And if the Seahawks succeed in actually “treating every week like a championship,” as coach Pete Carroll often says, a lot of their 2014 success will be owed to Carroll the teacher. We usually think of Pete Carroll as a defensive mastermind, or as an exceptional motivator, or as the youngest almost-63-year-old on earth, but what stood out during a recent interview was the word he kept using to describe himself.
Carroll the talent evaluator, Carroll the coach, Carroll the motivator, they all had their hands on Seattle's first Super Bowl victory, but the challenge of keeping the team on top, he says, is getting players to believe the process matters more than the end goal. Carroll admits that's not always an easy message to get across, which is why it took a couple of seasons for his players to fully buy in.
“If I was a better teacher, it wouldn't take so long, but it takes me a long time to get it taught where it's really imbedded,” Carroll said. “It doesn't happen just immediately. The first time through you have to keep coming at it.”
And Carroll wasn't talking about teaching defensive backs the intricacies of press coverage, or lecturing a running back about ball security. He was talking about a mental approach to the game that has nothing to do with big-picture goals. This is hardly a unique concept, either to the Seahawks or to sports in general, but it's also a goal that's a lot simpler to talk about than it is to accomplish. It's easy to tell a room full of athletes at the top of their profession that last season's dominant Super Bowl win means nothing now, that they can't think about a repeat, and that they need to be fully focused on the next day's practice. It's something entirely different to convince the entire room to buy into that message.
“A lot of the thought behind that is that we want to focus on the things that we can control, and we really can't control even winning the games as much as you might think,” Carroll said. “We can control how we perform. That's what's really crucial to us is to maximize our performance every time out, and if that puts us in position to win a lot of games and win championships, great. That's a better gauge, it's a better goal on a daily basis to shoot for. So we're really hammering that home, really teaching that it's not about that game that's coming up, it's about the day that's at hand. Then we try to really discipline ourselves in the ability to focus like that so that we can maximize every day, not looking off into the future somewhere or looking back into the past somewhere.”
Like a high school chemistry teacher, a middle school math teacher or a college economics professor, Carroll has to get the same message across to the 2014 Seahawks that helped lead the 2012 and 2013 teams to successful seasons. It's not coming up with a new lesson plan, it's getting team after team after team to buy into the same one.
“It's not the one great lesson you teach, it's how many creative times you can keep coming back to the same message until it really settles in and makes sense to guys,” Carroll said.
And that lesson seems to be getting through to his players. Ask anyone on Seattle's roster, and they'll tell you that they don't talk about their past championship, and that they never discuss the possibility of repeating.
Told his players all seem to be echoing that message, Carroll smiles and interrupts, “That's awesome.”
Perhaps no player embodies Carroll's hyper-competitive nature more than Earl Thomas — Carroll says “I watch this game and live this game through his eyes often” — so it's no surprise that the All-Pro safety so perfectly sums up the message Carroll teaches.
Asked what's next after the Seahawks achieved the pinnacle in their sport, Thomas explained they have not, in fact, reached the pinnacle despite a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl throttling of the Broncos. The way Thomas sees it, the way Carroll wants his team to see it, is that the ultimate goal isn't a title, but rather to get every man on the roster functioning at the highest possible level.
“I don't think that's the highest team goal,” Thomas said of the Super Bowl win. “When you talk about the team, every individual has to be their greatest self, so the competition to me is not about losing and winning. I'm competing with myself to see, ‘Man, can I do something crazy today? Am I getting better?' I want to get better every day, I don't want to go backwards. That's the ultimate goal for the whole team, to see how good everybody can be. If everybody's being their best, we won't lose.”
This is why Carroll doesn't want to talk about being one of three coaches in history to win a college championship and Super Bowl title as a head coach — “It's nice, but it's been done before,” he says—and it's why Carroll doesn't allow himself to think about his legacy if he adds another Super Bowl title or two, and why he doesn't see his recent success as validation after he was twice fired by NFL teams. There's no time for any of that, not for the teacher who has an important lesson to get across to his 2014 team.
“We've got to keep moving,” he says, “We can't be stagnant.”
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