FOOTBALL & THE ART OF WAR

 

There are many great books available on coaching, leadership and strategy.  I often get asked; what are good books to use as resources for football?  There are several that come to mind, such as: The Assembly Line by Milt Tenopir, Complete Offensive Line Play by Rick Trickett and all of Tony Dungy’s books.  There is however, one book that was written centuries ago that stands out to me.  It is one of the best reads available on the art of leadership and strategy.  The book is The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.  The book clearly is about warfare, but almost all of its principles can be applied to football and leadership.  I will go through The Art of War and demonstrate how these concepts play a role in our game and roles as leaders.  This review will cover first 8 chapters, as they are dealing with leadership and tactics.  The remaining chapters are concerning the movement of troops and using terrain to house the troops.  I do encourage you to read the book in its entirety, especially the chapters dealing with Spies and Fire, good stuff there even if it’s not relatable to football.

CHAPTER 1 – LAYING PLANS

plans

  1. Sun Tzu – The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road to safety or to ruin.
    1. While football and coaching may not have the finalities of what Sun Tzu says about war, it’s easy to see the correlation. Football is often vitally important to the school (state).  The moral and economic boost that football provides are undeniable.  Football also provides an avenue for student athletes to be successful.  In its most literal sense, football can be the difference between a life of ruin, or a life of success for our players, we have all seen this in some facet or another.
  2. Sun Tzu – The art of war is governed by 5 constant factors: Moral Law, Heaven, Earth, The Commander and Method and Discipline.
    1. Sun Tzu goes into detail about what each factor means for warfare, but for football the connection is apparent
      1. Moral Law – the standards of behavior and accountability set by your program
      2. Heaven – the passing attack or defense
      3. Earth – the rushing attack or defense
      4. The Commander – the Head Coach who stands for virtue, wisdom, courage and strictness
      5. Method and Discipline – Marshaling the team into its proper position areas for coaching, providing rank among staff and players, maintenance of equipment and control of expenditure both physical and financial.
  1. Sun Tzu – The 5 factors should be familiar to every general and he who knows them shall be victorious; he who knows them not, shall fail.
    1. I believe what Sun Tzu is saying here is you have to be able to establish all of these factors into your team (army) in order to be successful. I feel this is 100 percent true.  It is displayed on a yearly basis for us to see.  We have all seen the team loaded with athletes but no discipline.  They get off the bus and you think you’re in trouble, then you beat them by 30 points.  Or the team that gets off the bus and you think you will handle them no problem, then they proceed to throttle the opponent.
  2. Sun Tzu – when making your deliberations, when seeking to determine conditions let them be made on these 7 considerations for you can forecast victory or defeat before the battle has begun. 1-Which army is imbued with the Moral Law? 2-Which of the two generals has the most ability? 3-With whom lies the advantages of heaven and earth? 4-On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? 5-Which army is stronger? 6-On which side are officers and men more highly trained? 7-In which army is there greater constancy both in reward and punishment?
    1. Let’s break this down for football!
      1. Which team is most in accord with the program?
      2. Which Coach is most knowledgeable in the game and able to motivate players?
      3. Who has the better passing/ground attack/defense?
      4. Which team is more disciplined?
      5. Which team is more talented?
      6. Which team is better prepared?
      7. Which team has consistency in accountability?
  1. Sun Tzu – One should modify ones plans in accordance to which of the 7 circumstances are in your favor.
    1. Pretty obvious here, game plan to your strengths so you can exploit the opposing teams weakness.
  2. Sun Tzu – All warfare is based on deception. When able to attack, appear unable. When using our forces, appear inactive. When close, appear far. When far, appear near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy, and crush him. Attack him where he is unprepared and where you are not expected.
    1. Wow! I know all the wing-T guys out there are nodding in firm agreement for sure. Offensively clearly this applies to counters, misdirection, fakes, all option reads and play actions.  Defensively this applies to stemming and moving fronts, disguising blitzes, rolling to coverages not previously aligned in, etc…   this is one of my favorite points made by Sun Tzu
  3. Sun Tzu – If the enemy is stronger than you, avoid him.
    1. If your opponent has a power 5 commit at defensive end, probably not a good idea to go that direction lol.
  4. Sun Tzu – the general who makes many calculations before the battle is fought is the general who wins.
    1. As coaches we need to scout, game plan and prepare for all possible scenarios so our players have the highest chance possible for success.

CHAPTER 2 – WAGING WAR

wagewar

  1. Sun Tzu – When you engage in actual battle, if victory is long in coming, the mens weapons will dull and their ardor will be damped. You will exhaust your strength. The resources of the state will not be able to equal the strain. Then no man, no matter how wise can avert the consequences. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.
    1. Here, Sun Tzu is clearly waring of the dangers of a prolonged battle or war. This applies to football in the sense that one will significantly increase odds for victory if you put the other team away early. Get the mercy clock running and take away all chance for the opponent to come back, shorten the game by controlling clock once you have established significant lead.  The longer a team is able to hang around the less likely you are to seal victory.  A back and forth game ultimately results in a longer game and both teams odds of winning begins to equalize.  Those games with scores of 58-62 come to mind here or 14-10 on the opposite end. The point is, you need to put the other team away early to avoid exhausting your players and giving the other team a chance to fight back.
  2. Sun Tzu – In order to kill the enemy, our men must be aroused to anger.
    1. To me what Sun Tzu is saying here is that it is up to coaches to mentally, and emotionally prepare our players for the game. We want and need them to on edge, stimulated and excited for what is going to happen in the coming moments.  The “hype” before the game starts so to speak.
  3. Sun Tzu – In defeating the enemy, there must be rewards. Reward the soldiers who take an enemy chariot. Reward the soldier who eliminates large numbers of the opposing force. Reward the soldiers who sacrifice own glory for the victory of the army.
    1. Turn over chains come to mind here lol. But it also stresses the importance of acknowledging individual and group performances.  As well as rewarding those who put team before themselves so the game can be won week in and week out.
  4. Sun Tzu – May it be known that the leader of armies is the arbiter of the peoples fate. The man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or peril. The man who the responsibility of defeat fall upon, yet he must give out responsibility for victory to his men.
    1. Here Sun Tzu is refereeing to where the public eye is going to be. That is clearly on the Head Coach.  In defeat all blame is falls on his shoulders and he must take it and overcome it.  In victory the credit must be given to the assistants and to the players.  That is the burden of being the man in charge.

CHAPTER 3 – ATTACK BY STRATAGEM

startegy

  1. Sun Tzu – In the art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy whole and intact. To shatter and destroy is not as good. It is better to capture the army than to destroy it.  Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.  The highest form of generalship is to prevent the deployment of the enemies forces, next is to attack the enemy in the field, and worst is to attack a walled city.
    1. Sun Tzu’s words here reflect the high regard he has for defeating an enemy without fighting. I feel this applies to the “new” head coach coming into a program.  you want to win the battle of bringing all coaches into your new direction.  To dismantle the staff and have to find and hire a new one is difficult and often can cause discord among players, and remaining staff members.  It is better to keep the current staff if possible. As long as they will fit in with the new direction of the program, or are willing to learn to fit, it is better to absorb them than to cut them out.
  2. Sun Tzu – There are 3 ways in which a general can bring misfortune upon his army: 1-By commanding an attack or retreat when the army cannot take action to obey. 2-By governing an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom and being ignorant of the conditions of his soldiers. 3-By employing officers of his army without discrimination.
    1. Three was a Head Coach can bring discord into his program
      1. By forcing the team to do things they are not able to do. Whether in training, offensively or defensively. For example, no reason to run spread if you have 5’10 wide receivers that all run over 5 second 40’s.
      2. By governing the players in the same manner as his assistant coaches. The players will be emboldened and lack respect and the assistants will lack motivation and desire to lead.
      3. By choosing assistants without lots of thought and deliberation before giving them access to his players
  1. Sun Tzu – There are 5 essentials for victory. 1-Know when to fight and when not to fight. 2-know how to handle superior and inferior forces. 3-Animate your army with the same spirit through all their ranks. 4-Be prepared and take the enemy when he is not. 5-Have a military that is not interfered with by the sovereign.
    1. The 5 essentials for a successful program
      1. Knowing when and where to attack the opponent. Knowing what fights are worth having and which ones are best let go.
      2. Knowing how to handle a team that has athletes and one that does not. This should be applied to both the coaching of them, and against them.
      3. The spirit of the team should be the same through all players and coaches. Do your best to attain this.
      4. Prepare yourself, your team and your assistants in all possibilities and strike the opponent in places they are not prepared.
      5. A successful program is one that is not hindered by the administration of the school.
  1. Sun Tzu – If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not your enemy, you will suffer a defeat for every victory gained. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
    1. Scout the opponent to know them like you know yourself. Watch so much film that you know what they will do before they do it.  Hold your assistants to the same standards.  If you don’t know the enemy like yourself they will catch you unprepared.  If you don’t know yourself you should not be a Head Coach.

CHAPTER 4 – TACTICAL DISPOSITIONS

TD11

  1. Sun Tzu – to secure oneself against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity for defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. Thus a good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.
    1. Here Sun Tzu touches on the importance of being defensively sound, but this does not ensure victory. Only that you are securing yourself from being beaten, while waiting for the opportunity to strike.
  2. Sun Tzu – Standing defensive, shows insufficient strength, but open attacking shows a super abundance of strength. The general skilled in defense hides in the most secret recesses of the earth, but the general skilled in attack strikes from the topmost heights of heaven but does so exposing himself to possible defeat.
    1. I believe what Sun Tzu is trying to imply here is that you need to be effective both offensively and defensively to ensure a total victory. You must play sound defensive football and be able to score points.
  3. Sun Tzu – To lift an autumn hair is no sign of strength, to see the moon is no sign of keen sight, to hear thunder is no sign of sharp hearing. What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes certain victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated. Hence a skillful fighter puts himself in a place where he cannot be defeated and does not miss the opportunity to defeat the enemy when the moment arrives.
    1. This reminds me of a quote- “Beware the old man in a profession in which most die young.” This applies to the Head Coach being able to put his team in situations that are favorable to victory.  Having a disciplined team that won’t make mistakes, and knowing exactly when to attack the enemy to seal victory.  He knows how to play sound on defense and how to strike explosively on offense.
  4. Sun Tzu – In war, the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won. The consummate leader cultivates moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success.
    1. This again goes back to being prepared for you opponent. As coaches we should know the opponent where they are strong, where they are weak.  Where you should defend and where you should strike. The coaches that have the strength of a high team moral, and have players that are disciplined can have much greater control over the outcome of a game than ones that do not.

CHAPTER 5 – ENERGY

energy

  1. Sun Tzu – The control of a large force is the same principal as the control of a few men; it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers. Fighting with a large force is the same as fighting with a small force; it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.
    1. This statement is referring to delegation and communication, both are essential to the success of a program. The responsibilities of the coaching staff should be delegated appropriately.  Effective communication and transparency will make the program run smoothly and keep everybody on the same page.
  2. Sun Tzu – In battle, the direct method may be used for joining, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.
    1. Starting the game is direct, the nuances of play calling and knowing when to deceive, strike and defend are the indirect methods of battle.
  3. Sun Tzu – Energy may be likened to the bending of a bow, and the release of the arrow likened to making a decision.
    1. I feel Sun Tzu is referring to the tension before a battle, or in the coaching world before a game, or big play call after a time out. Once the decision has been made and the ball is snapped that energy is released.
  4. Sun Tzu – The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. Hence his ability to pick out the right men and utilize their energy.  Thus the energy developed by good fighting men is as the momentum of a round stone rolled down a mountain thousands of feet high.
    1. Sun Tzu is obviously talking about how to pick out your leaders! They will be identified by their high levels of energy and not having the need to be motivated by others.  They are the motivators themselves.  They can use their energy to infect their teammates and you can ride that momentum to victory. The leaders of your team should be identified early so they be put in place to utilize their natural gift of imbuing energy onto others.

CHAPTER 6 – WEAK POINTS AND STRONG POINTS

weak

  1. Sun Tzu – Whoever is first to the field of battle and awaits the enemy will be fresh, whoever arrives second will be exhausted from travel.
    1. Home field advantage! And if you are traveling, make sure you leave early enough to let your players recover from the bus ride.  I am a big believer in arriving as early as possible to allow this for your players.
  2. Sun Tzu – Make the enemy approach of his own accord, then inflict damage to keep him from drawing near.
    1. I can’t help but think of the offense when I read that. Draw the enemy in with your run game, then inflict damage with a quick strike play action pass for big yards or a touch down to back them back off.  The same can be said of the spread offenses bubble pass attack and deep strikes that are set up because of them.
  3. Sun Tzu – You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks, only if you attack places which are undefended. You can be sure of defending your position only if you hold a position that cannot be attacked. A general skillful in attack keeps the enemy from knowing where to defend; a general skillful in defense keeps the enemy from knowing where to attack.
    1. This is the numbers game at its most basic point. Attack the defense in areas they are not defending.  Wing-T guys have perfected this.  I believe this concept is also what led to the spread attack.  Spread the defense out and find the spot they leave open and attack.  On the defensive side, this goes into game planning to make sure you defend what the offense does best. To have it broken down even more, defend what they do where and when they do it.
  4. Sun Tzu – Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength comes from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us.
    1. Again I think of offense here. Force the enemy to prepare for multiple things.  I choose to use formations.  I want the defense lining up to formations all weak instead of practicing defending my plays.
  5. Sun Tzu – Carefully compare the enemy with yourself, so that you may know where strength is superabundant and where it is deficient.
    1. Scouting and game planning. You should know exactly who/where to attack and avoid.  The more you study your opponent the more you will understand and come to know them.
  6. Sun Tzu – He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.
    1. What is your ability to adjust on the fly? All great coaches have the ability to do this. You must be able to identify what the other team is doing and adjust to give your team the best opportunities you can give them for success on the field.

We are going to skip chapter 7 as it has to do with moving armies through country side.

CHAPTER 8 – VARIATIONS IN TACTICS

var

  1. Sun Tzu – In the wise leader’s plans, considerations of advantage and of disadvantage will be blended together.
    1. I feel this refers to planning around your personnel. Know where your strengths and weakness lay. Know where the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses lay.  Then try and attack their weakness with your strength.
  2. Sun Tzu – In the midst of difficulties we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune.
    1. This is stating that we need to always be ready to strike. To identify a weakness and take the opportunity. Even if the game is not going in our favor we must remain ready and vigilant.  How many times have you seen a game completely turn around because of one play? Think of the pick 6, or the strip 6.  Think of a long touchdown run or reception.  We must always be looking for these opportunities and we must train our players to attack them with relentless aggression when they arrive.
  3. Sun Tzu – Reduce the hostile chiefs by inflicting damage on them; make trouble for them and keep them constantly engaged. Hold out specious allurements and make them rush to any given point.
    1. I absolutely love this! We always plan to attack and scheme against players.  Sometimes the most effective thing to do is attack the opposing coach.  What I mean by that is make him constantly coach on the fly. Hold out baits, break your own keys and attack in areas that you have not shown on film, then go back to what you have shown.  If you can confuse and frustrate the coach on the other sideline, the team will descend into confusion with him as well.
  4. Sun Tzu – The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likely hood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our readiness to receive him. Not on the chance of his attacking, but rather that we have made our own position unassailable.
    1. I like to think of defense when I read this statement. When establishing a defensive game play, we must be prepared for all possible outcomes and ways the offense may choose to attack us.  It’s when the offense catches us in something we are unprepared for, that is when a route ensues.
  5. Sun Tzu – There are 5 besetting sins that will prove ruinous to a general. When an army is defeated and leader is slain, the cause will most surely be found among these 5 dangerous faults. 1-recklessness, which leads to destruction. 2-cowardice, which leads to capture. 3-a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insult. 4-a delicacy of honor, which is sensitive to shame. 5-over solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.
    1. While I believe number 5 is not applicable to us as coaches, the first 4 definitely are! All 4 can very quickly lead a program into disarray and chaos.  A reckless coach will put his players in danger with unsafe practices and training protocols or take too many chances in his play calling. A cowardly coach can be too easily influence by assistance, administration, parents or even players.  A short temper has never worked out long term for any coach. (minus Saban lol) Finally, a coach that is over sensitive wont last long in this world.  You will be judged, criticized and harassed.  It goes with the job and title of coach/leader.  You are put there to make the decisions and deal with any and all consequences. That’s why they call you coach!

CLOSING

As you can see, Sun Tzu didn’t just know about war and fighting, he knew about leadership! The tactics used to overcome and enemy are easy to correlate to the game of football; but I feel the advice that he gives on leadership is invaluable. I enjoyed reading this whole book and I do recommend reading the whole book yourself! It can be found for download on various sights all over the internet.  The chapters on the use of fire and the chapter on spies are very interesting.  Subscribe to my email list to receive the weekly news letters and bonus football related content and follow me on twitter here @thecoachvogt.

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