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What Tua Tagovailoa and Nick Saban just taught us about leadership

Anyone who knows me knows the game of football will always have a sentimental place in my life. I spent my high school years devoted to the game as an all-state linebacker in Texas, and ever since I’ve been drawn to it like a running back drawn to a hole in the line.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I was riveted to the NCAA national championship game this week as part of the 9% increase in viewers over last year’s national title game. For anyone who didn’t watch, you missed a heck of a fireworks show. Alabama trailed Georgia by 13 points at halftime, but they mounted an inspiring comeback and won the game 26-23 in overtime with a dramatic final touchdown throw.

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I’ve modeled FPG on the idea that all employees are like corporate athletes. That idea has unlocked dozens of our clients to believe that their coaching really does make the difference in driving innovation and change into their bottom line from the top down. I’ve always been fascinated by the way Alabama coach Nick Saban runs his program, because the corporate world can learn a lot from his focus on the process over the results. When you zoom in on the process, the results you’re looking for are never far behind because they take care of themselves. By just focusing on his day-to-day process, Saban now has six national championships. Nobody in history has more.

What I want to focus on today is a decision Saban made at halftime that totally changed the trajectory of the national title. It also happens to be one of the most important lessons we can all apply to our daily lives, which we’ll get to in a moment.

He put in a freshman. At quarterback. In the national championship game. Trailing by 13. At halftime.

The first question is a simple one: why? Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts had started the entire season, and as just as sophomore this was already his second national title game. Hurts had a tough first half, and Saban made an executive decision in the locker room – he was going to put in 18-year-old freshman Tua Tagovailoa. The Hawaiian gunslinger had never played a major snap before at the college level, but Saban had faith that his untested freshman could get the job done.

And guess what? He did. Tagovailoa had a great game, and he threw a 41-yard rope in overtime to ice the game and win the trophy on one play. Saban had faith in Tagovailoa, and he was repaid with a national title.

There are two really important takeaways I want to you experience here. One has to do with Nick Saban, and the other with the young Tua Tagovailoa.

Nick Saban believed in his player

Think about the coaches in your life who’ve helped you to get where you are. They probably did a lot of different things to coach you up, but the first and most important thing is that they believed in you. Even when you don’t have belief in yourself, a coach can lend you their belief in you to help you through a tough spot. By inserting Tagovailoa into the game at halftime, he told his young quarterback that he believed he could do it. Even if nobody else did.

As coaches and teammates, this is the most important lesson you can take away. If you don’t believe in your employees or your peers, they won’t believe in themselves. In our Leadership Sales Coaching program, we teach our coaches that all fundamental performance change first comes from someone’s core beliefs. In fact, one of our guiding principles at FPG is that beliefs have more to do with our success than our abilities. How much more powerful will your coaching be when you give your employees or teammates that kind of belief in them? It’ll totally change their perspective and give them the fuel they need to accomplish their goals. In fact, they’ll be able to accomplish just about anything (maybe even winning a national championship or six).

Tua Tagovailoa’s practice paid off

Most people were startled beyond belief when a freshman stepped onto a stage that big and took it over. One person who wasn’t shocked? Tua Tagovailoa. Before he ever got to Alabama, he’d spent hundreds of hours throwing footballs. By the end of his high school career he’d thrown almost 1,000 passes in competitive games, and he had more passing yards than anybody in Hawaii state history. It may have seemed that Tagovailoa was unseasoned, but in reality he’d been preparing for that moment his entire life.

No matter what industry you call home, repetitive practice is the key to unlocking your performance goals. Just like Tagovailoa found, when you practice until you can’t get it wrong, you’re getting yourself ready for your next big test. That way, when your national championship rolls around (and it will), you’ll be ready because you’ve put in the practice and the reps to be a champion.

Look at it this way. When we stress the wiring in our brains by repetition, we’re getting smarter every time we do it. This comes from something called myelin, which is like the insulation that wraps around your mental wiring. Every time an action is repeated, your myelin grows and the signal moves faster and more smoothly. By practicing, you’re basically working your brain muscles and making them stronger with each repetition. How empowering is that?

What do you need to practice in order to be better than you were yesterday? And what’s one way this week you can lend someone your belief in them? You just might find these behaviors lead you to a title of your own one day. They definitely did for Nick Saban and Tua Tagovailoa.

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