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Lesson #3 – Great Teams Run Great Huddles

Be it a meeting, a huddle or a pre-game locker-room speech, sports teams, like businesses, must find the time to allow for effective communication. The Greatest teams, have better meetings than their competitors…they run better huddles.

While an efficient meeting in the boardroom is often structured around the company’s management hierarchy, sports teams generally take a more relaxed approach toward hearing each team member’s idea. Bringing everyone’s opinion to the table is important, but ensuring it is relevant and useful is the game changer. Sometimes this can be a group process, but more often than not a leader takes the reins.

A prime example of this was during the New England Patriots’ run of three Super Bowl titles over a four-year span between 2001 and 2004. While coach Bill Belichick was the face of the franchise and his knowledge of strategy was and is considered second to none, it was up to assistant coach and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to create a proper environment for meetings of his defensive players.

Belichick and the coaching staff put together a game plan for the upcoming opponent by the middle of each Tuesday. It was then the job of Crennel and other assistants to install the detailed specifics of the plan during smaller meetings Wednesday morning. Crennel was careful to make sure he allowed his players to speak their mind after receiving the plan. With a defense that featured star veterans such as Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Ty Law and Mike Vrabel, it was important to get their input on what they felt would not only work, but what they were comfortable trying to execute.

“Romeo was excellent at saying to us: ‘OK, here’s what the coaches have come up with. What do you guys think?’” Bruschi said. “That didn’t mean we always got to do what we thought we should do, but we felt like we had a voice. We felt like we were respected. Romeo didn’t just say, ‘Do this.’ A lot of coaches don’t have the self-confidence to allow player input.”

Michigan University's Fab Five

Making sure employees are “fully engaged” in a meeting is critical, as the University of Michigan men’s basketball team found out in 1993. In the midst of a NCAA Championship Game against North Carolina, Michigan called timeout and the key players huddled. In the background, some of the Michigan players – those who were not playing – were not paying attention to the huddle. One particular player was looking in the stands, waving at a young woman.

At the end of the timeout, Michigan coach Steve Fisher calmly reminded the players that the team had no timeouts remaining. As play resumed, Michigan got the ball back with 19 seconds left in the game, down 73-71. Famed Michigan forward Chris Webber dribbled the ball upcourt with plenty of time remaining for the Wolverines to get another shot. However, when Webber stopped dribbling and was momentarily trapped, he called another timeout despite having just gotten the reminder from Fisher. That rules violation resulted in a technical foul, giving North Carolina the ball back and guiding them to a victory instead of giving Michigan one last chance.

So why did the bright and talented Webber make the mistake? Ultimately, he was responsible. However, upon examining the replay, you can see that as Webber was momentarily trapped, a teammate on the sideline yelled at him to call timeout. Webber’s glare after the technical foul was called makes it obvious the teammate’s instruction was incorrect.

It was the same teammate who had been looking in the stands and not paying attention during the previous huddle. It was a teammate who had not been “fully engaged” when the meeting (or huddle) was happening and had missed this important information.

For the San Francisco 49ers under Bill Walsh, the art of the meeting was so important he had specific rules and procedures. In a moment, we’ll discuss his design for how the huddle was supposed to be run. But even longer meetings between players and coach or even the staff meetings among coaches were important for Walsh to analyze. Walsh made it a habit of recording meetings to then see how they were run. He wanted to make sure his assistant coaches, who would sometimes change from year to year if they were hired by other teams, were teaching his offense in a consistent fashion.

The examples from the New England Patriots, University of Michigan and San Francisco 49ers explain the importance of a meeting from two different perspectives. First, both New England and Michigan show the importance of keeping players engaged in the process – and not just the star players. With the 49ers, the point is to keep the instructors and leaders accountable for how they teach or lead those meetings.

All of this is driven by culture. And running Great meetings is a strategic advantage for teams that focus on their culture.

Still, the art of a meeting is often about leadership – one person controlling how it is run. In the world of sports, this leader normally appears as a captain, a coach or a star player. These figures operate as a medium for the team’s internal communication. A suitable leader has the ability to control each meeting not because of his or her position, but because they can identify what needs to be heard, what needs to be said, and the best way to say it. In the end. it comes down to making your organization’s meetings work to your benefit and to ensure that the important issues are addressed while the irrelevant ones are left unsaid.

The Story

With a huddle being a clear parallel to a staff or board meeting in a business, no one led their huddles better than San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowl champions, tied for the most titles among all quarterbacks. “Joe Cool,” as he was known in an around the NFL, had a knack for seeing all aspects of the game from his position on the field. Montana seemed unflappable in the most pressurized situations.

Joe Montana's 49ers

There was a reason for that that went beyond Montana’s demeanor: He and Walsh believed in a very diligent, orderly process in the huddle. There were rules to be followed when Montana was giving out information for the next play. If those rules weren’t followed, well, you could take the issue somewhere else. The huddle was a place where everyone needed to be engaged and headed in the same direction.

“That’s what Bill demanded and that started in minicamps and started in training camp and (was) re-indoctrinated every single year about what went on in the huddle,” former San Francisco center Randy Cross said. “Bill knew what he did with his offense was pretty unusual and it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to figure out. So he figured the most important piece of communication you could have at any time during the play was the very continuous part that was in the huddle, to have the chance to clearly figure out what exactly was going on and what the play was.”

Cross explained that there would be constant changes to the San Francisco offense from week to week, small adjustments here and there that Montana had to be very careful to get exactly right. That put a further premium on precise communication in the huddle. As Cross transitioned from football to broadcasting after he retired as a player, he learned quickly that communication wasn’t always handled the same way.

“I always assumed most coaches demanded that (meeting and huddle discipline). I got into broadcasting I learned a lot of things at (other) organizations weren’t like what Bill Walsh did. Innumerable things,” said Cross, who then explained that new players from year to year would often have trouble early on with the disciplined approach to the huddle. “You know the linemen were on one side and the skill guys were on the other, you had a tight end on one end and the QB on the other. And sometimes the new guys, they’d talk or say something. And those of us who’d been there a while would kind of look over like, ‘This won’t end well’ and Joe would tell them to shut up or if it was practice you’d see a coach or specifically Bill, sort of remake that point that the quarterbacks the only person who talks in the huddle. If you have something to say to him say it after the play before you get in the huddle.”

In games, when the huddle wasn’t orderly, such as when two players might be arguing about what happened on the previous play or some other point of the game, Montana would command their attention with a simple instruction: Take that to the parking lot.

Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice explained that Montana would utter that phrase as a substitute for saying, “Enough.” It was Montana’s way of telling teammates that certain issues weren’t important in the heat of a game and could be dealt with later. At that moment in time, the focus had to be on the play at hand, not dealing with some difference of opinion. The “parking lot,” then, became a figurative place where they were to discuss things that were “off topic.”

Conversely, Montana had a way of lightening the mood in the most intense moments. It was often claimed by his teammates that no other player could better handle the pressure before a game-winning play or cool the nerves of his teammates as they faced a do-or-die situations. Through his huddles, Montana found something each of his teammates could relate to. The most famous example occurred during Super Bowl XXIII in the huddle before leading the 49ers on a 92-yard, game-winning touchdown drive with just minutes remaining on the clock.

In a nerve-racked huddle, Joe Montana calmed his teammates with an off-hand remark. Montana looked at the other end of the field, pointed at a hefty fan, and said, “Isn’t that John Candy?” The reference to the comedic actor showed a calm sense of amusement in the face of the moment. It loosened everyone and allowed them to focus on playing rather than the pressure of the situation.

The Defining Moment

In the second-to-last play of that historic drive against Cincinnati to win the Super Bowl, Montana again showed calm in the face of a tense moment. Montana attempted to throw a short pass to the right side. As he threw it, Cincinnati defensive back Dexter Bussed nearly intercepted the ball. Bussey has a clear path to the end zone if he had caught the ball. It’s the kind of near-tragic pass that could have been unnerving to a lesser player than Montana and thrown him off his game. Instead, Montana called the next play and came back with a similar throw on the left side to wide receiver John Taylor for the game-winning touchdown.

Montana’s combination of command and calm in the huddle were keys to him being such an overwhelming success at leading San Francisco to four Super Bowl titles. One can only imagine the type of success Montana would have in comparable business situations. Montana was able to keep huddles and meetings calm because of the instructions given by his supervisor (Walsh) and by knowing how to both discipline others in the face of distraction and ease the moment in the face of pressure. Whether it was telling teammates to “take that to the parking lot” or making a joke, Montana made his meeting efficient and focused, leading to tremendous success throughout his career.

Tips for Running Better Huddles

  • All Great huddles begin on time and end on time…extra points for ending a little early!
  • All Great huddles require the engaged participation of each team-member. Be fully present or fully absent.
  • All participants of a Great huddle need to be there. Before sending invites, ask if there are some who don’t need to be there?
  • All Great huddles have an agenda that has been shared in advance…and pre-reads (or playbooks) that everyone looks at before they walk in.
  • All Great huddle start with a stated objective. What are we going to accomplish during this time period.
  • All Great huddles end with two quick discussion points: Did we meet our objective; and does everyone know what is expected of them as we leave?
  • A Great meeting leader knows how to use a “parking lot” to keep the meeting on topic.
  • All Great huddles have the proper time allotted. They don’t try to squeeze an hour’s worth of discussion into 30 minutes, nor 30 minutes worth into an hour!
  • A Great huddle is worth the “group cost” of those in the meeting. Do you know the calculated cost of all those sitting in the room?
  • A Great leader understands who he has on his team…If you have a bunch of creative types (with short attention spans), run shorter meetings!

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Certified Speaking Professional (CSP)

About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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