A Winning Habit


I might be a tad biased, given that my wife and I are alums, but there’s something absolutely insane about the fact that Notre Dame’s football team will be playing for the national championship in a month. Because it wasn’t supposed to happen. For the past two decades the most consistent thing about ND football has been its enthusiastic embrace of its role as college football’s version of the Bad News Bears: clumsy, clueless, and endlessly creative when it came to finding new ways to achieve mediocrity.

And now… this? What on earth happened?

This is really a question about culture — specifically, how does a losing culture become a winning one? That’s where the lockers come in.

Under ND’s previous coach, players’ lockers were considered their private domains. The result was, the locker room looked like a laundry bomb had gone off. When Coach Brian Kelly arrived three years ago, he issued an edict: lockers mattered. Players were issued a diagram of precisely how their lockers should be kept — shoulder pads here, helmet here, playbook here.

This seems like a small thing — a tiny drop of change in a larger ocean of changes.  But on a deeper level, these kinds of changes work because they are what writer Charles Duhigg calls keystone habits: the kind of habits that create structures to let productive behaviors flourish. The keystone habit is often quite humble. After all, the way in which a player keeps his shoulderpads should have zero bearing on the team’s on-field performance. But it does. Because it changes the atmosphere. It sends a clear signal — be organized — that echoes into other behaviors.

Keystone habits are a core part of winning cultures. In his wonderful book, The Power of Habit (which should be on everyone’s Christmas list), Duhigg tells how Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill used the keystone habit of worker safety to remake the organization’s fortunes, and how weight-loss programs succeed far more often if they embrace the keystone habit of journaling. The message: turnarounds are not about willpower or desire; they’re about designing an environment that supports the habits you want to create.

What do the best keystone habits have in common?

  • 1) They deal with preparation/organization.
  • 2) They are daily routines.
  • 3) They are fantastically detailed. Here’s how UCLA basketball coachJohn Wooden used to teach his players how to put their socks on:

“Now pull it up in the back, pull it up real good, real strong. Now run your hand around the little toe area … make sure there are no wrinkles and then pull it back up. Check the heel area. We don’t want any sign of a wrinkle about it … The wrinkle will be sure you get blisters, and those blisters are going to make you lose playing time…”

It’s a small detail. But it succeeds because it’s the right detail — a keystone habit whose signal echoes through the mind of an entire team.

PS – On other fronts, The Secret Race has had a very nice week, winning the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in London. Tyler Hamilton and I got to attend the ceremony, which was held in a beautiful bar on the top floor of Waterstone’s Picadilly bookshop (yes, British bookstores know how to sell books). The day involved a fair amount of champagne and cigars, a trip to Harrod’s, and our learning lots of new British expressions. Best of all, Jen got to come along. We’re simply chuffed to bits.

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8 Responses to “A Winning Habit”

  1. Craig says:

    Coach Wooden, The Power of Habit, and The Talent Code…Win, Win, Win!!

  2. Scott says:

    I think the challenge is to determine WHAT the specific keystone habits are that make a difference. Possible that is what seperates the winners and the “try-harder’s”….

  3. Dan, I love your work and I respect the discipline imposed by Brian Kelly on the program. But I think there is a bunch of stuff going on here. Hope you have read Modern Irish in SI last week. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1206462/index.htm

  4. djcoyle says:

    You’re completely right, Patrick — I couldn’t agree more that this is a hugely complex issue, and I certainly don’t mean to give the impression that there’s a silver bullet solution. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that silver bullets don’t exist, and that changing a culture is an incredibly complex process — one in which keystone habits, I’d say, play a vital and underappreciated role. Does that make sense?

  5. Mike says:

    The locker diagram, and Coach Wooden’s detailed instructions for exactly how to put on a pair of socks, took me right back to Marine Corps boot camp 17 years ago. A summer absolutely chock full of “keystone habits” like that (everything from how to make your bed, get dressed, brush your teeth, etc… ), as well as lots of deep focused repetitive practice, and “master coaches” who were more than a little scary, ….

  6. djcoyle says:

    I love that, Mike — thanks for sharing it. It’s amazing how often military experiences pop up in these kinds of discussions. They’re like a Petri dish for human behavior. Kinda makes you wonder why more organizations don’t “steal” some of those techniques.

  7. Dan, thanks for your response. I completely agree with the idea of Keystone Habits. By the way, saw this youtube video was passed on to me today by a rabid ND fan. Thought you would like it. I haven’t completely drunk the ND kool-aid yet just because I have become suspicious whether appearances are really reality in college football in general. But these kinds of addresses might help me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71eT7gg-D3A&feature=youtu.be

  8. dn says:

    I watched you speak on cnn tonight about your book and Lance Armstrong’s Oprah interview. Fascinating. I had this thought on another book topic for you. Your investigative skills and fact finding you used for The Secret Race can be applied t the Manti T’eo hoax. Little did I know when I found your blog that you are an ND alum. This story totally screams “cover up”.

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