Bill Walsh’s 5 Principles to Stay the Course

Written by Shane Sowden

“Most debilitating of all—devastating—was a gnawing fear that I didn’t have what it takes to be an NFL head coach. At one point, I actually decided to hand in my resignation the next morning, then I changed my mind.”

—Bill Walsh, The Score Takes Care of Itself

18 months after finally landing an NFL head coaching job, Bill Walsh was thinking about quitting. His San Francisco 49ers football team had just experienced a crushing defeat to the Miami Dolphins in the middle of his second season as head coach, which dropped the team to 3-8 on the season after eight straight losses. On the six-hour flight home from Miami, Walsh found himself in tears, wondering if he had what it takes to be an NFL head coach. Walsh didn’t quit, but after two seasons, Walsh’s 49ers had only won eight games and lost 24.

Five years after being named the Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns, Bill Belichick was fired from his first NFL head coaching job. One winning record over five seasons wasn’t enough to keep his job.  It would be five years before Belichick would get another chance to be a head coach in the NFL, as the Head Coach of the New England Patriots. 

Now, many of you know the rest of the story. Walsh’s 49ers would go on to win the Super Bowl in his third season, exactly 16 months after he contemplated quitting. He would go on to win a total of three Super Bowls as Head Coach of the 49ers.

Belichick recently captured his sixth Super Bowl title and is widely considered to be the best NFL coach of all time. The success of these two coaches is well-documented, but we rarely hear about their struggles early in their careers. Walsh openly questioned whether he had what it took to be an NFL head coach. Belichick was sent the message that he didn’t have what it takes when he was fired by the Cleveland Browns. 

What’s Next?

I know many coaches reading this article have also wondered if they have what it takes. I just concluded my first season as a men’s college basketball coach with a record of 6-22. As I read Walsh’s account, I instantly connected with Walsh’s story. At times this season, I, too, wondered if I have what it takes.

I’m thankful for the group of young men I got to work with this season. We had fun together. We grew as a team. We laid a foundation for the program moving forward. When it comes to the things that Really matter, we did well.

However, sometimes, that doesn’t make it any easier. Regardless of all the positives going on in the program, it’s difficult not to get discouraged by the scoreboard and our record. It’s the tug-and-pull between what really matters and what society says matters.

Get Back in the Game – Walsh’s 5 Principles

We need to equip ourselves with some principles to stay the course and keep our focus on what really matters. Walsh lived by five principles—especially when faced with challenging circumstances during his coaching career. He called them his “5 Dos”:

  1. “Do expect defeat.” Losses happen. I can’t let losses affect the way I treat people and live my life. A healthy perspective on losses allows me to stop treating my players as a means to an end. I must love and serve my players with excellence, regardless of the scoreboard. The scoreboard does not define me as a person, nor as a coach.
  • “Do force yourself to stop looking backward and dwelling on the professional ‘train wreck’ you have just been in.” During the first practice after a tough loss, I make sure to get to practice early to intentionally connect with my players.  I go around to each guy and ask them about their day and how they are doing. We don’t talk about basketball during these interactions. We also plan team meals together at my house, where we can relax, enjoy good food, and enjoy each other’s company. I find these things help me remember I am coaching and mentoring young men and not just trying to win basketball games.
  • “Do allow yourself appropriate recovery/grieving time.” We play most of our games on Friday and Saturday nights. After a frustrating loss, I usually allow myself 24 hours of grieving time. My routine after a tough loss or weekend is the following: sleep in, have breakfast with my family, read/journal, go to church, and then spend time with my family, either by playing a board game or having a movie night. Focusing on the most important things in my life—such as my family and my faith—gives me the perspective I need to head back to work on Monday, motivated to make it a great week.
  • “Do tell yourself: ‘I am going to stand and fight again,’ with the knowledge that often, when things are at their worst, you’re closer than you can imagine to success.” Walsh won his first Super Bowl 16 months after he contemplated resigning. Throughout the season, my assistant and I reminded ourselves each week that “we are getting closer”—and it was true! It was a challenging season, but we have a high return rate next season, recruiting is going well, a strong culture has been established, and everyone in the program is looking forward to next season.
  • “Do begin planning for your next serious encounter. Plan small steps forward. Focus on the fix.” We are attacking our off-season with optimism and enthusiasm. I am working with a mentor and holding post-season workshops with our returnees, as well as committing to reading 30 minutes per day, journaling for five minutes each day, and habit-tracking my weeks.

Take time to reflect upon Walsh’s 5 Principles. They can help remind you of what really matters, and that you are closer to where you want to be!

-Shane Sowden

Shane is the Head Men’s Basketball Coach at Briercrest College in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan Canada.

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