5 Secrets to the Art of Winning

The art of winning is something almost everyone of us would love to know and understand. It doesn't matter your gender, your age, your culture, or your position.  We all want to know what it takes to win. Surprisingly the game of football can reveal some of these secrets, but you don't have to be a fan of football to benefit from the knowledge.

In this blog, I share with you 5 takeaways on the Art of Winning.  These are 5 Principles, while borrowed from a story related to the game of football, are precepts any one of us can learn to apply in our life going forward.  They are difference makers for teams, businesses, organizations, schools, and more.


The 5 Principles come from my  takeaways from a documentary about a forgotten era when the NFL faced a real challenge.  The documentary is an ESPN 30 for 30 film on the 1987 NFL Replacement Players.  It chronicles the NFL strike ridden season, that challenged the league, fans, players, ownership, and a surprising group of once washed up athletes affectionately called "scabs".

Rather than losing ticket sales and millions of dollars in the absence of games, the NFL ownership brought in replacement players off the street. They were a ragtag group of athletes no longer playing the game -- many of whom had never seen the spotlight of the NFL before.  They were summoned together to fill in for the players who were now on strike demanding more rights for players including free agency.  For the "scabs", as they would become to be known, it was like winning the lottery. They finally had their chance.

This documentary is a must watch for any fan of leadership -- even if you are not a fan of football. In fact, it's not really about football, it's about the art of winning.   And, again, there's something for each of us to pull from this story.

Principle #1 - Take On New Challenges

In this documentary, I loved seeing former athletes, who at one time had a dream to play in the NFL, being given a second shot. They were summoned back to play a game, that they thought was improbable.  They were the rejects asked to be saviors, and save the NFL and would be affectionally known as scab players.  To make that happen, think about what they had to do.  They had to quit their day job and leave a place of safety and familiarity for something that they knew may not lost.  They choose to go do something once considered beyond themselves.  I can't help but think we're called do the same.

Like the "scabs", we're called to leave our place of safety and familiarity to do something we've never done before  too  -- and not for ourselves, but for others.  We are, on occasion, to take on new challenges.  That is what life intends to offer us, but it's our choice whether or not we accept the challenge.

For many of the "scabs", their hopes of playing in the NFL had been dashed prior to this, but now that fire that they thought was out, had been re-lit.   While they didn't know how long it would last, they willingly took on a new challenge -- a challenge that could further devastate them if they failed.

This reveals a huge takeaway in the Art of Winning.  The Art of Winning requires you to step into an environment where you could  fail.  In fact, winning doesn't count unless you can fail.  New challenges that can lead to success aren't real challenges unless they might also lead to failure.

Principle #2 - Face The Fear By Taking Action

The replacement players not only embraced a new challenge, but the were met immediately with the obstacle of fear.   That's because a challenge that might lead to failure will always cause fear to rear its ugly head. 

In this case, the "real" players, who were on strike, openly opposed the replacement players.  In fact, they were the ones that called them the "scab" players.  They heckled them, threatened them, and called them names.  The "scab"players for the Washington Football Team, for example were bused through the crowd of opposition in the team's parking lot as they headed to the practice field.  One picketing "real" player actually shattered the side bus window as he struck it with his hand as it drove by.  The "scab" players trickled off the bus, continuing to hear an earful from the "real" players on the other side of the picket line.

This scene had such an affect that one "scab" player, the replacement quarterback for the Washington, felt so much fear  -- namely the fear of not being accepted ever again to legitimately play post-strike - that he left camp and went back home.

But these "scab"players would soon be heroes, and every hero has a guide.   That guide was the legendary Coach Joe Gibbs.  And, as it would turn out, he was a guide for both the "scab" players and also the "real" players who were on strike.  And he knew there was fear on both sides.

For the "scab"players he kept them busy.  He knew the quicker they went to work, the easier it is to overcome the fears.   Fear often whispers only when we're silent and contemplating our next move. It is what can paralyze us. But when we move -- when we go -- the fear begins to vanish.  It's like climbing up the ladder of a high dive.  The fear seems real.  It's scary.  As you edge closer to the end of the diving board, you realize you are at the point of no return.  The slow walk down the plank, and the long pause before you jump, makes the fear even louder.  It is still a whisper but a whisper is what gets our attention.  However, as soon as we step off that diving board and take the plunge, the voice of fear quickly quiets.

Gibbs knew to keep his new team occupied.  Keeping them busy keeps them from not thinking about the fear.  In fact, he was able to "coach" his fearful "scab"quarterback who had gone back home, to return to camp.   The fear that that he once had, was weakened by Gibbs influence.  That's because fear is less powerful than a goal and dream pursued.  That dream was to play the game.  Remember, fear is never stronger than action.

Principle #3 - Unify Yourself with Others

The "real" players who were on strike also had a great fear -- the  fear of not getting a paycheck.  And there were tactics used by some among the ownership ranks of other teams to threaten players of their pension if they didn't rejoin their team.  Because of that, some chose to cross the picket line, which divided the teams even further.

But there was something different about the Washington Redskins. None of the "real" players broke ranks -- they all stayed unified.  And who guided them in that direction?  You guessed it,  their guide Coach Joe Gibbs.

Gibbs in reality lead two different teams at the same time - the picketing "real" players on strike, and the "scab" players on the practice field.  He encouraged the players on strike to stay unified, even though some wanted to break ranks.  But he knew that for the team to stay strong - well after the strike - they had to stay together - and either they "all cross the line together, or none of them do".  He also found a way for the scab players to become unified.   It was through that unity that the impossible began to happen.

This principle of being unified is probably the most significant take away on what it takes in the Art of Winning.  Teamwork really does make the dream work.  For the "scab" players of the Washington Redskins (their name back then), affectionately known now as the Scabskins, they found a way to operate as a unit, and win the first game, and then the second game.  Fans, who had feared an inferior product at the start, where thrilled with their new team.  But, then things looked like the bottom was about to fall out.

The strike was nearly over.  "Real" players would resume being with their team after the 3rd week of scab games.  That third week, the Redskins were playing their arch-rivals, the Dallas Cowboys -- in Dallas.  Not only was it an away game, but the Cowboys were NOT represented by a full roster of "scab" players.  They were a number of well known "real" players - many of them all pro - who had crossed the picket line and rejoined their team.    Therefore, on paper, the Cowboys were the strongest team in the league, because they had "real" players.  And the Scabskins where the worst, because they had none.  They were the only team with no players that had cross the picket line -- all "scabs"!   The Vegas odd makers had the Cowboys winning this game easy.  But, when you are unified you can conquer anything.

Despite loosing their 1st string scab quarterback to injury during the game, their 2nd string quarterback, who was on a work release program from prison, stepped in to continue to lead the team.  The game went to the wire, and as you can guess the Scabskins, like David taking down Goliath, were able to fight off the mighty Cowboys.  For many of these scab players, it felt like winning the Super Bowl.  It was an incredible feeling for the entire organizations, including even the "real" players who cheered them on from their homes back in the Washington.  These heroes, the "scabs", had saved their season, and given them the lead in their division.

Principle #4 - Strategy Suffers If You are Not Tactical

What's ironic  -- and sad - is to see how the strategic approach of both sides among ownership and "real" players (at least the union) during this journey.  Both ownership and the Players Association greatly suffered not because of strategy, but cause of a lack of tactical execution.

The Redskins where the only winners in the fight because they stayed unified and had a tactical plan.    The mighty Dallas Cowboys on the other hand, had the most players who defected from  the picket line who put back on their jersey.  But, that divided the team, and they struggled for several years after that.  Additionally, what was being pushed by the Players Association, which was centered largely on strategy suffered because a lack of clear tactical play.  Remember, when you aren't moving and staying active, fear kicks in, and you are more prey to the fear.   So, yes, strategy is important, but you also have to stay tactical.  You have to have action steps that you are executing, otherwise strategy suffers and is worthless.

Within two years the Dallas Cowboys would lose their beloved head coach, Tom Landry, their star running back who demanded to be traded after that season, Tony Dorsett, and their visionary general manager Tex Schram.   In the after math and in understanding the down fall, it's clear to see that they tumbled for a period not because of strategy, but because of no clear tactical execution.  Fortunately for Cowboy fans, they did rebound with a new strategy, new leadership, and new attention to tactical execution.   That's how teams win Super Bowls.

Principle #5 - Affirm and Recognize Your Teammates

Finally, this next principle is probably as important as any of them.   Part of the tactical approach for any leader should be to find ways to affirm and recognize those around them.   Joe Gibbs was notorious for this.  He found a way to create unity for a team, and stay tactical by looking to satisfy the one need that we all have -- and that's the need to feel wanted.  Each of us, whether we admit to it or not, want to feel a sense of belonging.  We also want to know we have what it takes.  Gibbs found a way to do that with his players, and even more important, he found a way to do get his players to do that with each other. It's his legacy!

I know it's his legacy because listening to the Redskins greats on the radio in my hometown, who played under Gibbs, that's  what they do.  By and large they give credits and kudos to Redskins players (and even none Redskins players) who are contributors to the team.  Even the "real" players of 1997 give credit to the "scab" players that won 3 games for them.

Sadly though there is still one acknowledgment that was missed.  The NFL and the ownership of the Redskins at that time failed to give the "scabs" each a Superbowl ring after they went on to take the title against the Broncos that year .  Only a few players who stayed on the team earned a ring.  For the rest of them they didn't get one.  A ring would have been pretty special.

I can't blame coach Gibbs for that miss.  It wasn't his role as a leader.  That was incumbent upon on the owner, and the league leadership.  Gibbs to this day recognizes the value that "scrubs" brought.  He is proud of them.  In fact, what Gibbs modeled as a coach, was passed down to all his players.  It's incredible to see.  And the take away for you and me, is that we can make the same choice.  Give credit where credit is due.  It's what helps unite a team.  It's what helps when championships.  And it's a key to the art of winning

Wrap Up

Well there it is --  5 Key Principles in the Art of Winning.  You may not be a fan of football but I would hope you are fan of these principles.  They are game changers. Here's a quick list of them again.  Followed by a few questions to help you put the Art of Winning into action in your life.

  • Principle #1 - Take On New Challenges
  • Principle #2 - Face The Fear By Taking Action
  • Principle #3 - Unify Yourself with Others
  • Principle #4 - Strategy Suffers If You are Not Tactical
  • Principle #5 - Affirm and Recognize Your Teammates

Questions to ponder to put the Art of Winning into action.

  1. What challenges are available to you and your team?  Do you recognize the opportunities that exist in the challenge?  What are they?
  2. What fears are you facing?  Are you taking actions that will help you help reduce those fears?  What actions should you be taking that you aren't?
  3. Are you unified with your team?  Why or why not?  What can you do to find common ground, and stay united with those around you?
  4. In addition to having a strategy, do you have tactical actions that you are taking on a daily basis?  What incremental actions can you take that will allow you and your team get closer to your vision?  What is your daily mission?  Are you living it?
  5. Who on your team is making an impact?  Who is helping fill a gap that should be recognized?  Is there someone, or a small group of folks that has contributed to your team's success?  What can you do to affirm them and acknowledge them?

Well, I hope you enjoyed that little story.  And I hope you enjoy the big game on Sunday.  It will be interesting to see who comes out top.  But, I'm willing to bet the team that exercise these 5 principles the best, will win.

One more thing.  I just hated to use the phrase "scabs" in this article.  But that's what they were referred to as back then.  And I think in the aftermath of seeing the impact that they made, that the word "scab", at least for them, became to mean something totally different.  When I think of a "scab" player now, I think of someone who gave it there all.  They were willing to take on the bumps and bruises, cuts and scratches to put it all out on the field.   They gave everything they had.  And if we do the same, we're going to have some cuts and scratches too --  we're going to have some scabs.  But the scars of a scab serve as a reminder of our effort, our dedication, and desire to make an impact.  It's sign reflective of winning.  There are no winners without some scrapes, scratches and scabs.

And make no mistake, the "scab" players were also "real" players.  Same physiology, same passion, same purpose, and the same plan -- to win!  You can't ask for more than that!

Go win the game!



(Note: I originally wrote this piece February 8, 2018)

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