1: Tony Dungy couldn’t win the big game. That was the rap.
In 1996, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Tony as their head coach. At that moment, the Bucs were then one of the worst teams in the NFL. Actually, one of the worst teams in the history of professional football, writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
In only his second season as head coach, Tony led the team to their first playoff birth in fifteen years. They made the postseason each of the next three years, making it as far as the NFC championship. But each season ended with a difficult playoff loss. After the 2001 season, Tony was fired.
One week later, Tony was hired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. The prior year, the Colts had finished 6-10. In Tony’s first year, the Colts finished 10-6. They finished 12-4 in 2003 and 2004 and 14-2 in 2005. Yet, a troubling pattern emerged. Just like Tony’s Bucs teams, the Colts would fall apart in crucial, high-stress moments, and each year ended with a tough playoff loss.
2: “Belief is the biggest part of success in professional football,” Tony told Charles. “The team wanted to believe, but when things got really tense, they went back to their comfort zones and old habits.”
Then, tragedy struck. Three days before Christmas 2005, Tony’s 18-year old son Jamie committed suicide.
“It is simplistic, even cavalier, to suggest that a young man’s death can have an impact on a football games,” Charles writes. “But in the wake of Jamie’s passing, as the Colts started preparing for the next season, something shifted, his player say. The team gave in to [Tony’s] vision of how football should be played in a way they hadn’t before.”
They began to believe.
Comments from Colts’ players reflect this sentiment: “I had spent a lot of previous seasons worrying about my contract and salary,” said one player who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When Coach came back after the funeral, I wanted to give him everything I could, to take away his hurt. I kind of gave myself to the team.”
Another player recalls: “Some men like hugging each other. I don’t. I haven’t hugged my sons in a decade. But after Coach came back, I walked over and I hugged him as long as I could, because I wanted him to know that I was there for him.”
A third player remembers: “Most football teams aren’t really teams. They’re just guys who work together. But we became a team. It felt amazing. Coach was the spark, but it was about more than him. After he came back, it felt like we really believed in each other, like we knew how to play together in a way we didn’t before.”
That season, the Colts won the Super Bowl.
3: This talk of “team” reflects the research on the power of community to bring about meaningful change. A Harvard study examined people who had radically changed their lives. In some instances, people remade their lives after a personal misfortune, such as a divorce or a severe illness. “Just as frequently, however, there was no tragedy that preceded people’s transformations,” writes Charles. “Rather, they changed because they were embedded in social groups that made change easier.”
Psychologist Todd Heatherton who was involved with the study, remarks: “Change occurs among other people. It seems real when we can see it in other people’s eyes.”
One of the participants shared her entire life changed when she signed up for a psychology class and met a wonderful group of people: “It opened a Pandora’s box,” she recalls. “I could not tolerate the status quo any longer. I had changed in my core.”
People must believe change is genuinely possible for habits to change permanently. “The same process that makes Alcoholics Anonymous so effective—the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe—happens whenever people come together to help one another change,” Charles notes. “And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.”
Reflection: What habit would I like to change? What group or community might help me make that change?
Action: Join it. Do it.