Life Advice From the Best Sports Coach Of All-Time (7 min read)

It was a sad day last weekend when I discovered that my local second-hand book shop, Copperfields, was closing down (see picture). The only silver lining was that all books were selling for incredibly low prices and I ended up buying books I would not normally buy. One that stood out was called “The Essential Vince Lombardi” – it cost £2! I had vaguely heard of Lombardi with his saying “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”. Moreover, I don’t know anything about American football, the area in which he excelled as a coach. It seems to be like rugby with pads and lots of interruptions for TV ad breaks. There is that Nike ad and I know that the NFL season just started.

But upon reading the book, I learned a lot more about Lombardi (and the sport) and I was deeply impressed. He was perhaps one of the best sports coaches of all-time. He took over the Green Bay Packers as coach in 1959 just after the team suffered its worst season in its history. He then went to win the league in his full season, and this success continued with four more season wins and two Super Bowls. What makes him the best coach of all-time has to be his ability to inspire and motivate players with his words, which in part came from his love of books. Here are some of his sayings that stand out for me:

Winning and Losing

“ A team, like men, must be brought to its knees before it can rise again.”

“All the world loves a gambler…until he loses.”

“What is defeat? Nothing but education,  nothing but the first step to something better” (Lombardi was quoting Wendell Phillips, the American abolitionist from the 1800s)

“Fatigue makes a coward of us all. When you’re tired, you rationalise. You make excuses in your mind. You say “I’m too tired, I’m bushed, I can’t do this, I’ll loaf. Then you’re a coward.”

“Once you quit it becomes a habit.”

“I don’t give a damn about statistics as long as we win.”

“When in doubt, punt”

Discipline and hard-work

“Every game boils down to doing the things you do best, and doing them over and over again.”

“Don’t succumb to excuses. Go back to the job making the corrections and forming the habits that will make your goals possible.”

“Hell, I can’t sit around and see an error being made and not say anything about it. I like to think I’ve had some experience in this business, and you don’t win when you’re making lots of errors. Nobody wants to be told he’s making errors, not the way I tell them, but they’ve got to be told and told until they get to the point where they don’t make them anymore.”

“Success in life is a matter not so much of talent or opportunity as it is concentration and perseverance. “

“If you settle for nothing less than your best, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish in life.”


“Character, rather than education, is a man’s greatest need and man’s greatest safeguard, because character is higher than intellect.”

“A great sign of immaturity is to become very angry or hurt at the slightest criticism from others. A mature person profits from criticism.”

“Improvements in moral character are own responsibility. Bad habits are eliminated not by others, but by ourselves.”

“A mature person profits from criticism”

“The ego destroys the humility in a person. Ego is what we think we are. The ego is the clamorous childness, the petulant childness, the spoiled childness.”

“If you cheat on the practice field, you’ll cheat in the game. If you cheat in the game, you’ll cheat the rest of your life. I’ll not have it.”

“If I ever hear [racial expletives] or anything like that around her, regardless of who you are, you’re through with me. You can’t play for me if you have any kind of prejudice.”

“I’d rather have a player with 50% ability and 100% desire because the guy with 100% desire you know is going to play every day so you can make a system to fit into what he can do. The other kind of guy – the guy with 100% ability and 50% desire – can screw up your whole system, because one day he’ll be out there waltzing around.”


“Before I can embrace freedom, I should be aware of what duties I have.”

“We are our brother’s keeper. I don’t give a damn what people say. If people can’t find work, whether it’s their fault or not, you’ve got to help them and house them properly and try to get rid of the conditions that have held them back.”

“One of our goals in life has to be to know ourselves, as the ancient Greek axiom puts it. It is the first step to self-improvement,”

“Maybe we have too much freedom. Maybe we have so long ridiculed authority in the family, discipline in education, decency in conduct, and law in the state that our freedom has brought us close to chaos.”

Team Dynamics

“I don’t want any bad apples in my organisation. I get one [bad] apple in the bushel over here, and the rest of them will start rotting, too.”

“Every player must first place the team ahead of personal glory. The man who plays must make personal sacrifices – victory means team glory for everyone – personal glory means little if a team loses.”

“The most important thing a coach needs is the knowledge that his team can or can’t play under pressure. If it can’t, you need new players: if it can, you can make do with average ones. “

“The harder you work, the harder it is to lose.”

“Finding new talent is the lifeblood of a successful football team.”

Bad Leadership

“A man who belittles another – who is not charitable to another, who is not loyal, who speaks ill of another – is not a leader and does not belong in the top management echelon.”

“We cannot allow the innocent among us to be beguiled by the few who seek power through destruction.”

“You show me a man who belittles another and I will show you a man who is not a leader or one who is not charitable, who has no respect for the dignity of another, is not loyal, and I will show you a man who is not a leader.”

“In all my years of coaching, I have never been successful using somebody else’s play”

“Almost always, the plan is too complex. Too much to learn, and perfect in too little time”

“Leadership is based on a spiritual quality, the power to inspire, the power to inspire others to follow. This spiritual quality may be for good or for evil. In many cases in the past, this quality has been devoted toward personal ends and was partly or wholly evil. Leadership which is evil, while it may temporarily succeed, always carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.”

Managing People

“In dealing with people, the first thing we must have is all the facts, and then we must be constructive. If we are constructive, we will be reflecting our own sincerity and dedication, as well as our personal and company integrity. If the facts indicate we made a poor decision or took an improper action, then we must admit we were wrong. On the other hand, if the evidence based on those facts, shows we were correct, we must stand firmly and fairly to what we believe is right.”

“You can’t coach without criticising, and it’s essential to understand how to criticise each man individually. For instance, some can take constructive criticism in front of a group, and some can’t. Some can take it privately, but others can only take it indirectly. Football is a pressure business, and on my teams I put on most of the pressure. The point is that I’ve got to learn forty ways to pressure forty men.”

“Leadership is defined as the ability to direct people, but more important, to have those people accept direction.”

“The strength of a group is in the strength of the leader. Many mornings when I am worried and depressed, I have to give myself what is almost a pep talk, because I am not going before that ball club without being able to exude assurance. I must be the first believer because there is no way you can hoodwink the players.”

“Public acceptance is vital to the original success and the continuing success of any business. No matter how popular or successful at the moment or how rosy the future appears, the public acceptance of any kind of product must be deserved to be kept. There is no room for complacency in this respect. “

“They call it coaching, but it is teaching. You do not just tell them it is so, but you show them reasons why it is so, and you repeat and repeat until they are convinced, until they know. “

Good Leadership

“A good leader must be harder on himself than anyone else. He must first discipline himself before he can discipline others. A man should not ask others to do things he would have asked himself to do at one time or another in his life.”

“In football and business, a leader must be honest with himself and the people he is working with. Skilled ignorance is often more powerful than knowledge and honesty – but only temporarily, only for a short time. In the long run, knowledge and honesty will pay off. “

“I never tell a football team anything that I don’t absolutely believe myself. I always tell them the truth. I can’t even try to deceive them, because, I know they’d know. I’d know, so they’d know. “

“If a man who is considered a leader is to stay a leader, he must be prepared to adhere to his principles if he is certain, in his own conscience, that he is doing right.”

“The successful man is himself”

“The only way I know how to coach this game is all the way.”



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