On Tony Dungy changing player habits

ESPN.com’s large-scale “Greatest Coaches in NFL History” project includes a rating of the top 20 coaches of all-time.

And No. 20 made his biggest mark with the Indianapolis Colts: Tony Dungy.

He did excellent work with the Colts, culminating in the team’s Super Bowl XLI title won on Feb. 4, 2007.

I admire Dungy a great deal, and remember one conversation I had with him about his coaching style. As calm and measured as he was, I wondered if a periodic explosion could ever have a super-sized effect on his team.

He said no. He played for Chuck Noll as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he always appreciated that Noll wasn’t a yeller. Dungy loved the calm explanations he got about mistakes he made and things he may have done wrong. And he strived to offer the same sort of coaching to his players -- every time.

I was also struck by a section about Dungy in a book I read in the last year: “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

He detailed how Dungy thought he could prompt change with the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he became their head coach in 1996.

Before that, Dungy explained his intended approach four times to owners looking for a head coach. Four times owners passed.

Wrote Duhigg:

Part of the problem was Dungy’s coaching philosophy. In his job interviews, he would patiently explain his belief that the key to winning was changing players habits. He wanted to get players to stop making so many decisions during a game, he said. He wanted them to react automatically, habitually. If he could instill the right habits, his team would win. Period.

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy would explain. “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

How, the owners would ask, are you going to create those new habits?

Oh no, he wasn’t going to create new habits, Dungy would answer. Players spent their lives building the habits that got them to the NFL. No athlete is going to abandon those patterns simply because some new coach says to.

So rather than creating new habits, Dungy was going to change players’ old ones. And the secret to changing old habits was using what was already insider players’ heads. Habits are a three-step loop -- the cure, the routine, and the reward -- but Dungy only wanted to attack the middle step, the routine. He knew from experience that it was easier to convince someone to adopt a new behavior if there was something familiar at the beginning and the end.

It took some time for Dungy to break through to the Bucs. He got one big indication things were starting to turn late in that first season.

In a 25-17 win over San Diego, Dungy saw some altered habits key an upset. Pass pressure for Regan Upshaw prompted Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries to force a pass to a rookie tight end, Brian Roche. Tampa Bay safety John Lynch had moved to his spot and was waiting for his cue. Lynch avoided the temptation to improvise, stayed patient and was ready to pounce on Humphries forced throw. The interception return positioned the Bucs for a touchdown that turned the game.

Dungy and Lynch walked off the field together after the game. Lynch told Dungy something was different.

“We’re starting to believe,” Dungy told him.

Coaches hoping to get a head job in the NFL would be wise to read Duhigg’s book and study and emulate Dungy’s philosophy of habit change.