Baylor’s Dave Aranda shows there’s more than one way to lead

By MIKE HERNDON

If you’ve played football at any level, or probably even if you haven’t, you’ve got a soundtrack in your head of what a football coach is supposed to sound like. Loud. Confident. Competitive. Demanding. A man’s man. Walk it off. Rub some dirt on it and get your ass back in there.

I have never been on a practice field running sprints for Dave Aranda, but he doesn’t seem like that kind of guy. He seems like the opposite of that kind of guy. At the L’Arche Football Preview Dinner held recently in Mobile, Aranda talked about battling his introverted nature as he took his first head coaching job two years ago at Baylor.

“People said a team is a reflection of its head coach,” Aranda said. “And I thought, ‘well, we’re screwed.’”

Except they weren’t. They struggled in his first year, going 2-7 in a season abbreviated due to COVID. But Aranda’s message, however it was conveyed, apparently resonated. Because last season, he led the Bears to a 12-2 record and a Sugar Bowl win.

Before going to Baylor, he’d served as LSU’s defensive coordinator for four years, leading a unit filled with NFL draft picks and helping guide the Tigers to a national championship in 2019.

Clearly, the man can coach. His success ought to tell us something: There isn’t just one way to be successful. We all, as football fans, sometimes fall into the trap of wondering whether this player or that coach is tough enough, or enough of a Type A – whether they’re an alpha. But there’s more than one way to lead.

Chuck Noll was more of a thinker than a screamer. So was Tom Landry.

Aranda spent a lot of his time at the podium talking about the four stages of developing a skill, whether its athletics or anything else, and dealing with the period of self-doubt that he called “the pit.”

First, there’s unconscious incompetence: You don’t know what you don’t know. You think you’re good, but you have no frame of reference. Then comes conscious incompetence: You realize you’re not as good as you thought you were. This is “the pit,” which can swallow you up if you don’t find a way to fight out of it.

If you do climb out, you reach conscious competence. You’ve made the adjustments you needed to make to become adept at whatever you’re trying to do, and you know how to do it right. But that’s not the final stage. The last step is unconscious competence: Doing your thing well without having to think about it.

This stage is certainly important for football players. We sometimes see athletes struggling, playing tentatively, and realize they’re “having to think too much.” They haven’t yet reached unconscious competence, and having to think about how to do their job correctly is slowing them down.

How to get athletes to that fourth stage is one of the challenges of coaching. But the larger struggle, Aranda said, is often getting them past the second phase — getting them out of the pit.

For an introvert, climbing out of the pit often means simply forcing yourself to talk to people, particularly people you don’t know. That self-doubt is not knowing if you’re good enough, not knowing if what you’re about to say will be well-received. Climbing out of that pit is saying it anyway.

Aranda presumably didn’t know any of Baylor’s players before taking the job two years ago, certainly not well anyway. But it’s his job to speak up, to get a room full of young men to believe in him, to lead.

His success is a lesson that we don’t have to settle for the boundaries of our comfort zones or whatever feels natural to us. We don’t have to be held hostage by our inner nature.

Maybe that’s playing a role, but I will submit to you that much of coaching is performance art. The same can be said of leaders in other professions – CEOs, community leaders, teachers and professors. Part of their jobs is convincing and motivating their employees or players or students or fellow citizens to put forth the effort necessary to get the job done, to ace the test, to clean up the neighborhood, to win the game. Many times, that requires a show.

As Dave Aranda and others have shown us, it doesn’t always take an alpha to do it. Just someone who knows how to climb out of the pit.



Categories: College football

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