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If you were the head coach, what would you say to a group of young men about to play in the biggest game of their lives?
A game that most of the country expects them to lose.
A game that could play a major role in the outcome of their season.
What would you say?
On a recent Thursday evening, I was in a hotel room in Dallas and that was exactly the question I found myself asking after a conversation with Hugh Freeze, the head coach of the football team at Ole Miss. In less than 48 hours, his team would face the undefeated Crimson Tide of Alabama—the defending national champions and current #1 ranked team in the country.
Later that night, unable to sleep, I realized that I still could not get the question out of my mind. If I were Coach Freeze, what would I say to the team? I had seen their previous two games. In one game, they had destroyed a much weaker opponent. But in the other, against a traditional college football power, they had Florida State on the ropes—Ole Miss was 21 points ahead in the first half—only to allow the game to slip away. It had been a devastating loss and I wondered if it would greatly affect how the young men thought of themselves as a team.
If I were Coach Freeze, what would I say? What could be said?
As I tossed and turned, I became convinced that what anyone actually said to them would ultimately matter little in the upcoming game. Instead, the largest impact on the team’s performance would be what each member of the team said to himself.
Specifically, what did they really believe?
In my work with corporations, teams, and individuals, I have seen proof—again and again—that a person’s level of belief maintains almost complete control over the level of results they manage to achieve. No matter what we say we believe or how hard we try, we human beings rarely surprise ourselves. For whatever reason, we simply cannot perform beyond that particular threshold—the point at which we manage to believe ourselves capable. Moreover, this holds true in all areas of our lives—physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, and beyond.
Knowing this (and still unable to sleep) I got up at 3am and wrote the following letter. I attached it in an email to Coach Freeze and added a note that he should feel free to use it or not and that he could certainly add or subtract whatever he wished. At 5am, I clicked “send” and went back to bed.
Here it is, in its entirety:
The only question that really matters is: What do you believe?
Did you know that it has been proven impossible for human beings to perform—mentally, emotionally, financially…even physically—beyond the point of what they truly believe? This fact has nothing to do with goals or hopes or dreams or motivation. It has not a single thing to do with what you say you believe… What we are talking about in this instance is what you really believe.
So, what do you believe?
What do you believe about your teammates? What do you believe about your coaches? What do you believe about this season? What do you believe about your actions, on the field and off? Do your actions today have any bearing on your future? What do you believe about your future?
And what do you believe about yourself?
Your season record stands at 1-1. What do you believe about that? You lost to Florida State. You beat Wofford. Florida State is currently ranked #2. Wofford is unranked. Forget what anyone else says, where do you believe you belong?
Should you be ranked in the top 5 right now? If that is what you believe, you are about to have the opportunity to prove it. At the moment, the polls have you at 17. What do you believe about that? Perhaps it is too high. Do you believe you belong with the Woffords of the world? Deep down, do you believe you should probably be “unranked”? If so, you are about to have to opportunity to prove that, too.
What do you believe about the rest of your season? Really now…what do you believe is possible?
At the moment, you have one loss. During the past five years, do you know how many National Champions attained that dream, but did so with one loss? Four. Four of them. FOUR out of five.
That’s right, exactly four of the last five National Champions were beaten during the season they ended up winning the whole thing. You might not remember exactly who all four of them are, but I’ll bet you remember who won the National Championship last year. Yeah, that’s right…Alabama.
But why would you remember them? Because, as they stood on stage last year laughing and crying and hugging each other—so proud of what they had accomplished—you were already home, your season was over. But you watched. And you had to watch knowing—KNOWING—you were better.
Arrogance? No. Okay then, if it wasn’t arrogance or outright stupidity, how could you possibly KNOW you were better than the team that had just been named National Champions? Cause you are the ONLY team who beat ‘em. And remember, you beat them the year before, too!
Well, tomorrow you get to play them again. At home! Some will say it won’t matter. Some will say you’ll beat yourselves before Alabama ever runs out onto the field. Some will say you are physically tough, yeah sure…but mentally…ahhh, not so tough. Some will say your emotions will dictate your level of play. Some will say you can’t beat ‘em again. Fortunately, however, it never matters what anyone else says. It only matters what you believe.
Do you believe you can beat them again? Or do you believe you will beat them again? There is a difference. And the difference is all in what you believe.
So, what do you believe?
What you believe will determine your composure on the field. What you believe will determine how you act on the sideline if we are ahead. What you believe will determine how you act on the sideline if we are behind. And either way you choose to act, you will be leading others to do the same.
Here’s a good question: In a physical contest, who do you believe has a greater opportunity to win? Would it be the man with slumping shoulders, a glazed look on his face, and his butt on the bench…the man avoiding eye contact with those depending upon him?
Or might it be the man with steel in his eyes, fire in his gut, and the ability to connect with his teammates without a word being spoken…raised eyebrows, a grin, and a nod that communicates calm…a look that says, “We know something they don’t know. And ain’t this gonna be fun? Cause those fellas are about to find out just what that is!” A connection like that can LEAD with assurance and excitement and create confidence that washes through the entire team. Slowly—even if behind on the scoreboard—a certainty spreads that a story is about to be produced on the field—a story that will be told for generations.
But make no mistake: Stories like this are not created by teams who lose their composure in the 4th quarter. Stories like this are not produced by teams who are controlled by their emotions.
Stories that become legend…stories that are cemented in the memories of a nation…are only produced by men who choose to act and perform a certain way despite their emotions. Children and weak people are prisoners of their emotions. You are not children and you are not weak.
You are what you believe. You are exactly what you believe.
So…what do you believe?
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The Rest of the Story
At 10 the next morning, I turned off my cell phone and spent the next several hours doing a speaking engagement and eating lunch with that corporation’s CEO. Back in my room a bit before 2pm, I turned the mobile unit back on and watched in astonishment as more than 70 text messages poured in at once. I recognized all the names—three were members of Congress—most were personal friends.
As I attempted to figure out what everyone was so fired up about, a call came in. My phone identified the caller as Hugh Freeze. “Hey Coach,” I answered and listened with a smile as he told me what was happening.
In case you are unaware, I live in Alabama. I am an unabashed Alabama fan. So are our boys, my personal assistant, and the majority of my saner friends. Coach Freeze knows this. He also says the only reason he likes me is because my wife, Polly, is from Mississippi. And he knew what was about to happen when he mentioned me in an interview.
When coaches began calling several years ago, I decided that helping people fit my life’s mission and, despite team loyalties, I would help when and where I could, when I was asked to do so. Obviously, my help never includes strategic information. A conversation with Urban Meyer over dinner at Ohio State does not ever include anything I might have seen in Nick Saban’s office or on the practice field at Alabama. This is an absolute I hold to, no matter where I am or who I see.
I must say, however, that despite all that and as big an Alabama fan as I am, I am also a Hugh Freeze fan. I believe him to be, quite honestly, a great man. However, when Coach Freeze told ESPN and CBS that “Andy Andrews” had helped him with a letter before this particular game (and they showed it live, as pictured here), my friends didn’t seem to think much of him or me! Ha!
In the media, there was a lot of curiosity about the contents of the letter Coach Freeze would address to each member of the team and have delivered to their rooms on Friday night. He had told them that the letter would be the topic of conversation at Saturday’s breakfast, the pre-game meal, and before kickoff. Yes, my friends heard it all.
And when Ole Miss took the opening kick-off, drove down the field, and scored immediately, my cell phone almost exploded with text messages. Bob Woodall of Dothan, Alabama probably expressed the sentiment for all with his text. It said simply, “What’s in the letter, Andrews?”
It was all in good fun, but I must admit that the game itself was a somewhat tense experience for me. Polly was all for Ole Miss, of course, and managed to rub in every Rebel score. “Thank you, Dear!” she would say as the boys rolled their eyes and shook their heads at me.
If you’re a college football fan, you probably know that Ole Miss did not win the game. Despite an offensive surge that allowed them to score two touchdowns in less than three minutes near the end of the fourth quarter, Alabama ended up winning 48-43.
Just five points short.
Some would look at that score and question the quality of the team.
I look at the fact that they grew. Noticeably, this was not the same team that had seemed so discouraged two weeks before in the fourth quarter against Florida State. They fought until the very end. Their belief in themselves—despite the loss—was not diminished. They are quickly understanding that football is a lot like life. Becoming a champion is a process. Growth happens daily, not in a day.
Proof of their increasing belief came the following week when those same young men came out and beat the #12-ranked Georgia Bulldogs 45-14.
Despite the crushing disappointment of the week before, despite the mistakes that had been made then and the defeat—they came back with heads held high and dominated.
A high level of belief in yourself does not make you impervious to setbacks, failures, or losses. But it does determine how you respond to them. And how you respond to them greatly determines your future.
So…with that in mind, I’ll leave you with a final question:
What do you believe?