Performing Under Pressure, the Alabama Way

Leadership Employee Management

What can you learn about performing under pressure from some of the best college football coaches? There are plenty of business lessons to be gleaned.

Whether it’s in business or in football, performing under pressure takes a lot of qualities, including talent, focus, a strong team ethic, experienced leadership and a drive to succeed. When you look back at last season’s BCS Championship game between Alabama and Clemson, an instant classic won in the fourth quarter by Alabama, you saw a great example of winning by using another tactic: creativity. When things aren’t working in business or in football, you need to try something different.

If It Ain’t Working, Change Things up Fast

As you may recall, No. 1 Clemson’s high-powered offense, led by QB Deshaun Watson, had controlled No. 2 Alabama for three quarters. The score was Clemson 24–21 as the fourth quarter began, and the powerful Crimson Tide seemed unable to stop Clemson’s balanced, wide-open offensive attack. With 10 minutes left, and looking like they’d lose, Alabama head coach Nick Saban decided to gamble his entire season. Famous for their strength and power, Alabama perfectly executed a surprise onside kick that they recovered. Not only did the trick succeed in shocking Clemson, but it changed the tone of the championship game. Later, he went on to explain his decision to ESPN: “We were tired on defense and weren’t doing a great job of getting them stopped and felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn’t have a chance to win.” Saban’s decision shows that when things aren’t working in football—or in business—leaders must consider changing their course quickly.

However, winning in business and football — and performing under pressure — is more than just surprising your opponent. Saban is a coach famous for demanding discipline and hard work from his team, and won’t passively accept bad performance. He is also among the best strategic minds in all of college football, as the timing of that famous onside kick shows.

Getting and Retaining Talent Is Key

Another tip you can take from Alabama’s win is to find and retain talent. Saban may be one of the best head coaches in football, but he also surrounds himself with all-star talent, the best players and accomplished coaches, and then gets the most out of them. For example, Saban hired legendary strength coach Scott Cochran to make his players the best conditioned and most powerful in college football. While Saban is a strategist, Cochran is a coach famous for developing close emotional bonds with Crimson Tide players.

As two-time Alabama All-American lineman Barrett Jones told Bleacher Report, Saban and Cochran “have the same message, but they have a different way of delivering it.” Saban is an organizer and strategist while Cochran is closer with players. He is “with you day in and day out, enforcing the principles. And he’s doing that in an emotional, loving way,” says Jones.

Culture and tradition matter, in football and in business. Alabama’s tradition of winning pulls talent in, but so does the close, family culture driven by coaches like Cochran. Consider your company’s culture and how it affects current or potential employees. Do you already have strong, successful relationships within your organization that attract talent and inspire employees, or do you need to make some changes in order to motivate your team and bring them closer together? Nothing breeds success like success, but being able to treat your employees as a family counts for a lot.

Developing a Team Environment

What Nick Saban has done at Alabama can be carried into business, too. You need to build a talented team willing and disciplined enough to follow wherever you lead. Saban has spent years developing a collaborative culture of excellence at Alabama. The team doesn’t feature flashy superstars. Indeed, last year’s star running back and Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry typically deflected all praise onto his Alabama offensive line. Take a look at how you treat your employees and how they treat each other. Is there a sense of camaraderie or do you tend to highlight the efforts of one individual versus the team? Finding superstars and keeping them team-oriented isn’t easy, but it builds a collaborative atmosphere that can help you find success in both business and football.

Performing under pressure requires talent, flexible leadership, a great management team (people in the trenches like Scott Cochran) and an organizational culture that puts “we” before “me.” It has to start at the top, but winning happens way before kickoff.

Chuck Leddy
Chuck Leddy

Chuck Leddy is a versatile, fast-learning communications professional with a proven track record as a digital content marketer. Writing for clients like GE, ADP, the National Center for the Middle Market, smartShift (computing), Office Depot, and more, he's published hundreds of articles, features, profiles, and interviews.