If you are playing a Zero-Sum Game, you are losing.
Why collaboration and positivity always wins. A lesson from a professional bridge burner.
Early in my career, I wanted to do everything my way; this is funny looking back because I had done nothing at that point, yet was rich with entitlement. I was also playing a zero-sum game. Meaning I was focused on a winner-takes-all mentality, which was also my worldview. A zero-sum game is defined as a situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it. I was out to get mine but laying waste to those around me.
Having this kind of mental makeup left me tired, paranoid, and, at all times, egotistical. I thought I was better than everyone, I didn’t need help, and that everyone was out to get me. My failures were not my own but those around me. Collaboration, due diligence, and just overall decency were not something I was into.
Was I a good teammate? No way. I’m out to get mine. The attitude I carried left me alienated and alone—and the destructive cycle continued into adulthood. This summer marks ten years since I quit my job and truly embarked on this wild journey called coaching. It’s funny how life comes full circle, and certain chapters close, but just because a door is closed doesn’t mean it’s locked. We can all change, grow, and do better.
Looking back, it is easy to see how much destruction came from my negative mindset. Though I was a decent athlete (which was all I cared about), I was a terrible teammate, and many of my old coaches can attest to this, a problematic player. In short, I thought I was better than where I was.
In high school, I wanted to run away from my hometown. I had cut everyone off from knowing the real me. In my blind, unbiased rage, I tried to get as far away as I could. I even told my high school coach I didn’t want to go to any in-state school, which cut out a lot of opportunities for me. Leaving Liberty, Missouri, allowed me to run away from my issues because no one knew who I was.
My feet were never firmly planted long enough to grow any roots. I bounced around at the beginning of my playing career and was lucky enough to stumble on the most beautiful human being, now my wife—who you could say is my anchor. I had moved from Liberty to Sioux Falls, S. Dakota, to Pheonix, to Olathe, Kansas, and finally settled in Oklahoma City.
My wife kept me at Southern Nazarene long enough to graduate. I was constantly running away from who I was, and my hometown was a reflection of that. Instead of embracing my reality, I tried to create a different one. I had to be constantly moving. Lucky for me, I was able to find an anchor and someone I could be myself around, but that was only slight relief from my destructive behavior.
Fast forward to my coaching career, and I couldn’t wait to move up and move on. I wanted to be a Defensive Coordinator at a very young age, as though this was some validation for all the “things” that had happened to me. I wanted to show everyone how much I knew and how much they missed in doubting me.
I obsessed over football. Though my mindset was negative in reality, I would have never had the courage to throw everything away and take a chance with Baylor Football without this blind resolution. God has a sense of humor, for sure.
Everything works out for a reason; it just isn’t always immediately apparent. In Waco, I would meet Phil Bennett and Jim Gush, who, to this day, are my mentors. It is hard to have an ego in a place like Baylor but trust me; it was still there. I still made plenty of egregious follies. But, without my time in Waco, many of the opportunities and friendships I have now would not be possible.
My failures at Baylor are simple, I never asked for help, nor did I ever collaborate. I did everything I could to be the only young coach doing anything on the defensive side of the ball. I didn’t learn to say “no” either and would exhaust myself to the point of a breakdown. I broke down over 1,000+ plays for our win over Oklahoma in 2013. All. By. Myself. I parked myself in a room. Thinking of all the opportunities I missed to collaborate and grow is frustrating.
I don’t say that as a badge of honor but to illustrate how foolish I had become. My father can attest to the many times he had to walk me off the ledge on our daily phone calls. I was alone, with no one to turn to, but I had made it that way because I had to win. Frankly, it strained my relationships at home too, and it didn’t allow me to grow as a husband, father, or coach. I had my oldest during Spring ‘Ball, my second year at Baylor. Talk about adding fuel to the fire!
I am constantly reminded in this profession that it is not what you know but who you know. In reality, I did very little with my time at Baylor in terms of networking or growing outwards. When it was all said and done, I had nowhere to go. For many young coaches, their first “real” job is usually one they get when a coach leaves. You either move on with them or move up internally. In 2013, no one left, and I had nowhere to go. The ego came back in full force and brought its cousin resentment.
I had several restricted earnings (a nice phrase for low-paying) job offers at the college level, but at the time, I could not take them because of the burden it would exert on my family. Plus, in my delusional mind, I felt they were beneath me. Hell, we (Baylor) had just won the Big 12 title!
As I stated, I had a son while I was a GA at Baylor. Did I say my wife is a saint? Even though my ego was out of control, I could not stand to put my family in a terrible situation, and to be honest, I didn’t want a divorce. For all my faults, which are many, I am loyal, probably to a fault. Thankfully, my wife is too.
Because of my mental model of how a college coach’s trajectory should go and my failures at moving up, I became very cynical and jaded. I came to Baylor at just the right time. We were about to be very good, and the NCAA added an extra GA. When I was forced to leave Baylor, my “luck” had run out, and I had to start looking in the mirror, which was not a pleasant experience.
At this point in my life, 28, I had failed as a player (didn’t get that D-1 scholarship) and as a potential coach (didn’t get that D-1 full-time job). The negativity cut a path through my entire life at that point. I was blinded by resentment and self-hatred for being such a “loser.” How could I have let this happen? How could I not see the fantastic opportunities that lay ahead? I had a beautiful family, a first-class education, and a bright future ahead, but I was tethered to false beliefs about what was important, and hell would freeze over before I asked for help.
Looking back, I was living and breathing a zero-sum game. If I didn’t “win” at all costs, then I had failed. From high school to adulthood, that winner-take-all mentality had stunted my emotional development. I let no one in, not even my wife. To this day, I have two friends from high school that I talk with (and only a few from college). I take full ownership of lost friendships. Those are solely on my shoulders.
There was no seeing a silver lining either, and certainly, no room to allow anyone outside of my tiny little circle (mostly family) in. In my mind, I had just gone through an intensive football school with two of the best minds in football, Art Briles and Phil Bennett. Everyone had told me I was a shoo-in to land a job.
In reality, I saw my “reward” as moving to the high school level. In my eyes, the system was rigged against me, and everyone had failed me except, well, me. I couldn’t be further from the truth.
I brought this toxic attitude into my first coordinating job. Because I did not control my ego and still played a zero-sum game, I was not prepared to lead men, let alone young athletes. I also took a job that did not suit me well or had a support system to help my transition. All this information was present at the time, but I was blinded by my ego and the need to have a title.
In short, my first job back at the high school level was a disaster in every way, mainly anchored in relationships with coaches and players. In my mind, I should have never been there—I was a D-1 college coach. That hung in the air like a thick cloud, fogging my judgment and muddying my thoughts. My feet were not firmly planted where I stood.
I was constantly looking for an edge, a way out, and ultimately feeding into the negativity loop I had created for myself. Hindsight is a funny thing because we can reflect and see our misguided adventures. If we are not ready to learn from those mistakes and are not in the right frame of mind to evaluate and be honest with ourselves, we learn nothing. I was sinking, and fast. Plus, it was only going to get worse.
Lucky for me (kind of), I had not burned too much of a bridge to get myself out of there. Though 2014 would be one of the most challenging years of my life, it was no match for the following year. My next school was a complete 180 from the previous spot and was a much better fit personally.
In my brief stint as a young DC, I learned that titles don’t mean that much if put in a situation where you are going to fail. Money, title, and power are great, but if it is sucking the life out of you and feeding into your negativity loop, you will eventually burn out, which is precisely what was happening to me. The lesson wouldn’t come full circle until the conclusion of the ‘15 season.
At this point in my story, I am at a crossroads. I could have learned a lesson, being humbled by the failure of my first DC job and lucky enough to be “saved” from a terrible situation. Instead, I learned nothing and kept pouring into an unhealthy relationship with football. Moving schools only fed the issues I was dealing with. The relationships with my players were fantastic, and I was developing friendships in the coach’s office, but there was a stench in the air, and it was me. There was blood in the water, and the sharks (my ego) were circling.
We only learn through failure, but if we get “saved” or are lucky, we tend to see this as something that is owed to us. We don’t hit rock bottom, so there is no way we have the clarity to see the actual situation—we are a sinking ship. I had created this mental model because I believed my talent and knowledge as a coach would eventually overwhelm those around me.
I would soon be seen as the “genius” I knew I was (I’m laughing at myself as I write those words). I was seeking respect yet not giving it myself. In reality, none of that happened because I was playing the wrong game; a zero-sum game.
Seeing the world as a zero-sum game cuts you off from growth and those around you that care because you are focused on winning, not growing. In 2015, I was still a lost kid that had a lot of growing up to do. As I reflect on my time at Lovejoy, I see many potential friendships that I left stunted because I needed to “win” at the game I wanted to play.
Even in my relationship at home, there was no collaboration, no depth, and I had to win every situation. By the way, these are not the steps you take to stay married for long. The tension at home was palpable, and it affected everything in my life. I was angry all the time because I felt slighted. I was finding problems and not solutions.
Looking in the mirror, I saw a fraud. I was a terrible father, husband, and friend, and quickly becoming a terrible coach. Ultimately I had let everyone down, especially my family. Something had to give, and it did. The dam broke, and my luck ran out. I hit bottom, hard. The only way was up.
My life changed for the better when I decided to quit playing the zero-sum game. I needed help, something that many coaches and men have a problem asking for. In my life, I had alienated even the ones that had my back. Everything was crashing down around me.
Finally, the negative energy I had been using for all these years ran out, and I was wasted. That is the difference between negative and positive energy. Negative energy will eventually run out, whereas positive energy recycles itself back to you, so you never run out of it. It keeps you going even when you are feeling down, and that is why I tell my players and others that you need to build the people around you up. Doing that allows you to rise with them; they push you forward.
I will never forget kneeling in the Lovejoy indoor complex the Monday following Thanksgiving Break after finishing a workout. I asked God to change something in my life, to give me that positivity I so desperately needed. I was ready. I was finally open to change. I’m glad I asked.
It is amazing how God and life will help you through that door when you are open to change. It is not always what you expect either. Coming off that break, I had no idea my life was indeed about to change drastically. Less than an hour after that conversation with the Man upstairs, my head coach was fired, and my pursuit of what I thought was happiness left me with nothing. I had gone to Lovejoy to be the DC, you know, chasing a title, and now I was given nothing.
I had spent every waking moment of Thanksgiving Break working on our self-scout and setting up for next year. What an idiot. Thanksgiving is a time to reset and reconnect. I did neither.
Again, God has a great sense of humor, and I’m usually the butt of the joke. I was now a CBs coach and nothing more, placed in a literal corner and told to be quiet. At least I was able to stay on the staff.
At home, I was left with a hollow marriage and much rebuilding to do in all aspects of my life. Without this rock bottom moment and enough clarity to see the destruction I had laid upon my life, I would still be chasing some hollow concept I thought was important - chasing that carrot. I would also be playing a zero-sum game—my way or the highway, which, ironically, was usually me.
This pivotal moment was the genesis for MatchQuarters and saving my life. Without that year of forced stillness, I would have never started writing, which had been a dormant passion since my youth and had always been an outlet when things got hard. Hitting bottom and changing the mental outlook from a zero-sum game to one that was open to change and collaboration allowed me to attain real growth. Stillness unlocked my true passion for football. Trust me, though; it is an everyday battle, and I am still not there.
Collaboration in all aspects of life, from marriage to football, is crucial to success. I tell my players who are having a hard time seeing this that we will reach higher heights if we build others up. Only when we bring those around us with us can we be truly happy. Football is a team game.
Lucky for me, I caught my issue before it had utterly destroyed my life, and I am still young enough to recover my career from my youthful misgivings. By no means was my change to positivity overnight, and I still constantly struggle with my ego and drive to win at all costs. I’m just more self-aware now, I can detach, and I don’t sweat the small stuff (as much).
Had God not given me that year to just breathe and grow, I would have kept running head-first into oblivion. Who knows where I’d be? I didn’t want that year, and I wasn’t happy at the time, but looking back, there was no other way; I had to burn it to the ground and start over.
I am relatively young for the profession and still have a ways to go. At this point, I have realized over the past five years that it is much easier to work with someone than against them. We are not entitled to be the only voice in the room, even if we are the leader or even right. I was a fraud for a long time, pretending to be something I was not. Now I feel like I am the genuine me. Every relationship since has led me to this point, and I’m content.
Author’s Note: Stoicism has helped me tremendously in my life. Ryan Holiday’s series of books - Obstical is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, & Stillness is Key have all been great reminders of how to stay on path.
I feel at peace, grounded, and excited for the next step in my career. None of this would have happened had I kept my zero-sum mentality. MatchQuarters was built around education (especially my own!) and helping others. I needed a way to get my creative (and sometimes destructive) juices out of me and put them to good use.
Negative energy is still energy. If you repurpose it for good, it will grow exponentially. For instance, I was told to sit in a corner, so I wrote. Cautious Aggression, and MatchQuarters was the result. Turn a negative into a positive. Writing also forced me to realize that I do not have all the answers, and I will never know all of them. Again, this is a people business. I see that now.
I recently read an article about how a scientist suggested giving up our best ideas to truly grow as leaders and collaborators. We live in a time where almost all information is accessible. In football, that includes film, playbooks, clinics, and anything you can imagine is out there and available with a few keystrokes.
Withholding information leads to resentment, and no one likes a secret. Hoarding information isolates you from other ecosystems and situations that may challenge your worldview and make you a better coach. Hint: there might be a better way to do things! We ask our players to be life-long learners, yet coaches often hold on to the first things they learn as coaches (anchoring bias).
Sharing gives you feedback, and feedback leads to learning. Without feedback, we live in a zero-sum game because we only listen to our voice, and many times our voice is entirely wrong. Don’t end up looking a lot like my younger self—isolated, alone, and burned out. You may be on top now, but eventually, your ego will eat you.
In a recent podcast, Mike Lombardi talked about the mask we put out to the world eventually eats our face. The dichotomy strains our psyche, eventually leading to breakdowns. It’s mentally exhausting being angry all the time because you are putting on an act.
Collaboration can add depth to conversations too. If you are busy trying to be the most intelligent guy in the room, you will eventually notice no one is listening because you have left no room for anyone to get in edge-wise. Once people have used you for your knowledge, they will move on, and you will be left with nothing, that is, unless you build relationships.
The ability to listen is a lost art. We tend to forget that God gave us two ears, two eyes, yet only one mouth. Many times as coaches, we want to be the last one with the marker and the last one to get our jab in. It is hard to turn the competitive switch off in a highly competitive ecosystem and remember that football is a game that kids play.
In the end, we end up modeling the game we play, which is a zero-sum game. In football, you either win or lose. Rarely if ever, is there a tie. In life, it doesn’t have to be that way. Everyone can add value if you let them in.
Coaches everywhere should hold themselves to a higher standard because we are a mirror for our student-athletes. It is up to us to reflect on them how a man should look and act. In a modern world where most kids have all the information they need at the touch of a button, they struggle with relationship-building. If we are constantly playing in a zero-sum game, we leave no room for anyone else, not even our players. How can we be their mirror when we have isolated ourselves?
Collaboration and feedback are crucial to success in any profession, but more so in football. The cliche of the locker room as a microcosm of society has a point, yet many feel alienated because of the lack of feedback and genuine caring. Our players (and subordinate coaches) feel isolated because, in many cases, they are treated like pawns and not human beings. Just win, baby!
My goal in anything I do is to teach and help someone grow, even if it is one small thing. I try to stay away from always and never situations or telling people they can’t do something. What may work for me might not be successful for my fellow coach. Of course, there are always best-practice ways of doing things, but throwing a tantrum on social media or trying to “dunk” on a coach who hasn’t had the same experiences or exposure as I have doesn’t “win” me anything in the end. Again, you are playing a zero-sum game, and there is no growth or value-added. You are yelling into an abyss. Plus, you just made an enemy, which is never a good thing.
In an article by the Harvard Journal on self-awareness, they found that once people assumed a certain amount of power, they quit growing if they didn’t have good self-awareness. The study found that many experienced leaders lacked the skill to assess their effectiveness. In short, they had cut themselves off from growth and, in turn, alienated themselves from their subordinates. The article explains:
“…experience can lead to a false sense of confidence about our performance, it can also make us overconfident about our level of self-knowledge.”
Hopefully, my failures as a leader, coach, and man can trigger something in you to think about and grow from. I am not perfect, and I make mistakes every day. I own them now. I tell my players, let me be the one that makes the “big” mistakes; learn from my failures so you can get a head start. I’ve made about every mistake you can make, from burning bridges to failing in my marriage. So if it wasn’t clear, don’t do what I did!
I’m still a work in progress, but I am trying to live a positive existence and be a shining light of influence to those around me at this point in my life. Whether in the coaches’ office, the field, or on social media, coaches need to detach and ask themselves whether they are adding value to the situation or trying to win at a zero-sum game. If it is the latter, take a deep breath, remove yourself from the situation, and examine what makes you feel the need to put a relationship at risk. What are you gaining from the need to win this argument? Usually, it is staring you in the mirror.
If you noticed, I didn’t use the word “why,” opting for the word “what.” Using phrases like “Why is this happening to me?” leads you down a path of invention and away from the truth. You create your reality and never take ownership of your faults and actions. Doing this leads to less self-awareness and more mistakes. “Why” also leads to negative thoughts. “What,” on the other hand, leads to solutions. It’s easy to find problems.
To increase productivity, use “What is making this happen to me?” or “What is making me feel this way?” These statements allow you to focus on the issue, and you don’t become a “victim.” It forces you to take ownership and find a solution.
It is funny how life brings you full circle. When I left Life School Waxahachie in 2011, I was a naive kid who had no idea what being a great coach meant. I was arrogant enough to think I could quit my stable job, walk into the Baylor Football office and become the next Nick Saban. I did get a tremendous education in football and have two fantastic mentors to boot. Not everything negative about yourself has to lead to a negative result. It’s all in how you play your cards.
Sitting here ten years later, I will embark on another chapter in my life and beside my best friend, my father. It is a dream come true for both of us. To some, leaving the job I currently have to take this new one may seem strange, but I am no longer playing a zero-sum game, and I have learned in my brief coaching career that the people you surround yourself with matters much more than the title or named place you are at.
Freedom of expression, doing what you genuinely want to do, and having more time for the things I value, specifically my family, ultimately lead to a happy disposition and contentment. I’m also much more prepared to be a servant leader this time around. Without my failures in the past, I would not be at the place of peace I find myself in today within this hectic profession.
I have been the coach with one foot out the door. I have been the coach who is hard to work with. I am that coach with an “interesting” resume that needs some clarification in interviews. I own all of that, which is what gives me peace. I am, of course, a professional bridge burner that is constantly trying to rebuild the destruction I left behind.
If you’ve made it this far, let me leave you with one thing, it is better to create than to destroy. Creation leads to innovation and collaboration. Destruction leads to envy, jealousy, and resentment - and there is no coming back from those. Relationships matter, and I know this first hand from the failed ones I have had in my brief career. Hopefully, this speaks to you and helps you gain your happiness. Trust me; I’ve been the young and hungry coach who now has to look back and cringe at my actions. Don’t be that guy. Don’t be me.
Finally, there will be people you don’t like, but ultimately you will also not be appreciated at some point too. The pendulum swings both ways and loyalty, in many cases, is just a word to hold you in your place. It is impossible to make everyone happy, but at the same time, you can’t be the only one that gets your way. We all have work to do, and we need each other to get it done. Accountability is love, and without healthy relationships, where can we get genuine feedback? Without it, we will eventually lose or burn out.
Winning matters, don’t get me wrong. We are hired to get fired in many cases in this profession, but we don’t always have to “lose.” Instead, we should try and learn by building up those around us when we attempt and fail, staying, though hard as it may be, positive. Iron sharpens iron, this should be common sense, but to many in this profession, they want to be the hammer snuffing out those around them, fitting square pegs into round holes. The last time I checked, a hammer doesn’t sharpen the nail, and a square isn’t a circle.
Every day I wake up and tell myself I am going to have a great day. Some days that works, others, it doesn’t, but it beats waking up with a cloud over my head. You can walk through life being miserable and burning everything down, or you can build up those around you, lose the ego, and attempt to be a servant leader. Remember, we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. That is why I don’t get mad at people on social media or even at coaches I work with. Empathy is the path to understanding. In the end, relationships matter. We are in the business of growing and developing people. Tell someone you love them today, and be that light.
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