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Being at your best when things are not going well

Ideas, Thoughts and Philosophies of Bruce Snyder,Head Coach, Arizona State University
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Bruce Snyder, an avid reader, has noticed that books are rife with stories of people who retreat when faced with crisis.

If you are doing a good job and are confident in yourself, he believes that you will retreat to your basic core values, and that it's important to remind everyone of what those core values are.

"I think that's playing the percentages," he says, "and I think that's what I do in those cases. I don't go against percentages. The percentages are, over the long haul, over my 35 years of experience, what we believe in before we had this crisis, probably still are valid."

Snyder's philosophy of problem-solving was put to the test came after his second game of the 1998 season when ASU was totally outplayed by Brigham Young University.

The next morning, he sat in his office and responded to the question: "What do you say to your kids tonight at your Sunday night meeting?"

His face had the drawn look of someone who had not slept well. Because of construction on the interstate around Salt Lake City in preparation for the Winter Olympics, the bus carrying the team to the airport had taken two hours longer than expected. Coaches and players had not arrived home in Arizona until 4 a.m.

"I'm not sure yet what I will say to them," he responded. "But I will figure it out by tonight."

The thing that affected Snyder the most was that BYU had out-hit his team - a team, like most about the game of Snyder's, that was known for being physical. BYU had given the Wildcats a beating. The Cougars were big and strong - a mature team, but Arizona was not prepared for the physical dominance of BYU's offensive and defensive lines.

Arizona's coaching staff felt they would have trouble running the ball, but in looking at a tape of BYU's previous game, they were confident that their receivers could beat the Cougar's defensive backs. As it turned out, Arizona receivers could not outrun BYU's defense in the 26-6 loss.

"Coach, you've lost two games," came the inevitable questions from reporters. "Do you make changes? What have you done in the past in similar situations?"

"Well, obviously, you have to make a few personnel changes," Snyder said. "But whatever changes are made cannot be made showing panic. There is nothing wrong with our schemes. We aren't going out and installing a whole new offense.

"You know, the coaches can't just put it all on the players our fingerprints are all over this. We chose them. We coached them. The coaching staff has to take responsibility for this also.

"I'm not mad with them - it's what they're doing that I'm mad with."

In other words, their performances were unacceptable.

"Jake Plummer, Damien Richardson and Pat Tillman would have gone ballistic after a game like this if they were still playing.

"We are missing leaders this year. Leaders like they were. We need platoon leaders on the field. Leaders like Plummer and Tillman decide what is unacceptable and lead the team - and last night was unacceptable."

Snyder knew that he needed to look back at what had been successful in the past and draw from those experiences. Find leaders within the team, and help them lead.

For Snyder, leadership means consistency from the head coach and his assistants. Coaches must consistently articulate the core values and stick to the things they believe in.

"I resist change unless it is obviously needed because I believe that it sends a message that you're scrambling - that you don't believe in what you're doing. It communicates to your players and they lose confidence in you. We never change our core values. I read a good quote today. Thomas Jefferson said, in effect, 'When it comes to style, swim with the current. When it comes to (core) values, stand like a rock!' "

Snyder believes that consistency is important in all areas of a leader's life his dress, grooming, punctuality, even things that aren't directly related to the specific task.


Each night in preseason football camp at Camp Tontonzon, Snyder explains one of the 10 building blocks that form a pyramid of how he expects his players to perform under various circumstances both on and off the field.

One of the building blocks is crisis - going through a tough time. "And there is a three-step process, a kind of road map."

"First of all," he tells his players, "it's okay to feel lousy. And if it's in the case of death in the family - you need to go through the grief process. The grief process is very important to go through. Whatever feelings you have are legitimate. Don't deny them.

"Secondly, do something positive, even if it has nothing to do directly with the crisis that you're going through. Every year we seem to have three or four players who have a death or serious illness in the family.

"Call somebody - cheer somebody up - call somebody you haven't talked with for a while, do some volunteer work, do something positive for someone in your family who is directly affected by this crisis.

"By doing this, you will focus on someone else and it shifts the self-pity away.

"And the third step, as you are going through this crisis is to get back to doing what was important to you before the crisis.

"So, if school, practicing football, your games and your teammates were important before the crisis, then at some point you need to get back to doing that - making them important again."

Personal Crisis

During the season, after a loss, Snyder allows himself to feel lousy. "It's okay to feel that way," he says.

"If we lose a game, my wife and my friends understand that I'm not interested in a pep talk don't try to cheer me up because I don't want to be cheered up. I want to feel the way I feel.

"Secondly, I try to do something positive such as taking my family out to Sunday brunch after a Saturday night loss.

"And then, what the heck was important before the game? It was to prepare and teach the kids and coach, and so I get back to doing it."


Snyder developed the "three problems a day" concept when he got his first job as a head coach at Utah State in 1976.

A natural-born optimist, Snyder's positive outlook was severely tested when he arrived at Utah State. He was familiar with the school, having been the running backs and quarterback coach in 1973 when USU went 7-4.

"Being an assistant coach and head coach are like night and day. The assistant coach's phone very seldom rings - the head coach's phone is always ringing - kids, parents, media, faculty, alumni, friends of the program, staff or the administration. It was a culture shock to go from being an assistant coach to taking over total control of the football program as head coach.

"When you deal with that many people there will be a multitude of problems.

"I came up with the number three, kind of like a joke. There wasn't just three problems a day, there were usually three before lunch. We'd laugh and say, 'Okay, there's the third one today. No more problems the rest of the day.'

"I think that it helped me to understand that life has problems and once you realize that and accept it, life becomes easier.

"When you are surprised that there is a problem then it's going to catch you off guard and leave you unprepared to handle it. So let's have a way of dealing with problems.

"Most problems can be handled, some problems are more complex than other and you need time to fully appreciate all ramifications.

"Some problems create an emotional response, and those are the ones that are really difficult, particularly on young people. The operational ones that deal with issues such as budget, practice schedule, weather, etc., you just figure out the best thing to do make adjustments and move on.

"But the emotional ones always deal with people and even though I move pretty fast on decisions concerning the inanimate, like equipment, meetings, practice schedules, etc., I move at a different pace when it comes to people.

"I really pace myself when it comes to somebody else's life like goals, ambitions, relationships, personal problems and so forth. I tend to be more sure-footed as I go through the problems involving other people."


Snyder believes that if you've built a sound way of doing business then you should deal with success and failure in about the same way.

But, he says, everyone should understand and accept the same philosophy.

"I really believe strongly that getting an agreement on how we're going to conduct business beforehand prevents misunderstandings later. So there has to be an agreement about how we're dealing with each other and how we're going to go about our business."


"My general demeanor and instincts tell me that right after a football game is not the time to lose your composure and rant and rave if you've lost the game.

"Unless, of course, there has been a major violation in our code of operation, such as not being courageous, or a multitude of mental and physical errors than there should be.

"If the effort, courage and preparation is not there then I think that the players expect me to be hard on them, because they know.

"But if we've gotten a really strong effort and the preparation in the week was good and we lost the game, then I think it's time to give them strength of togetherness and direction and eliminate any finger-pointing.

"It's the time to point out how we all agreed beforehand that this is how we are going to operate, and those rules of operation haven't changed.

"We're going to conduct ourselves a certain way, and that's the end of the story. Over the long haul, I think that this is a good approach."


"My sense about coaches is that it's not much different than with the players. If one area of the team will be highlighted as the reason for the loss - maybe it's the pass defense, maybe it's a fumble by a back - then my approach is to do it privately rather than in a staff meeting.

"I want to make sure that they understand that criticism might be coming down the road and for them to be prepared for it - accept responsibility, and that we are planning on fixing it.

"So, I think that there is a show of strength - that you recognize it - you accept the responsibility, and you're going to get it fixed.

"Again, I don't try to make coaches feel good if we've lost. When we lose, I don't want people to try and make me feel better. I just want to deal with my own feelings and get things corrected as they should be."


"The alumni, for the most part, are a sophisticated group around most campuses and they don't want to hear about injuries, academic casualties or that it's the player's fault.

"My approach to our players and coaches is there's no finger- pointing here on this team. If the alumni, administrators or media want to attack us I tell the team, 'Hey, that might be something that we should expect, but the only way that this program or this team is going to crumble is from within.'

"It won't crumble because someone said something about us, or wrote something about us. That's not how a real team crumbles.

"A team crumbles from the inside when we start blaming somebody else for what happened rather than taking our own responsibility and being supportive as a team member.

"I really work hard at not becoming too defensive. I think that's a first taste of blood for some of those people when you become defensive. Then they know that they've hit a nerve."


"I think what's important with the media is that you can use the media to influence your team. The perception is that the media influences the alums - which they do.

"When we've lost a game the concern is not the alums, it's the team, and what I want to do is get my team back on track.

"Nothing is going to help unless your team is back on track and the media can help you do that. What you share with them has to make sense and has to be consistent with what you've told the players. Each of the players will read, and particularly the parents, will read every little comment. So, there has to be a consistency in what I tell the players and the media.

"You have to be very careful about what you say, but it is a great opportunity to help get your team back on track. I think it's terrific."


"There's no question that if your team just isn't functioning well - things are going wrong and it's over the course of more than one game - then it really challenges your belief system.

"You've worked on it a long time and maybe it's worked in other places, other groups and it's been good. So, you try to make sure that the stabilizers are in place, the things that keep the boat from capsizing. The belief system is really that portion of the hull called the keel.

"The wind may blow like crazy and you may lean to one side or the other, but the thing that is going to keep you from capsizing is the belief system.

"That belief system is held by both players and coaches. And there is a second level, the trainers, equipment managers, team managers, the administrative people and it filters out in that direction.

"But the core of it would be the players and coaches, and we will only be destroyed from within.

"You can certainly believe that in a storm there will be people who will want to start fixing everything and want to have the answers for everything - 'Let's change this, let's change that,' kind of attitude.

"Baloney with that. It's the belief system."


"If you change when things are going badly then I believe that there is an erosion that takes place.

"Change may stimulate on a short-term basis and you might get a positive. And I guess that there's nothing wrong with that if you can jump start a team and get back onto a positive with a change.

"But I think in the long haul that the players will start to believe that there are quick fixes. And then they will start to believe all of those things that we talk about at Camp Tontozona really doesn't work all the time.

"If our players start to believe that then they will start to lose confidence, and that's not good for the long range, steady program."


"The first rule of generalship and fighting war is don't lose it. Figure out a way not to lose the war first, and then go back and try to find a way to win it.

"And I think that's really true when you're struggling. We try to come up with a game plan in which we force the other team to beat us.

"We tell our kids, 'You're not going to beat yourself, you're going to play smart and you're going to play with courage.'"


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