Monday, November 14, 2011

Sun Tzu and the Art of Football

              I believe that most coaches have at least heard of the book The Art of War by Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu. Written in the 2nd Century BC, the book is said to be the definitive work on military strategies and tactics of its time. It is still widely read, not only in military circles, but also in several other professions in which competition is a key component, including certain levels of coaching. Most coaches have at least a passing familiarity with the most common sayings, such as "Know the Enemy", but I became curious as to how much of the actual writing can carry over to coaching the game of football. What I found is that a huge amount of this book can be regarded as relevant specifically to the game of football. By no means am I comparing coaching football to war, but if you look as this book as a guide to competition while directing larger numbers of people (as many business leaders do), then it is a fascinating piece of coaching material.
               The Art of War is divided into 13 chapters, each devoted to a different aspect of warfare. For the purpose of this analysis, I have used the translation that was edited by author James Clavell. For each relevant  chapter, I have included a sample of the writing, followed by notes connecting the strategy to
 the game of football.

Chapter 1   Laying Plans

The art of war is governed by five constant factors, all of which need to be taken into account. They are: The Moral Law, Heaven, Earth, The Commander, and Method & Discipline.

The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.
  • The Head Coach is in charge and the players and assistant coaches believe in him.
Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.
  • Weather variables on gameday
Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes.
  • Down and Distance, Time factors
The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.
  • The players play hard and are mentally ready.
Method & Discipline are the marshaling of the army in its subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers...
  • Every player and coach knows his role and his job.
The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.
  • Which coaching staff does a better job of gameplanning before the actual game?
Chapter 2  On Waging War

Cleverness has never been associated with long delays. The value of time - that is, being a little ahead of your opponent - has counted for more than numerical superiority.
  • The team that is more sure of itself, more sure of its assignments, can play faster that a team with more stopwatch speed.
Chapter 3  The Sheathed Sword

The highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy's plans...
  • The most difficult coaching to accomplish is to completely surprise the opponent.
...The next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces...
  • Coaches should try to take away the opponent's best plays.
...the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field...
  • This is when the coach leaves it up to his players to out-athlete the opponent. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
...and the worst policy is to beseige walled cities...
  • This is when the coach attacks the opponent's strength. For example, playing a single, static front against an opponent with a superior offensive line.
If a general is ignorant of the principle of adaptability, he must not be entrusted with a position of authority. The skillfull employer of men will employ the wise man, the brave man, the covetous man, and the stupid man.
  • A good coach must be able to put his players in a position to be successful. He must be able to determine "How can a player help us?" by focusing on what the player can do, not what he cannot.
There are five essentials for victory:
  He will win who knows how to fight and when not to fight.
  • The coaching staff must have a good sense of play-calling strategy on both sides of the ball.
  He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
  • The coaching staff must have a plan for games when they have better athletes than the opponent, as well as for games where they do not match up athletically.
  He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
  • The coaching staff must have the entire team mentally prepared and ready to play hard.
  He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. 
  • The coaching staff must prepare and have plans for whatever strategy the opponent may employ. They must go into the game anticipating possible strategies and they must have already thought of possible counters that the opponent would not anticipate.
  He will win who has the military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign. 
  • The coaching staff must have the support it needs from administration without being handcuffed or limited.
The following is probably Sun Tzu's most famous teaching:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.
  • If you know your team's strengths and weaknesses and your opponent's strengths and weaknesses and you can take advantage of that knowledge, then you will win most of the time.
If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
  • If you know your team's strengths and weaknesses, but cannot determine your opponent's strengths and weaknesses, then you will lose as much as you win.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
  • If you, as a coach, cannot figure out your own team's strengths and weaknessess, you will lose many games.
Chapter 4      Tactics

What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. He wins his battles by making no mistakes
  • A cliche, but true: The team that makes the fewest mistakes wins.
Chapter 5        Energy

Amid the turmoil and tumult of battle, there may be seeming disorder and yet no real disorder at all.......Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline.
  • Be effective at disguising, stemming, and moving on defense. Use misdirection and play-action on offense.
The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. He takes individual talent into account, and uses each man according to his capabilities. he does not demand perfection from the untalented.
  • A good coach evaluates his player's abilities and put his them in a position to be successful.
Chapter 6    Weak Points & Strong

Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy will be fresh for the fight.
  • Try to be the first team out of the huddle and lining up.
Appear at points that the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected.
  • No-huddle, hurry-up offense can put a great deal of pressure on the opponent.
Therefore, the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.
  • A good football team can use tempo, both fast & slow, to dictate the pace of the football game and what their opponent is allowed to do.
You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places that are undefended. The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known, for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points.....with his forces being thus distributed in many directions
, the numbers we shall have to face at any given point will be proportionately fewer.
  • A good team is multiple on offense and can attack in several different ways.
  • By being multiple, a good coach forces the opponent to prepare for several things, limiting the number of quality reps practiced against any one aspect of the offense.
Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against several possible attacks. Numerical strength comes from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us.
  • A good coach forces the opponent to waste valuable preparation time on several different things.
To Be Continued...

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