How Alabama coach Nick Saban used psychology to build a football dynasty

University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban is one of the greatest college football coaches of all time.

Under his guidance, Alabama won three BCS championships in 2009, 2011, and 2012 and took the SEC title last year.

A crucial element of Saban’s edge is what he calls the “Process,” a simple but profound way of breaking down a difficult situation into manageable pieces.

Saban owes this philosophy to Dr. Lionel “Lonny” Rosen, a Michigan State University psychiatry professor he befriended when he coached there in the late ’90s, writes Monte Burke in his book “Saban: The Making of a Coach.”

Saban had long been interested in psychology and wanted to incorporate an understanding of how the mind works into his coaching style. Rosen started showing up to practices and became known to players as “the wizard dude” and “Lonny Graybeard,” since, as Burke puts it, “he looks like someone who has just wandered back into civilisation after seven months on the Appalachian Trail.”

The Process was born in early November 1998, leading up to a big game against the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. The team wasn’t feeling confident, and Saban turned to Rosen for guidance.

Rosen taught the Michigan State Spartans a form of step-by-step thinking developed by cognitive therapy pioneer Aaron Beck and popularly used in the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program.

“Rosen emphasised that the average play in the football game lasted about seven seconds,” Burke writes. “The players would concentrate only on winning those seconds, take a rest between plays, then do it all over again. There would be no focus at all on the scoreboard or on the end results.”

The game against Ohio State started off terribly. With 10 minutes left in the third quarter, the Buckeyes were beating the Spartans 24-9. But the players and coaches remained calm, Michigan State’s then quarterback Bill Burke told Monte Burke. It felt like “we had an infinite amount of time to come back,” he said.

Michigan State’s comeback was remarkable. With just over a minute left in the fourth quarter, the Spartans were ahead 25-24, but the Buckeyes made it to the Spartan’s 15-yard line. On fourth down, Ohio State’s quarterback fumbled the ball after facing pressure from Michigan State, the Spartans scooped up the ball, and the Spartans made a field goal on the next play, winning the game 28-25.

From that point on, Saban used Rosen as a consultant, regardless of where he coached. Rosen acts like a shrink for Saban’s players, consulting them individually and figuring out the way they think so that Saban can best reach them and keep them focused on what’s directly in front of them.

Saban takes the Process beyond the gridiron, as well. For example, when a friend called Saban to congratulate him for winning the 2012 BCS title, according to a 2013 GQ profile, Saban immediately began complaining that other coaches were trying to steal the high school recruits he had his eye on.

He’s found that keeping an eye on the past or future either creates anxiety or dangerous comfort, and so he spends as little time as possible caught in the emotion of a win or a loss.

As “the wizard dude” Rosen told the Lansing State Journal in 2003: “Give me a team that has a business-like attitude, a team that can deal with adversity when it comes. … The most destructive phenomenon in sports is relief. It’s typically followed by a decrease in performance.”

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