, throughout my youth, maybe I passed that along. Whatever the case is, my son shows signs of wanting to be better, and I think one of the keys to accomplishing that is to teach him that his unrealistic and unreasonable expectations might impede that progress. 

Failure can be humiliating and embarrassing, but how we deal with it defines us. “Don’t get mad about your momentary mistakes. Learn from them,” I say. “What did you do wrong this time, and how can you correct it next time?” We ignore such instruction, because we believe we are already there. We disregard advice, because we’re already seven-years-old, and it’s probably too late to change our ways now. We consider tidbits annoying chunks of information from some know-it-all who claims to know better than we do. We also fail to process most of the small information that it takes to succeed, because “we already knew that”.    

Former Major Leaguer, and Hall of Fame, pitcher Randy Johnson once talked about the advice that former Major Leaguer and Hall of Fame, pitcher Nolan Ryan gave him. Ryan instructed Johnson to alter his finishing step one inch to the left. Johnson said that seemingly irrelevant piece of information changed his whole career. He says he wouldn’t have been half the pitcher he was without that advice. By the time, Ryan gave Johnson that advice, Johnson was already a major leaguer. He probably pitched, at various levels, for ten years at that point. He probably heard enough advice and tidbits to fill a copy of War and Peace from pitching coaches throughout his maturation as an athlete. One of them probably spotted the same flaw in Johnson’s mechanics that Ryan did, but Johnson ignored that piece of advice. Did Johnson ignore that advice for years, because he thought he was already a great pitcher, only to cede to one of the greatest pitchers of all time, or was Ryan the only one to spot it?

What’s the difference between a Hall of Fame pitcher and a pitcher who never pitched beyond high school? Most would say it’s all about natural, God-given ability. What’s the difference between an all-star pitcher and a Hall of Famer? Baseball is simple. You throw a ball, you catch a ball, and you hit a ball. Some naturally gifted athletes will be able to throw and hit the ball better than we can, but the seemingly insignificant minutia involved in the mechanics of the process might enhance that natural ability. How open are we to such instruction? Are we a blank slate, an eager student in life, or what they call a coachable player?  

Learning, in any venue, is a methodical, meticulous process that requires the mentality of a coachable player to succeed.  The best students enter into each new venture they pursue a blank slate, eager to learn. How many of us enter into a new venture, a curious sponge seeking to learn everything we can to be better? How many of us enter into the same situation believing that with our God-given abilities we’re already halfway there? Once they see us perform, really perform to the best of our abilities, they will see that we don’t need instruction, tidbits, or piece of advice. Those giving this advice might be shocked to see how great we are, we think. How many of us miss the tiny nuggets of information that could define a separation between those who are halfway there and us?

We say such things to the young kids around us, but how amenable are we to instruction, advice, and tidbits? If we could go back in time, via a time machine, and speak to a younger us, would we be as open to advice? Are we now? Did we think our natural abilities would eventually shine through, or did we, do we, have unrealistic and unreasonable expectations?

My brother had an awkward, inaccurate jump shot. My friend and I tried to coach him up with some of the tidbits we learned over the years. He said, and I quote, “It’s probably too late to learn anything new now.” He was sixteen-years-old at the time. I laughed at him then, but I lived by the same philosophy in basketball and many other things.

Most people find sports analogies tedious, but they’re illustrative. When I played recreational sports, I never received proper coaching, and I never had an attentive mentor, but I expected to be a quality player no matter what the sport was or how much coaching I received. Everyone I knew was self-taught, and we considered advice and tidbits of information insulting. When we found out we weren’t as great as we thought we were, we found it embarrassing, humiliating, and infuriating.

“Even the most successful fail more often than they succeed and they’re wrong more often than they’re right,” I will tell my son when he’s older. “Even with proper coaching, and a mindset conducive to coaching, most people won’t excel at sports, but if you can use everything playing sports teaches a person, you might be able to use it in other venues. Most people aren’t great at fixing things either. You might think I’m insulting you, but I’m trying to teach you how to approach matters with a mind that is open and conducive to learning.”

We say such things to our kids, because we wish someone would’ve said such things to us when we were kids, yet when we take our first crack at operating a power saw, we find it humiliating and embarrassing that we can’t do it properly.

Our inability to succeed might be that we want to succeed on our own. We don’t want to give other people credit. We receive a great deal of satisfaction constructing a toy without consulting the instructions. If we’re able to successfully build that toy on our own, without any of these tidbits or advice, we might enjoy it more. We want to surprise people with our natural ability. We want to be what others call a self-made man, a prodigy, and an artist who stuck by his guns, no matter what the experts said. We want to prove how smart we are, and how athletically, artistically, mechanically inclined we are. We don’t want to know “an easier way”, or that we can do something better if we adjust our approach ever-so slightly, and we hate it when someone tells us we’re doing it wrong. We hate it, because we think we should have everything all figured out by now. We want to be “special” and special people give instructions, they don’t receive instructions. Nobody told Mickey Mantle and Alex Rodriguez how to swing, nobody ever had to tell Steve Jobs how to run a company. There was no doubt something special about them, and all of the special people that litter history, but what separated them from equally talented and skilled people of their craft? Were they able to see beyond their unrealistic and unreasonable expectations to see that there was nothing special about them, until there was.   

How many times will we attempt to construct a toy without following the instructions, until we realize that there’s nothing special about us. We’re just not very good at fixing things. Our ability to admit that there’s nothing special about us is frustrating, embarrassing, humiliating, illuminating, and the mindset we should have in any such ventures. We see the latter in the unreasonable and unrealistic expectations our children have, and it proves to be something of an epiphany for us.  

I’ve grown so accustomed to failing the first time I try to construct a toy that it doesn’t bother me that much as it once did when I wasn’t able to without instructions. I now expect to be wrong five to six times more times, even with instructions, and when I exceed that number in the reconstruction process, it might involve some inflammatory curse words, but I no longer find it a humiliating condemnation of my ability. If someone spots my struggle, and they offer a suggestion, I am not as insulted as I used to be, because I’m starting to see that most people know more about fixing things than I do. My motto, throughout this process is, “If one way does not work, try another.” That might sound simple, but we complicate these trivial matters with our unreasonable and unrealistic expectations. “I should be able to fix something as simple as this by now,” we say to ourselves. Some of the times, these unrealistic and unreasonable expectations get in the way of us completing even the most trivial matters. If we could get out of our way, we might realize there is another way, and once we’re done we might wish that someone introduced us to how counterproductive our unrealistic and unreasonable expectations were years ago.  

Parents can talk about the philosophy and psychology of sports all day long, and we love doing it, but nothing penetrates better than just doing it over and over again. This is what sports psychologists call kinesthetic learning. Throw the ball, catch the ball, and hit the ball. He hits the ball solid, he learns. He misses a perfect strike, he learns. He misses a wide open shot, he learns. He also learns that one of the keys to success in sports, as in life, is to have a short term memory. He learns the power of forgetting what he did last week, yesterday, and in the last at-bat. We can discuss the philosophy of rewarding our sons and daughters with words of encouragement, and we can debate whether the drill sergeant approach might be more effective, and kids are so different that we witness how these approaches can work differently for young individuals, but nothing is better than just plain doing it. We sign our son up for various leagues, and he gauges how he’s doing compared to his peers. He also wants to be better than them. He wants to be great, and I encourage that, but he gets so frustrated when he realizes he isn’t there yet. He’s just a kid, and when kids play sports, they not only want to be great, they expect it. When they aren’t, they don’t understand the difference between their unreasonable and unrealistic expectations and reality. It confuses them, and that confusion leads to frustration. What’s the difference between being a quality seven-year-old athlete and a poor one? Some of it’s natural ability, of course, but most of it involves just doing it over and over again, in practice, in the backyard, and in their dreams at night. Doing it, also allows them to put all of our psychological and philosophical tidbits and advice into play, and it’s there, somewhere in that complex mix, that they learn the various nuances and intricacies of the game.

An Unhealthy Competitive Streak


“The next time we play a video game, can we do it without complaining so much and criticizing each other?” my son asked me. The question was illustrative on so many levels. I know that I’m an overly competitive person who can get a little frustrated when I don’t succeed in video games, but I didn’t think I was so competitive that it was affecting my relationship with my son. I saw friends of mine pound their face into coin-op game screens, when I was younger. I heard kids swear so loud in arcades that I was embarrassed to be around them, and I knew kids who viewed their inability to get to the next level of a computer game as some sort of personal failing. I remember these kids, because they were so hilarious. Now, my son implied that I might be one of them.

Anyone who knows a seven-year-old knows that seven-year-olds don’t imply. They just recently discovered language, and they don’t fully understand the full power of it. They say the meanest, most awful things, and if their words offend you, that’s on you. We might use their comments as examples of what not to do. We might take them by the hand to help them retrace their steps to show them how others might misconstrue their words as offensive, but those lessons require months and years of repetition, and in the interim, we have to deal their unvarnished truth.  

Most fathers want to spend time with their kids. Most fathers want their kids to enjoy spending time with them. My son wanted to play games with me, and he wanted to have as much fun as the father-son combo did on a YouTube video he watched. I watched this YouTube video with him, of a father and son playing a game together, and they did appear to be having one heck of a good time. My son wanted to do that with me. I, too, wanted to play a game with him just for the fun of it, but to do so, I knew I would have to reverse engineer some 35 years of conditioning.

If you’re the type who plays games, because you enjoy playing games at the end of the day, and you don’t really care if you win or lose, you can stop reading now. You can leave with the knowledge that I envy your healthy mindset, but I could probably never be friends with you.

For the rest of us, it’s always all about winning. Our grandfathers taught our fathers to teach us that there’s something special about winning, and it’s something that we all need to learn. We need to learn it, they suggest, because winning is an attitude we need to learn when we’re young, and a life well lived is all about fortifying that attitude with our own special ingredients. It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring businessman who is willing to risk it all for a profitable business, playing a video game with your kid, or joining a group of young girls you’ve never met before in a game of hopscotch, it’s all about winning.

When I played games as a kid, video and otherwise, I don’t remember ever doing it for fun. Games weren’t fun for me then, and they aren’t now. Games are a test of my abilities and the qualities of my character. I still remember some games I won in sports, when I was young, and some of the games I lost still weigh on my soul. Some games require strategy, some require brute force, and others require some combination of the two? Video games rely on strategy, ingenuity, and all of the creative ways a player can find to defeat their opponent? These games involve one winner and one loser, and it wasn’t enough for us to finish second when I was younger. If you finished second, you lost. Before those of my generation dismiss this argument that there might be something wrong with being overly competitive, we have to consider how unhealthy this mindset can be at times.

We all love to read stories about how six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan needed to beat everyone on the team bus in checkers, cards and any game he could think up. We love to hear about how NFL Quarterback Phillip Rivers constantly challenging his teammates to a game of dominoes, and how Tom Brady needs to beat everyone he knows in any game that they want to play. It wasn’t enough for these guys to be at the top of their respective fields, they needed to win relatively meaningless games in their free time. These three decorated and accomplished athletes have a ferocious, almost to the point of the unhealthy, appetite to win all the time. Some suggest this ferocious competitive nature is what separates them from those of equal ability, but is there a another side to their stories, a dark side?

What would those people who love to hear stories about famously competitive athletes think if Phillip Rivers upended a table after losing a game of dominoes to his seven-year-old son? Phillip Rivers never did this, as he likely has a very healthy hold on his competitive instincts now, but if he did, wouldn’t we say that’s a little unhealthy? We can guess that Rivers probably never felt the need to do that, because he has an outlet for his ferocious competitive instincts. He has already accomplished great feats among the greatest athletes in the world, and such a display would speak of frustration. My guess is that earning one of the most prestigious positions in all of sports quells those frustrations and any other sense of unhappiness that would drive such a display.

Yet, how does one earn one of the most difficult and prestigious positions of quarterback in the NFL. How does one earn such a position when they lack the athletic talent necessary to achieve it, as many have suggested Tom Brady does. How much drive does that require, and is there an ugly side of that drive that no one discusses in these fun-loving, “He’s so insanely competitive” stories?

Most of us would be satisfied to be the starting quarterback of one of the most prestigious college football teams in America, as Tom Brady was at Michigan, some might be satisfied just to be drafted to play quarterback in the NFL, then start. We might consider it a life well lived to earn a chance to play in just one Super Bowl. For Tom Brady, that wasn’t enough. He worked through whatever demons chase a player throughout a season to appear in ten of them and win seven. Does Tom Brady have a secret formula to maintaining such a consistent, championship levels of success, or does the state of being perpetually unsatisfied almost require some level of perpetual unhappiness and inner frustration? We all know the follow-up joke to this. If a coach, or a fan, learned that certain levels of unhappiness drove Brady and Jordan to win their championships, they’d ask what do I have to do to get four or five more unhappy, frustrated people on my team? It’s funny, because it’s true that professional sports teams, corporations, and anything and everything between want ferociously competitive people who crave whatever challenges put in their way to greater achievement. 

Does being unsatisfied with some success lead to more success, or is there some measure of fundamental unhappiness and frustration attached? Imagine being Tom Brady’s sibling, growing up, knowing that every time he loses he’s going to freak out and upend the table? Imagine purposefully losing to him, so he doesn’t cause such a scene. Imagine what you might have to do to keep such a person happy as a spouse. Imagine being their seven-year-old child, and your dad questions your character when you’re not able to keep up with them in a game of Super Mario Brothers Deluxe. We probably assume such people don’t take it home with them, but if they’re that competitive, we have to assume that their loved ones see some of the components of the dark side that drive their ferocious, competitive instincts.

I’m sure that there are men and women from as far away as China and Liechtenstein who think it’s not worth playing the game if you don’t do everything humanly possible to win, but the idea that narrowly finishing second destroys a person emotionally appears endemic to males who are Americans.

If we enter into a friendly contest for money, and we lose that contest by cents, it upsets some of us so much that we can’t sleep at night. Most second place finishers might feel some frustration by being so close to winning, but some view this as just as devastating as a last place finish loss by hundreds of dollars. I’m competitive, and I might be so bad that it’s a little unhealthy, but that ferocious level of competition is something I can’t completely comprehend.

If I suffer from this unusual, and unhealthy, need to win, that does not extend to games of chance. I know I have no control of the dice or the next card a dealer sends me. These games involve some strategy, and an advanced poker player could probably clean me out in under an hour, but there’s still an overriding element of chance to these games. Gamblers talk about the thrill of victory, and I’ve experienced that, but my experience with games of chance almost always involves the agony of defeat. If I ever won, other than the few times listed below, I might develop a problem, but I’ve never had a problem with gambling.   

I may be upset when chance doesn’t roll my way, but it does not destroy me emotionally. These are games of chance, and I know if I get lucky, I don’t expect that luck to continue. In a friendly game of craps, for instance, I once committed what others considered a cardinal sin of pulling my money off the table in the middle of a hot streak. I knew my luck couldn’t continue, and I knew that with every roll, so I stopped right in the midst of it. I did so, in my opinion, before my luck could run out. I was satisfied by my meager winnings, and I knew that the chances that I would continue to win were against me. My friends complained that true craps players don’t pull their money off the table, without giving the other players a chance to win their money back. “But I was playing against the house,” I said.

“Still,” they said. “It’s considered poor gamesmanship to take the money and run. Plus, if you let it ride, you could’ve been the biggest winner of the day. You were on a roll.” 

To their utter amazement, I was just fine with my meager winnings.

I did this again, sometime later in a poker game. This time, I let my money ride and ended up finishing second. If anyone, anywhere, considers this bragging, I add that in a lifetime of playing these stupid games of chance, there’s a reason these two instances are memorable. The game ended with me drawing one relatively inferior card, and I finished one card away from winning the pot. I finished second in the winnings of that day, and I had no designs on playing a bluff and pushing my pot to the middle. I was perfectly happy to finish second that day, and that didn’t make sense to my friends.

It didn’t matter to them that I played the big money winner down to the final hand. It didn’t matter to them that I managed to walk away with the second most money. He won. I lost. Game over.  

“You need to learn how to lose if you ever hope to win,” Woody Allen’s mom once told him. I don’t care if you’re Tom Brady, Tony Gwynn, or Michael Jordan, you’re going to lose more than you win in life. Tony Gwynn didn’t get a hit 66.2% of the time, Michael Jordan missed 50.3% of the shots he took, and Tom Brady had to fight in college and in the early years of his NFL career to become, and remain, a starting quarterback for those squads. We need to learn to manage and learn from our losses if we ever hope to win. Yet, we don’t want to manage it too well, for as O.J. Simpson said, “He who loses well loses often.”  

I apparently didn’t manage losing well, as evidence by the fact that I don’t win often enough. “But did you have fun?” my mom would ask to start the healing process after I finished second. “If you did, that’s all that matters.” She enjoyed racing her peers, when she was young. She didn’t care if she won. She just enjoyed spending time with friends. She had the healthy mindset of course, but it didn’t ease my sense of devastation. Having fun was for girls as far as I was concerned. I enjoyed winning, and I wanted to beat my opponent so bad that I demoralized them.

There was one kid I could never beat in one particular game. There was nothing I could do different to beat this kid. He was just better than me at this game. He didn’t rub it in, and he didn’t celebrate his victories in any way. He was just better than me, and he knew it. When I finally overcame him, I continued to play hard, and ran up the score. “How’s this any fun for you?” he asked. “Do you enjoy humiliating me?”

“I do,” I said. “I consider it fun.”

Seven-year-olds know nothing of these complexities. They want to win when they play sports, and they want to beat video games, and they feel some frustration when they don’t. They might even see upending tables as a way of coping with loss, until they see an example of the opposite. They might also find playing video games with Dad to be less than fun, because he always gets so upset, and he’s always criticizing me and complaining about his own inability to defeat the game. Seven-year-olds don’t view the video game as a vicarious way of accomplishing what they can’t do in real life. They might view getting past stage eleven of the game as a moment of pride, but they don’t have the baggage on their back that the rest of us do. They don’t lord it over their friends who haven’t done it. They just think that video games are fun, and they look like more fun when others play it than when we do.

After my son issued his character-defining challenge, I accepted it and attempted to erase my lifelong conditioning, and I did it. When we played the game together, and he fell behind, I patiently waited for him to catch up. When he killed us, I said, “Hey, it’s just a game.” He freaked out however. When I fell behind, or caused us to die, he was rude, insensitive, and ferociously competitive. “What happened?” I asked. “I thought we were supposed to be playing this game without criticizing each other or complaining?” He had no answer for that, which led me to believe that as hard as I focused on putting my conditioned responses in the off position for one game, he couldn’t do the same with the conditioned responses I taught him.