Coaching Resource: Moving Past Failure, Pete Carroll

Greg Bishop, Sports Illustrated (

He believes, most of all, in his approach.

It sounds strange to hear Carroll say this, but it comes as comfortably as he might say good morning or hello: “It’s been thrilling to go through this. It really has.”

He means this off-season, the one after the game that will forever be remembered for Carroll’s call. He says this in June from his corner office at the Seahawks’ training facility, the stereo cranked way up, Lake Washington gleaming beyond the practice fields out the window. He’s resting on a couch, but this discussion—explaining how his team will rebound from a moment that most Seattle fans still can’t bring themselves to watch again—is more interrogation than psychotherapy. “If you hope I’m going to cry over the deal, I’m not,” Carroll says. “I’ve moved past that.”

“You’ll never know. I can’t make you understand. You pour everything in your life into something and—it goes right, it goes wrong—it’s in you. It becomes part of you. I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to face it. And when it bubbles up, I’m going to think about it and get on with it. And use it. Use it!”

The email from Ben Malcolmson, Carroll’s assistant, landed in the in-box of Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at Penn. Duckworth had never heard of Carroll, so she prepared to politely decline his invitation to connect. That is, until one of her research coordinators, a sports fan who knew of Carroll and his coaching methods, suggested she might learn something from the coach.

Carroll had become aware of Duckworth through a TED Talk she gave, the inspiration for which was that she couldn’t figure out why the brightest middle and high school math students she once taught hadn’t always handed in the best work. She zeroed in on a concept that felt familiar to Carroll. Unknowingly, she was talking about his approach, and she had a name for it: grit. “I’m interested in how culture influences grit,” says Duckworth. “And Pete has very deliberately created a culture that encourages passion and perseverance—the two components of grit.”

In Carroll she sees what psychologists call an authoritative parent: warm but demanding, unconditionally supportive but with high expectations. And so she agreed to meet with the Seahawks. No one mentioned the Super Bowl by name, but everything they talked about was really about Seattle moving past it.

The Tao of Pete didn’t fully form until Carroll was well into his 40s, in his third decade as a football coach. He had a personality and a style, but he didn’t have a system. Nothing that he’d written down. Or turned into a book. The Jets fired him from his first head coaching gig after one season, the Patriots after three. It’s not that Carroll failed; his record in four seasons as an NFL coach stood at a respectable 33–31. But major success had eluded him.

He took a sabbatical, almost a year off, in 2000. There’s a famous story about the epiphany Carroll had around this time. He was reading a book by John Wooden that described how it took the old UCLA coach 18 years to win his first national title. And then Carroll slammed the book shut, inspired. He took the USC job in December of that year and started to write down not only what he wanted to accomplish but how he would go about it. He filled legal pads and the outsides of manila folders with so many notes that he ran out of space to write. He dissected every aspect of performance. Details that seemed small—like having players preorder for the Trojans’ omelet station in order to save a few minutes at breakfast each morning—were implemented to improve efficiency. He asked his assistant coaches to explain their vision in 30 words or less, and then he invited Snoop Dogg and Bubba Watson and janitors and actors and CEOs onto campus and asked them the same thing.

He turned the Trojans into a powerhouse and all those notes into a book called Win Forever. To Carroll, it became less about the victories and more about the process. He exposed the Trojans to myriad influences, demanded they put in the work and then supported their follow-through. If it all felt a little rah-rah—some called him Pom-Pom Pete—what mattered most was that his players believed him. “Pete’s done it differently than anybody’s ever done it,” says Yogi Roth, who co-wrote Carroll’s book. “He’s so far out there in his thinking and his thought process. It’s so connected to his spirit.”

Carroll did not adapt his approach for pro players, guys who are supposed to roll their eyes at Tell The Truth Monday or Competition Wednesday, those motivational gimmicks that purportedly work best in college. He hired a competitive surfer-turned-sports-psychologist. He studied sleep patterns. He brought in Bill Russell and Will Ferrell and Jon Gruden as guest speakers. He held a shooting competition between former SuperSonics Detlef Schrempf and Shawn Kemp, complete with a fog machine, a laser-light show and introductions from CenturyLink Field’s P.A. announcer. He sought advice from musicians like Macklemore and a former president, Bill Clinton.

“It always came back to competitiveness,” he says of the motivational ploys, the nontraditional hirings, the myriad guests. “I didn’t have a word for it, but it’s striving for something, not against something. Then I found a name for it.”

Carroll explains this in a way that only he can. “We’re developing the human properties by reaching into people and bringing out whatever the best is they have to offer,” he says, sounding like the CEO of a Silicon Valley startup.

When Carroll met with Lieut. Gen. Robert Brown, in March 2013, the two men talked for hours about leadership. Brown explained how every year the Army accepted a new batch of grunts, and how roughly one third of them underachieved. That didn’t happen at USC to Carroll (who says 95% of his guys bought into the program) and Brown wondered why.

He guessed it had something to do with Carroll’s understanding of “the human dimension.” Then he relayed another story. Every year the Army would send its best men to the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, hesaid, and about 30% lasted. Eventually, leadership decided to invest more in the process, to better prepare those select few for the rigorous Ranger training. The next year, 80% made it through. Hearing that “was a profound moment,” Carroll says. “I realized, We had mentored our guys. We didn’t let them fail. [At USC] that was justified with how our guys could get drafted really high and then didn’t do as well as expected [in the NFL]. We weren’t there with them, to help them do their best.

Six months after the disaster, six months after giving the game away, the sell remains the same. It’s hope that Carroll peddles. “I want our whole organization to show off how to overcome stuff,” Carroll says. “I want us to demonstrate resilience, which is one of the foundations of grit. We’re going to demonstrate it, just like we demonstrated the resilience to win. That was freakin’ awesome, to get back [to the Super Bowl last year] when everybody said there was no chance. We’re going to face all that again; there’s some comfort in that. We know how we’re going to do this. Here we go.”

Carroll steals a glance at the clock on his office wall. He has a team meeting to attend, energy to crank up, minds to convince, a philosophy to cement. It’s time to move the Seahawks one step away from their last game and one step closer to their next one. “What a great freakin’ day,” says football’s eternal optimist. “It’s an opportunity as much as anything.

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