Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly on Learning, Performing & Mistakes

(Specific SMART Strengths tips based on this post were included in our most recent newsletter – sign up here and we will send you a copy!)

Brian Kelly, third year coach at Notre Dame, is poised to lead the Irish to the NCAA National Championship game on January 7th, 2013. Last summer, just before training camp started for the 2012 season, Dr. John Yeager had an opportunity to interview Coach Kelly about resilience and his approach to coaching. This portion of the interview focuses on when players need to put their mistakes behind them versus learning from those mistakes – something flexible and accurate thinkers with growth mindsets are very good at (see SMART Strengths chapter 7 & 8). Next week’s post will have Coach Kelly’s thoughts on 3 Steps to Making the “A-Team” through pure accountability, appreciation, and high achievement.

John Yeager: What do you look for in resilience in a player?  I am very fascinated with this idea of resilience and not just bouncing back from adversity but bouncing forward – taking that event, taking that moment and going with it.

Coach Kelly: I think one of the things that is not as prevalent is that player bouncing back and becoming better.  He bounces back but why isn’t he getter better in certain situations?  I do not know that he has ever had to experience some of the sacrifices and some of the tougher times that maybe some of the players that I had years before. Today’s young men are great kids, I love coaching them but resiliency, not being thin skinned – those two are challenges right now. And I cannot put my finger on it other than to say that maybe it has come a little easier for them.  It is okay to bounce back but how do you get to that next level? That is the challenge that we have every day.

John Yeager: How do you get young people to say, “Stop it; you are thinking irrationally at the moment?”

Coach Kelly: There are more kids that after they make a mistake have a tendency to make it again, so it is a fine line as a coach in how to intervene. Are you trying to develop the mental capability to let that go and move on to the next play versus “I was not focused on the task at hand, fell asleep at the wheel, I got sloppy” and the coach dismisses it.  Which then obviously does him no good. So it is the fine line of when do you say to a young man, “Hey move on, next play” versus, “Look you can’t let that happen, you can’t make that kind of mistake.”  So when it comes to the issue that you mentioned relative to resiliency that is the rub.  Do you follow me?

John Yeager:  Yeah, so you have to read that about your players. 

Coach Kelly: Well I mean you better know your players, you better know the guy that has missed three or four classes and then he boots an easy one, you know what I mean?  You see a trend there or the player who is locked in all the time and very rarely makes that kind of mistake and you go “Hey be resilient. Let’s move on. Next.”  I think as coaches and as teachers, we have made it hard for them to bounce back and be greater because we have dismissed failure so many times with “It is okay. Don’t worry about that. We’ll take care of it for you.”

John Yeager:  Is there a challenge for you and your coaches when you are in game mode and in the heat of the moment to really know your players and their responses to adversity on the field?  Do you have a kind of algorithm saying if that person doesn’t do something well then you can dismiss it but if another player doesn’t respond well, you have got to deal with it right away.  This is split second timing, right Brian?

Coach Kelly: Yes, it is and I think you know more than anybody that there is a guy that reacts one way in practice and another in a game. Those are the ones that challenge you because in practice they don’t make that mistake and then the lights come on and the action starts and they make that mistake and you have to decide whether that was a onetime thing or is that going to be an every time thing.

John Yeager:  Do you ever see the “deer in the headlights” look before they go out on game day?

Coach Kelly: Yes.  I see players that make mistakes that know that they have made them and cannot understand why they made them.  That is where it is our business, being teachers, to go back and look at it and ask how am I teaching that would allow that to happen? 

John Yeager:  I know you would not be as successful as you are if you didn’t have a growth mind set. You are in a continuous improvement mode.

Coach Kelly: Absolutely, every day I think you have to look at everything that motivates you to do your job. So what motivates me to do my job? It is the kids. I want to get guys to go to areas that they have never been before; to grow in all those areas, spiritually, intellectually, physically, and socially.  That is why I do it.  So if I am not getting that person to develop then what am I doing? That is how I have been and I do not think I will ever change because I am player development centered.  I am centered on the kids and their development and each one of them is different.  Societal norms have changed the deck and you better be ready to play that new hand that you are going to get dealt.

To see a story (2:54) from SMART Strengths author Dave Shearon about optimistic thinking and learning from mistakes (without letting them take you out of the game!), click here.


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