Oct 30, 2021; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell along the sidelines late in the fourth quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
Never in a million years did I think I’d have to spend the early portion of my week defending Matt Campbell’s approach to coaching, but here we are, I guess.
On Tuesday, Iowa State’s head coach made some comments that left people scratching their heads. The comments came in response to a question from the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Ben Visser about the goal of winning a Big 12 title and the disappointment of that goal most likely going unrealized.
“That was never my goal,” Campbell said. “My goal has always been one thing and that’s to become the best version of ourselves we can become. You’ve never heard me say that word once. You’ve only heard me talk about becoming the best version of yourself you can be. Really, my challenge for this year’s team was to become the greatest together team in the history of Iowa State football. So far, all of our goals are still intact from a Coach Campbell standpoint.”
“Now, could our players have other goals and aspirations? Sure. Do I want them to have great goals and aspirations? Sure. But, that’s not Coach Campbell’s goal. That was never said by me.”
To understand what Campbell is saying there, you have to know a little bit about the psychological approach Campbell takes to coaching his team. We’ll get to that in a second.
First, I’ll address the people who think what Campbell said means he’s not striving to win championships. That’s stupid. The idea that Matt Campbell does not want to win a Big 12 championship is stupid.
He more or less said he wanted to do as much in his opening press conference at Iowa State five years ago. We thought he was the stupid one for thinking anyone could ever compete for championships at Iowa State and be more than a program that goes to bowl games more often than not.
Boy, how wrong were we?
Obviously, Matt Campbell wants to win a Big 12 title. The thing is, Campbell is not going to sacrifice his entire approach to coaching and sell out for that one goal, especially by stating it publicly.
Campbell has what’s called a “process thinking” approach. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Campbell talk about being process-oriented over results-oriented. He’s talked about it hundreds, if not thousands, of times since he took over in Ames.
Being a process thinker means focusing on the little things each day and living in the moment rather than in the past or future. As defined on the world’s encyclopedia Wikipedia, “Practitioners of process thinking focus on the present instead of past events or future outcomes, and believe that all actions one takes in life, regardless of how trivial they may seem, affect the desired outcome.”
Do you want to know the two guys credited with popularizing that approach in modern coaching? Just a couple of guys named Nick Saban and Bill Belichick. Ever heard of them?
Process thinking is not built on a foundation of setting specific, tangible goals at the beginning of a season and striving to reach those specific things, i.e. winning a championship, beating a rival, etc.
It is built on doing the right things every day and if you do the right things every day then you’ll end up with the results you desire. If you do the right things enough and focus on the details of those things, you’re going to win championships as a result of doing the right things, but the goal is not to get the result.
“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship,” Saban has said. “Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
There are people who are going to be turned off by this approach because — again — there is no tangible way of measuring whether or not a team accomplished its goals. You don’t get a trophy for becoming the best version of yourself unless becoming the best version of yourself results in winning a championship.
But, when you’re focused on getting the result, it gets a lot easier to get lost in the successes and failures of those results. If you’re singularly focused on winning a championship then if you lose that opportunity, it will probably be a lot harder to get motivated for any subsequent games. Essentially, all your goals are off the table.
Being focused on the results makes the idea of success vs. failure much easier to measure, but the reality in life is that success vs. failure is often muddied by a significant amount of gray area and subjectivity.
Obviously, it is possible to win trophies and awards in real life, but those things can’t be won without doing things right every day and focusing on the details of everything you do in life. Most people do not go through their daily lives thinking about whatever awards they can win for doing their jobs.
They think about doing the individual pieces of their job at a high enough level on a daily basis to stay employed, keep earning a living and, if you’re really good at your job, you’re going to get recognized for that effort.
In other words, almost every single person who walks the planet on a daily basis is a process thinker on some level, so why wouldn’t we extrapolate that fact into college football? We are trying to help these young men become the best versions of themselves after all and they’ll spend a lot more time as normal citizens when these skills would be needed anyway.
Some people don’t want to accept these realities though. They want to live in a world of winners and losers that are clearly defined and if you’re a loser then you’re a failure. That’s not how the world works, though.
The winners and losers are rarely as clearly defined as they are in a football game. That doesn’t mean you quit, it means you come back the next day and strive to be better than you were the day before.
If that’s a loser mentality, then there are a lot more losers on this planet than most people would care to admit.
People might say I have a loser mentality that doesn’t want Iowa State to strive for championships, too. That’s fine because it doesn’t really matter.
I’ll come back tomorrow to try and be a better version of myself, just like Coach Campbell and this year’s Cyclones have continued to do regardless of whether or not a trophy is on the line at the end.
One, two, three or however many bad days you have doesn’t mean your goals are no longer intact. It just means you’re not the best version of yourself yet.
So, come back tomorrow and keep grinding away by attacking each task with a championship level of focus, and eventually, if you keep putting the work in, you’ll get what you want. Do you know what that’s called?
Trusting the process.