THE GOLDEN RULE OF HABIT CHANGE – Why Transformation Occurs – Part 1

The game clock at the far end of the field says there are eight minutes and nineteen seconds left when Tony Dungy, the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—one of the worst teams in the National Football League, not to mention the history of professional football—starts to feel a tiny glimmer of hope.

It’s late on a Sunday afternoon, November 17, 1996. The Buccaneers are playing in San Diego against the Chargers, a team that appeared in the Super Bowl the previous year. The Bucs are losing, 17 to 16. They’ve been losing all game. They’ve been losing all season. They’ve been losing all decade. The Buccaneers have not won a game on the West Coast in sixteen years, and many of the team’s current players were in grade school the last time the Bucs had a victorious season. So far this year, their record is 2–8. In one of those games, the Detroit Lions—a team so bad it would later be described as putting the “less” in “hopeless”—beat the Bucs 21 to 6, and then, three weeks later, beat them again, 27 to 0. One newspaper columnist has started referring to the Bucs as “America’s Orange Doormat.” ESPN is predicting that Dungy, who got his job only in January, could be fired before the year is done.

On the sidelines, however, as Dungy watches his team arrange itself for the next play, it feels like the sun has finally broken through the clouds. He doesn’t smile. He never lets his emotions show during a game. But something is taking place on the field, something he’s been working toward for years. As the jeers from the hostile crowd of fifty thousand rain down upon him, Tony Dungy sees something that no one else does. He sees proof that his plan is starting to work.

Tony Dungy had waited an eternity for this job. For seventeen years, he prowled the sidelines as an assistant coach, first at the University of Minnesota, then with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then the Kansas City Chiefs, and then back to Minnesota with the Vikings. Four times in the past decade, he had been invited to interview for head coaching positions with NFL teams.

All four times, the interviews hadn’t gone well.

Part of the problem was Dungy’s coaching philosophy. In his job interviews, he would patiently explain his belief that the key to winning was changing players’ habits. He wanted to get players to stop making so many decisions during a game, he said. He wanted them to react automatically, habitually. If he could instill the right habits, his team would win. Period.

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy would explain. “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

How, the owners would ask, are you going to create those new habits?

Oh, no, he wasn’t going to create new habits, Dungy would answer. Players spent their lives building the habits that got them to the NFL. No athlete is going to abandon those patterns simply because some new coach says to.

So rather than creating new habits, Dungy was going to change players’ old ones. And the secret to changing old habits was using what was already inside players’ heads. Habits are a three-step loop—the cue, the routine, and the reward—but Dungy only wanted to attack the middle step, the routine. He knew from experience that it was easier to convince someone to adopt a new behavior if there was something familiar at the beginning and end.

His coaching strategy embodied an axiom, a Golden Rule of habit change that study after study has shown is among the most powerful tools for creating change. Dungy recognized that you can never truly extinguish bad habits.

Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.

That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.

The Golden Rule has influenced treatments for alcoholism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and hundreds of other destructive behaviors, and understanding it can help anyone change their own habits. (Attempts to give up snacking, for instance, will often fail unless there’s a new routine to satisfy old cues and reward urges. A smoker usually can’t quit unless she finds some activity to replace cigarettes when her nicotine craving is triggered.)

Four times Dungy explained his habit-based philosophy to team owners. Four times they listened politely, thanked him for his time, and then hired someone else.

Then, in 1996, the woeful Buccaneers called. Dungy flew to Tampa Bay and, once again, laid out his plan for how they could win. The day after the final interview, they offered him the job.

Dungy’s system would eventually turn the Bucs into one of the league’s winningest teams. He would become the only coach in NFL history to reach the play-offs in ten consecutive years, the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl, and one of the most respected figures in professional athletics. His coaching techniques would spread throughout the league and all of sports. His approach would help illuminate how to remake the habits in anyone’s life.

But all of that would come later. Today, in San Diego, Dungy just wanted to win.

From the sidelines, Dungy looks up at the clock: 8:19 remaining. The Bucs have been behind all game and have squandered opportunity after opportunity, in typical fashion. If their defense doesn’t make something happen right now, this game will effectively be over. San Diego has the ball on their own twenty-yard line, and the Chargers’ quarterback, Stan Humphries, is preparing to lead a drive that, he hopes, will put the game away. The play clock begins, and Humphries is poised to take the snap.

But Dungy isn’t looking at Humphries. Instead, he’s watching his own players align into a formation they have spent months perfecting. Traditionally, football is a game of feints and counterfeints, trick plays and misdirection. Coaches with the thickest playbooks and most complicated schemes usually win. Dungy, however, has taken the opposite approach. He isn’t interested in complication or obfuscation. When Dungy’s defensive players line up, it is obvious to everyone exactly which play they are going to use.

Dungy has opted for this approach because, in theory, he doesn’t need misdirection. He simply needs his team to be faster than everyone else. In football, milliseconds matter. So instead of teaching his players hundreds of formations, he has taught them only a handful, but they have practiced over and over until the behaviors are automatic. When his strategy works, his players can move with a speed that is impossible to overcome.

But only when it works. If his players think too much or hesitate or second-guess their instincts, the system falls apart. And so far, Dungy’s players have been a mess.

This time, however, as the Bucs line up on the twenty-yard line, something is different. Take Regan Upshaw, a Buccaneer defensive end who has settled into a three-point stance on the scrimmage line. Instead of looking up and down the line, trying to absorb as much information as possible, Upshaw is looking only at the cues that Dungy taught him to focus on. First, he glances at the outside foot of the opposite lineman (his toes are back, which means he is preparing to step backward and block while the quarterback passes); next, Upshaw looks at the lineman’s shoulders (rotated slightly inward), and the space between him and the next player (a fraction narrower than expected).

Upshaw has practiced how to react to each of these cues so many times that, at this point, he doesn’t have to think about what to do. He just follows his habits.

San Diego’s quarterback approaches the line of scrimmage and glances right, then left, barks the count and takes the ball. He drops back five steps and stands tall, swiveling his head, looking for an open receiver. Three seconds have passed since the play started. The stadium’s eyes and the television cameras are on him.

So most observers fail to see what’s happening among the Buccaneers. As soon as Humphries took the snap, Upshaw sprang into action. Within the first second of the play, he darted right, across the line of scrimmage, so fast the offensive lineman couldn’t block him. Within the next second, Upshaw ran four more paces downfield, his steps a blur. In the next second, Upshaw moved three strides closer to the quarterback, his path impossible for the offensive lineman to predict.

As the play moves into its fourth second, Humphries, the San Diego quarterback, is suddenly exposed. He hesitates, sees Upshaw from the corner of his eye. And that’s when Humphries makes his mistake. He starts thinking.

Humphries spots a teammate, a rookie tight end named Brian Roche, twenty yards downfield. There’s another San Diego receiver much closer, waving his arms, calling for the ball. The short pass is the safe choice. Instead, Humphries, under pressure, performs a split-second analysis, cocks his arm, and heaves to Roche.

That hurried decision is precisely what Dungy was hoping for. As soon as the ball is in the air, a Buccaneer safety named John Lynch starts moving. Lynch’s job was straightforward: When the play started, he ran to a particular point on the field and waited for his cue. There’s enormous pressure to improvise in this situation. But Dungy has drilled Lynch until his routine is automatic. And as a result, when the ball leaves the quarterback’s hands, Lynch is standing ten yards from Roche, waiting.

As the ball spins through the air, Lynch reads his cues—the direction of the quarterback’s face mask and hands, the spacing of the receivers—and starts moving before it’s clear where the ball will land. Roche, the San Diego receiver, springs forward, but Lynch cuts around him and intercepts the pass. Before Roche can react, Lynch takes off down the field toward the Chargers’ end zone. The other Buccaneers are perfectly positioned to clear his route. Lynch runs 10, then 15, then 20, then almost 25 yards before he is finally pushed out of bounds. The entire play has taken less than ten seconds.

Two minutes later, the Bucs score a touchdown, taking the lead for the first time all game. Five minutes later, they kick a field goal. In between, Dungy’s defense shuts down each of San Diego’s comeback attempts. The Buccaneers win, 25 to 17, one of the biggest upsets of the season.

At the end of the game, Lynch and Dungy exit the field together.

“It feels like something was different out there,” Lynch says as they walk into the tunnel.

“We’re starting to believe,” Dungy replies.

-Charles Duhigg

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