Always Compete: An examination of Pete Carroll's philosophy

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports


I recently read Pete Carroll's Win Forever, for two reasons. First, I wanted a better understanding of his philosophy, partly to understand how this impacts the Seahawks. I was especially interested because I'd been hearing that Carroll had a unique, perhaps innovative, approach. Second, as someone who has played and been a coach (of basketball, on the amateur level), I'm always interested in reading books about good coaches.

In this thread, I want to examine and comment on certain aspects of Carroll's philosophy, and its relevance to the Seahawks.

What Does Carroll Mean by "Always Compete?"

I think any analysis of Carroll's philosophy has to address his concept of "always compete." First of all, we should start with Carroll's definition of "compete" as it is a bit unconventional and at times esoteric.

To Carroll, competition doesn't really mean beating an opponent or a teammate (for a roster spot or starting role), although that may be a part of it. Instead, competition, to Carroll, involves the constant (the "always" part of the expression) pursuit, characterized by scrapping and clawing, to get better and eventually to reach one's highest potential.

Given that definition, "competition" seems like an odd word.

Perhaps Carroll might defend this choice by saying we compete against ourselves--that is, the parts of us that interfere with consistently performing at our best--for example, parts of ourselves that tell us to take a play off when we get a little tired. In this sense, the constant striving to get better is a competition or battle against the forces that would prevent that. I wouldn't disagree with him; indeed, I agree with Carroll that these are ultimately the real opponents--but his use of the word competition in this context is still a bit confusing.

I think Al Davis' slogan, "a commitment to excellence," comes a little closer to capturing what Carroll means. I also like that phrase because in reminds me of another adage that is appropriate in this context--namely, "If you chase after perfection, you will catch excellence." Maybe Carroll wouldn't care for the word "perfection" in this context, but the quest for excellence seems closer to what he means.

On the other hand, those expressions lack the scrappy, dogged quality that "compete" connotes. It's that scrappy, grittiness that Carroll seems to want to capture, and I actually like trying to include that quality. In a way, Carroll seems to want the spirit of a fiery competitor applied to the pursuit of excellence, in all things, no matter what the individual is doing. This is at the heart of Carroll's philosophy, one that provides and pumps the life-blood to his teams, giving vitality and meaning to everything they do.

The Benefits of Always Competing

So what's so good about this concept? Personally, I like the concept for several reasons. For one thing, I believe it helps players focus on what they have control over, while ignoring the factors they do not.

This isn't a trivial matter.

There are many things that players have no control over that they nevertheless worry about, which diverts their attention and wastes their energy, and can ultimately hurt their performance. A daunting opponent, adverse playing conditions--these are things players can worry about even though they have no control over them. Even the outcome of the game shouldn't be something players really dwell on, as their control over those things is limited--certainly more limited then the control they have over their individual attitude, concentration and effort. (I always disliked a team yelling "win!" as a way to break a huddle.)

A good coach will help players focus almost entirely on what they can control, while ignoring the rest. The always-compete mindset, if fully embraced, can help them do that. Indeed, the more the players embrace this philosophy--the more they make it a part of their general outlook and way of living--the more the players can prevent the extraneous factors from affecting the way they prepare and perform. At it's highest level, the quality of the opponent, the stakes and the outcome of games won't have any real impact on the effort and intensity and focus of the player.

To me, this is what it means to have a championship mindset--one approaches everything with the same intensity and effort one would in a championship game--and it's the kind of thing that will lead to greatness (assuming the players have the talent).

I also like the mindset because it will lead to players who are in the position to perform at their best. Always competing means they're bringing the maximum intensity, effort and concentration in the off-season work outs, pre-season and regular season practices. If that happens, then I believe the players can achieve the peace of mind that Carroll and others believe is so important for peak performance.

John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach, made this a central part of his definition of success, defining success as the peace of mind that occurs when one has given their best effort (I'm paraphrasing). To go into the game with this kind of peace gives players the ability to play free, as there's no anxiety or fear. It's a good feeling, and it's what makes games fun. It also gives the players the best chance of playing their best. (By the way, players who don't have this peace of mind will probably not perform to their capability; and the games won't be as fun as they could be, and they could be quite unpleasant.)

The always-compete mentality is also relevant----maybe even essential--for Seattle, a team that has just won the Super Bowl and aspires to win many more. Why is that? I would argue that if a team wants to win multiple Super Bowls, winning a Super Bowl, ironically, shouldn't be the ultimate goal. If it is the ultimate goal, how could the motivation not begin to diminish once that goal has been reached? My guess is that for most players winning the Super Bowl is the ultimate goal, which partly explains why so teams struggle to repeat, not to mention win multiple Super Bowls.

I believe the way to overcome this challenge--maybe the only way--is to replace the desire and the importance of winning Super Bowls with the type of "always compete" ethos espoused by Carroll. That is, make the always-compete mindset the ultimate objective.

When this happens, the approach can, in a way, transcend the importance of winning actual games and, at some point, if the attitude becomes a part of the individual's entire makeup, the competitive ethos can transcend winning Super Bowls. This doesn't mean that the players don't care about winning, or that they don't feel great joy when they win and equally intense disappointment when they lose. But it means that winning and losing really doesn't impact the way players play and prepare--even winning a Super Bowl.

At its ultimate expression, the players only know how to play one way--and that is the way they would play in a Super Bowl game--i.e., with the utmost effort, intensity and concentration--and they play this way regardless of the circumstances. This applies to everything the person does, as it just becomes part of the person's nature. The thing is, once this occurs the player can sustain the type of effort, discipline needed to win a championship--precisely because this behavior isn't contingent on winning the Super Bowl.

In other words, winning a Super Bowl won't erode the essential behaviors and attitude put teams in a position to win a Super Bowl. This is partly the reason I believe Carroll, when asked if he preferred winning to competing, easily chose competing. Competing is code for this type of mindset that is in relentless, dogged, pursuit of excellence. And once that mindset become a part of the players and team, then winning multiple championships become an achievable objective (assuming they have the requisite talent).

For a coach, to get the players to this state is tall order and would be a huge accomplishment. This mindset is not natural; it is not the way normal human beings approach things. A coach probably can't get all their players to adopt this mindset, but they can get a lot of them to do so, particularly if that ethos becomes a part of the cultural and organizational DNA of the organization.

Weaving the Always-Compete Ethos into the Organizational DNA

I can sense that Carroll is doing just that with the Seahawks, relying heavily on the philosophy he's articulated. I want to mention two examples. First, Carroll has an expression--"practice is everything"--and has made this a focal point for team environment (which, I assume, is synonymous with workplace environment).

I believe Carroll chose this expression as a way to remove any mental demarcation between games and practices--or more broadly, perhaps, preparation--a demarcation that leads to assigning games a higher status than practice. I believe Carroll wants to eliminate the secondary status of practice, abolishing the view that practice and preparation are less important, merely a means to an end. In one sense, preparation is a means to an end, but that thinking can cause players to underestimate the importance of practices.

In another sense, while practice is a means to an end, based on what I've discussed so far, it is equally important to the games. I would also argue that coaches and players should think of it as more important than games, even if this is not entirely accurate, as this exaggerated mindset will help ensure the type of energy and attention they would normally bring to a big game.

The thing is, players naturally treat big games very seriously; getting players to put in their best effort for these games is far less difficult than generating the same level of effort and focus during practice. That's what warrants Carroll's rather hyperbolic statement. And remember, this is consistent with always-compete mindset. The expression, and it's centrality, is another way of implanting it in the players and organization.

The second expression--"trusting the process"--dovetails nicely with the notion of "practice is everything." The "process," in this case, refers to both the map for preparing players individually and as team, starting from the off season workouts and going up the week of practice before games, (Actually, the end point, ideally, is the week of practice before the Super Bowl.), and the players giving their maximum effort and focus today--as in the expression "living in the moment." "Trust" involves the supreme confidence that the "process," if followed faithfully and intensely, will put the players in the best position to win games--nay, Carroll goes further, saying that players will know they will win.

If the trust is this strong and genuine, players have more motivation and commitment to putting in the work. They will also have a relatively easy time of not thinking too far in advance, not inordinately worrying about some future event--e.g., the first opponent of the season, the match-up against an arch-rival, or getting to the Super Bowl, etc. This is important because their attention and focus needs to be on having the best day today.

Failure to do this can lead to less than optimal preparation, which can then lead to less than optimal performance, which can lead to a loss. Additionally, trusting the process can also help players properly handle disappointments or moments of triumph--such as losing or winning a game against an arch-rival. Trusting the process means letting go of the past, positive or negative, and focusing on today.

Trusting the process, as defined above, really maximizes the chances that players will be ready both mentally and physically for each game. Of course, the converse is true: if they do not put in the maximum effort and attention into the process, they will not be as prepared as they could be for those important moments. Hence, practice is everything.

Really, the expressions "practice is everything," "trusting the process"--as well "living in the moment" and "championship mindset--basically express different facets of the always-compete ethos, and they work hand-in-hand to provide a philosophical foundation and road map that will effectively guide and provide meaning to the team.

Can Football Really be Fun?

So far what I've been discussing isn't really original, not in terms of the basic ideas. Many other coaches embrace the same values, and what I've discussed is basically Carroll's take on them. But one aspect of Carroll's approach that genuinely does seem novel--maybe even revolutionary--is his emphasis on having fun practices.

Playing football can certainly be fun--and should be. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of players enjoy playing the game. However, practice is a different matter. Fun is not the adjective that would come to mind to describe football practice, especially at the pro level. I certainly wouldn't expect a coach to describe practice this way, and it surprised me when Carroll stated this as an objective. Practices have to be serious and intense after all. They require strenuous exertion that often leads to painful and unpleasant experiences for players. This is unavoidable, especially for football.

On the surface, I would be skeptical that practices that could be described as fun would produce winning teams. Yet, Carroll's approach seems to have worked, or at least didn't prevent the Seahawks from winning the Super Bowl.

So what are we to make of these fun practices? Here's how I understand it. First of all, I suspect that not all elements of practice and preparation are fun. Some aspects of preparation can't or won't be. But I believe Carroll wants to make practice as fun as possible. My sense is that he achieves this by making as many aspects of the practice as competitive as possible--competitive, in the more conventional sense where players (or even coaches!) are competing against one another.

For most competitive athletes, competing against others is truly enjoyable. In my own experience, I'd say the competition, regardless of the results, was fun in and of itself, as long as the opponents weren't vastly superior or inferior. This might be even truer for players with chips on their shoulders because these players are all about proving that their worth or even superiority; indeed, they thrive on this. And, yes, in a manner of speaking it can be fun for them, even though it may not seem that way to others.

Therefore, if Carroll organizes practices in such a way that the drills and elements of practice are competitive, that can make the practices not only more fun, but more intense and, ironically, more serious. When more aspects of practice become competitive contests, players can get more intense and serious, especially players with chips on their shoulders. So I think this approach can work--creating a win-win situation: the players exert maximum effort and concentration, while also having a lot of fun doing it. (Carroll also mentions injecting fun in more conventional sense, such as playing practical jokes.

Personally, I think this can help a team, fostering a stronger bond between coaches and players and players themselves. If use wisely, it can also add a nice break to what is otherwise a super intense atmosphere.)

Another element that may contribute to a fun practice is Carroll's emphasis and approach to building player confidence--specifically, the way he frowns upon berating or humiliating players. Contrary to hurting the efficacy of practices, I think this approach can greatly enhance it, both in terms of helping player confidence but also improving teaching and learning.

In terms of player confidence, the old school approach, associated with coaches like Vince Lombardi, involve a rather negative coaching style where coaches vociferously--and often publicly--excoriate players. Think of the stereotypical drill sergeant. That type of negativity can make a player feel incompetent and even worthless, weakening, not strengthening, a player's confidence in themselves. This should give all coaches pause, as players cannot perform at their best when their confidence is weak.

The confidence of players can vary quite a bit, and it is a fluid variable, going up or down at different points in a season or career. How the coach works with players can definitely impact this, positively or negatively. Whatever virtues there are for the old school style (and there may be some), I think there is a risk of weakening or even shattering the confidence of players. Moreover, the psyche of males today don't really seem amendabel to his approach as well.

Finally, in general, this hard-nosed style generally isn't conducive to effective learning. This is especially true when coach's yell at a player when they make a mistake. The implicit, or sometimes explicit, message is that the player is an imbecile. Very few people learn well under those circumstances. I really don't think football players are much different.

While I favor Carroll's emphasis on positive coaching and avoiding negativity, there are some important caveats. First, this can't mean that the coach will avoid negative remarks or unpleasant conflicts at all costs, burying his head in the sand to major problems. The coach need not berate players, but he must confront unpleasant truths about the team and players.

However, Carroll doesn't seem to have a problem with this. As an example, Monday practices revolve around the theme of truth-telling--that is, a self-critical and brutally honest critique of mistakes in order for the team to correct them. (I think this mostly involves football issues, but the coach has be brutally honest about issues that go beyond football, but may adversely affect the team.)

The second caveat is player accountability. Coaches have to hold players accountable for their performance and behavior, particularly the behavior that affects the team. Players that perform the best should play the most. Players that don't perform or behave in ways that hurt the team should not play so much and, at times, should be released. If a coach is firm, fair and consistent in these areas, then the fun approach as described above shouldn't be an issue--indeed, it might even enhance the team. My sense is that Carroll and the Seahawk organization don't really have problems with these issues.


Carroll seems to have incorporated innovations as well as more conventional ideas in his philosophy and approach. At the same time, while many other coaches may share the same values and adhere to the same principles, I'm not sure all of them have the same commitment. I'm thinking specifically of the idea of the quest for excellence (always competing) becoming more important than winning.

A lot of coaches may understand that this is the best approach, but how many of them truly value the quest for excellence over winning? I don't know the answer to that, but my guess is that the answer is fairly low. People involved in sports compete to win--they love winning and hate losing. The quest for excellence and improvement is primarily a means to winning, and I'd guess that describes the majority of athletes and coaches.

If this is how they are, then their belief in always competing is mostly at an intellectual level. Does that apply to Carroll? It's hard to tell, but it seems like that philosophy emanates from his core self. Perhaps, time is the only thing that will reveal this is true or not.

But maybe what sets Carroll apart from many other coaches is the way he has worked at and articulated his philosophy, transforming principles, values and beliefs into a system that can be communicated and implemented within an organization.

This includes packaging his philosophy into a language that allows the players and staff to embrace it, making it a part of their DNA, so to speak, and eventually becoming an integral part of the organizational culture and fabric.

Additionally, Carroll seems to have skillfully used this philosophy to guide and direct team activities, using it to emphasize key issues and objectives at the appropriate time. It is the life-blood, road map and blueprint of the team, all rolled into one.

I'm sure other teams and organizations have something similar in place, but I'm not so sure they have done as a good job of developing a philosophy that is a practical, coherent system. Pete Carroll's work in this regard is excellent, and it might be his best attribute--one that could provide the essential building block for an NFL dynasty.