How to Lead Your Team Like a Football Coach

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker instructs his team against Ohio State during an NCAA college football game
Jay LaPrete/AP / Shutterstock

This article is an installment of The Everyday Warrior series, featuring advice, key interviews, and tips to live a life of wellness, impact, growth, and continual learning.

Whether you’re leading a team of account executives or Navy SEALS, you likely view football coaches as the pinnacle of leadership. That’s because coaches like Vince Lombardi, Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, and Mel Tucker have set an extremely high bar of excellence, professionalism, and success.

During last week’s Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast, Michigan State University’s head football coach, the legendary Mel Tucker, discussed his approach to coaching. Today’s business leaders can learn a lot from this insightful interview, including how football coaches lead their teams to victory. Great coaches act in the best interests of those they lead, make it their mission to help players reach their full potential, and believe that leadership is about service above all else.

Today’s leaders must decide if they’re content with the status quo or ready to lead like a football coach. If that’s you, here’s how to start:

1. Build relationships

Great coaches recognize a team is only as strong as its players. They understand that no matter how talented those players are, it takes more than a motivational speech to get the best out of them. It’s about fostering an environment where players aren’t playing for themselves but out of respect for their teammates. This level of reverence begins at the top and requires coaches to connect with their players.

“I work hard to let each player know I see them as an individual,” says Tucker. “Listening is a huge part of this because when they realize you’re interested in what they have to say, they know you care.”

Adopting this mindset will help business leaders improve their company culture, develop talent, and increase profitability. Taking the time to get to know your employees sends a message that you care about them as people. That boosts morale, strengthens your team, and creates a sound foundation for success. Need proof? Look at the year Tucker and his team had in 2021.

Mel Tucker, head football coach at Michigan State University Athletics

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2. Something to believe

There’s no way a team has a season like the Spartans had in 2021 without every player and staff member being wholly dedicated and invested in success. So, how does a coach facilitate this? First, it’s crucial to understand there’s nothing more toxic than someone who doesn’t want to be there. When people are only motivated by money, they’re not vested in the organization’s future.

To protect against this, coaches and leaders rely on intrinsic motivation. This is when people develop an internal drive to act because what they’re doing is more satisfying than external rewards. Essentially, they create something in which people can place their beliefs. For Tucker, this meant inviting coaches, employees, and players with that quality into his program to help build the team’s winning culture and shape its future. When done correctly, as with Michigan State’s football program, it creates a sense of community, accountability, and ownership. People who develop an intrinsic drive are more devoted to their work and are emotionally invested in their mission.

3. Set people up for success

Coaches learn to celebrate small victories because they see that small wins pave the way for championships. Through experience, they develop an understanding of time that allows them to see further than those they lead. That’s why, having played the game himself, Coach Tucker knows the importance of preparing for post-football success. For him, this means helping players realize football doesn’t define who they are.

The same is true in business; companies are asking more of their workforce at the expense of work-life balance. It’s up to individual leaders to change this by focusing on what’s best for their employees. When they do, they often find what’s best for their workers is also what’s best for their business. Setting people up for success means providing the tools they’ll need to achieve their goals, but it also means offering the compassionate guidance required to help them separate who they are from what they do.

Leading like a football coach means serving those who look to you for direction. Even among the coaching elite, Tucker and his team are shining examples of what it means to answer the call; they’ve developed an in-house curriculum that begins preparing students for a successful post-football career from the first day they arrive in the program. If you’re ready to lead like a football coach, the greatest lesson you can learn from legends like Tucker is that, while winning is important, it’s the journey that makes the team and service that defines the coach.

Check out Coach Tucker’s entire interview on The Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast, available now.

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