Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Everyone But Football Coaches Exaggerates How Many Hours They Work

Last month David Yanofsky had a great post on a study showing how people tend to inflate how many hours they actually work. Matt Yglesias summarizes it nicely here.
The main point is there's a cultural expectation in many fields where working a lot of hours is encouraged, even admired. Yglesias notes:
Researchers think this reflects a "social desirability" effect where it's considered good to be working really long hours.
This got me thinking about how this relates to the NFL and how it reflects our society's views toward working long hours. Football coaches, like business executives and tech CEOs are lionized for working ridiculously long hours. It's viewed as some sort of character flaw if you don't work yourself to near exhaustion every single season. The old saying "no one on their death bed wishes they had spent more time at work" probably doesn't apply to football coaches.

And then San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh was hospitalized last week and needed surgery to repair a problem with an irregular heartbeat. Of course it was described as a "minor procedure." I mean it's just a MINOR routine HEART surgery.

49ers star linebacker Patrick Willis added:
"Coach Harbaugh, like he always tells us, he's tougher than a two-dollar steak," Willis said. "We know he's going to be alright. We've got a bunch or great coaches here that are going to keep everything on track, and we're going to practice today as if he was here."
See, no need to worry, everyone. He's tough! If you're tough and work hard, you can overcome a heart ailment. Man-up! Tough guys don't let heart problems bring them down, you weak-hearted wussies!  Then again this is the culture of the NFL. Until the recent CYA law-suit prevention incentive to emphasize the reduction of head injuries, players were expected to play through every kind of injury or ailment short of a loss of limb.

And I guess cancer. Yeah, loss of limb and cancer. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this year and took a leave of absence while he underwent treatment. And then we heard story after story about how "this really puts life in perspective" and "football isn't really that important." And that lasted a few weeks and then football became the most important thing in the world to everyone again.

Being married to a football coach must be like being married to a combat veteran in a war that never ends. A combat veteran who, mind you, volunteers for this duty year after year after year, apparently because he has a sociopathic obsession, like the lead character the in The Hurt Locker. During the 6-7 month season they are basically absent. They may be around occasionally, but are always mentally checked out, focusing on their next opponent. And then in the offseason they are still working what most of us consider a normal somewhat grueling work week. Drew Magary had a great anecdote in his weekly Jamboroo column recently about Alabama head coach Nick Saban. This was the reaction just after winning a national championship in January 2010:
Saban reminded us that those best equipped to win championships are often the least equipped to celebrate them.

"I guarantee you," said a smiling Terry Saban, as she watched her spouse of 38 years, "he's already thinking about next week."

Did the couple have plans? "He said he'll give me two days," Terry said, "and then he has to meet with some of the players about going out for the [NFL] draft."

Two days? "Two days," she repeated. "And I'll take it."

Oh, and just for good measure Nick Saban forgot his own birthday a few weeks ago.  With the lack of joy that winning seems to bring, it starts to look like big time football coaches are mainly coaching to get away from something or trying to fill some void in their lives. Sorry, no amount of success or hours of film study now is going to make daddy want to have a catch with you when you were 10 years old.

I always had a soft spot for Steve Spurrier (even though he kind of seems like a jerk), mainly because of the refreshing outlook he brought with him to be head coach of the Washington Redskins when he left the University of Florida in 2002. His philosophy was something close to 'I’m not going to sleep in my office reviewing game film until 4am every night.'  Spurrier was essentially saying, "I'm going to work smarter, not harder", which is the same bullshit business cliche we've been hearing for nearly 20 years. Yet, Spurrier was roundly mocked by almost everyone in the NFL for apparently not having the same mental disorder, er work ethic, everyone else in his field has. And people took great satisfaction seeing Spurrier fall flat on his face.

Spurrier didn’t have much success in the NFL in two seasons (12-20), but in my opinion that had much more to do with him not having enough talent and his Fun-'n'-gun offense not being an effective NFL system, than it had to do with him not buying into the peer pressure to work 120+ hours a week. And after a certain point it's counterproductive, kind of like rewriting a term paper for the 20th time and it likely being no better than the 5th rewrite.

Imagine the positive work-life balance precedent this would have set if Spurrier had had better players and his offense actually worked in the NFL. He'd have been winning, while working about half the number of hours as the other coaches. We'd have been reading stories in the Style section of the Washington Post about how Spurrier's philosophy keeps coaches fresher, prevents burnout, and that's they key to success in the modern NFL. Instead, we got a bunch of stories about him being ill-prepared and mailing it in for the big payday.

As a young Philadelphia Eagles fan I lived through Dick Vermeil's infamous "burnout" retirement after the 1982 season. And as an adult for the last 14 seasons I've watched Andy Reid seemingly put in his diligent 20-hour work days while winning a lot of games. I'm fairly certain Reid didn't put in any more time game-planning when the Eagles were contending for Super Bowl titles than he is now when they are among the league's worst teams. Talent, good fortune, and preparation are the keys to victory and when you don't have the former two ingredients, the latter doesn't really matter.

And while Reid has spent the last 14 seasons putting in 20+hour work weeks, his two eldest sons have had run-ins with the law and battled drug addiction. His oldest, Garrett, died of a heroin overdose at the training camp facility this past summer. Reid of course, being the consummate football coach, just took off a few days in early August and then went right back to work. And knowing how coaches operate, this decision surprised no one.

Reid will likely be fired at the end of the season and if he takes some time away from football to focus on his family and maybe help his other son, Britt, it will have been a blessing in disguise.

As a big fan of pro football, I'm torn on this. One one hand, I want my team to have a surly, emotionally-distant taskmaster as a coach if it means my team will have a chance to win a Super Bowl. On the other hand, this is an unhealthy standard for our society to place so much emphasis on leisure time entertainment and the ensuing pressure on individuals involved to work so many hours.

NFL head coaches essentially have the same schedule the President of the United States has. Yet instead of solving real problems and dealing with foreign and domestic policy issues, they are spending all this time and effort trying to win football games. They aren't figuring out how to resolve international conflicts, fiscal problems, or how to get more people access to health care. They are studying film trying to figure out how to get the tight end open on a skinny post route in the red zone.

When you take a step back and think of it that way, you have to ask how we got here.

And now due to downsizing, not just severely Type-A executives with daddy issues, but your average employees are expected to work long hours to fill in the gaps created by layoffs. And then how can we complain to our corporate overlords when NFL coaches are working twice as many hours every week!

So as we celebrate another Thanksgiving holiday this year, it's always important to be thankful for what we have. But maybe we should all start thinking about what we can do to get the lifestyles we really want to have. What are the tradeoffs? Are they really worth it? Will it take long-term societal change to create the environment where we all have the ability to achieve the lifestyles we want, without as many tradeoffs? Is the European model really the ideal?  And football coaches...stop working so many hours!

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