The NFL’s Tom Coughlin advises you to ‘Earn the Right to Win’

As head coach for the New York Giants, Tom Coughlin knows a thing or two about winning, but wastes no time resting on his laurels. His path to success is based on scrupulous preparation. In "Earn the Right to Win," he explains his process. Here's an excerpt.

The preparation is where success is truly found. . . . It was the journey I prized above all else —John Wooden

My father, John Louis Coughlin, was not a man who expressed his emotions. He was a tough, proud Irishman. We lived in the small upstate New York town of Waterloo. We always had enough to eat, the clothes we needed, and a house filled with love. His values weren’t complicated: work hard, give your best effort, respect other people, and always be honest and fair. My father was a corporal in the U.S. Army and then worked at the Seneca Ordnance Depot for the rest of his life. Everything he did was for his family, and we knew the worst thing we could possibly do was let him down. During my sophomore year in high school, I played varsity football. When I came home one Saturday afternoon after we’d been beaten, he was waiting at the front door for me. It looked like he’d been standing there for awhile. All he said to me was, “If that’s the effort you’re going to give, you probably ought to find something else to do with your time.” That was devastating for me to hear. His message was clear: If you’re going to do something, do it to the best of your ability—or don’t waste your time. It never happened again.

My mother, Betty Coughlin, was the foundation of our family. She was the most unselfish person I have ever known; everything she did was about helping someone who needed help. I remember having to deliver groceries during a blizzard. I had a job to do, and my parents expected me to do it, storm or no storm. There was too much snow on the ground for me to ride my bike, so my mother drove me house to house in her beat-up car. We couldn’t get one of the doors shut, so we tied it closed with a rope. We did what we had to do to get the job done.

Those core values were reinforced every day, grades one through eight, by the Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Mary’s parochial school. I served as altar boy from day one; in fact, my family used to call me the master of ceremonies for Mass on Easter and Christmas.

That was my foundation. There was nothing fancy or complicated about it. But everything that I’ve been fortunate enough to accomplish, in life as well as in football, has been built upon it.

Achieving any goal begins with thorough preparation. That’s not a secret: The better you prepare the more likely it is that you’ll succeed. My football teams have become known for the emphasis we place on being ready to deal with any situation. We focus on both the big and small details, knowing that it may eventually be the small things that make a big difference. Nothing ever proceeds exactly the way you’ve anticipated. Success often depends on being prepared for whichever way the ball bounces. We’ve established a reliable structure that provides the discipline, confidence, and flexibility necessary to deal with challenges without panicking, and to continue to move forward. It’s never a question of, Can we do this? but rather, How are we going to do this? Jim Citrin, a top executive recruiter and leadership expert, acknowledged the importance of a reliable structure when he wrote, “To lead people in uncertain times, project a sense of continuity, of having managed through similarly difficult predicaments. Just as panic is contagious, so too is a feeling of calm, which, when it kicks in, can settle the frayed nerves of those around you.”

Having a structure to rely on means that when my teams have reached our goal, we can look back at the steps we took along the way to get there. And do it again. There is a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that all the work we’ve put in, all the late hours, and meetings, and practice, and studying have resulted in success. We didn’t get there by luck; we got there by hard work and sacrifice, by following a plan. The phrase we use to describe that feeling is “earning the right to win.”

In sports the goal is easy to identify: win. In business or in life the goals may not be so simply defined. But it really doesn’t matter, because achieving any goal begins by planning out all of the steps needed to reach it. Chris Pridy, a Giants coaching assistant, and I make schedules, sometimes as far as a year in advance, and the coaches follow them. As one of my assistant coaches pointed out accurately, “In September, I know what time I’m going to be eating lunch the following June.” We make lists. We even make lists of the lists that we have to make, so we know how we’re going to proceed. We pay close attention to details, often to the details of the details. The whole program focuses on the effective use of time; I have never believed that complaining I don’t have enough time is an effective use of my time. The result of this is a reliable, predictable method of getting done everything that needs to be done.

There is a reason for all of this: It works. We know it works, because this is the way my teams have been doing it for more than four decades, and the result has been continuous and substantial success. We’ve developed organizations from the turf up and coached college and NFL teams to championships doing it exactly this way. It might not be the best method for everyone, but it is the right way for my teams. It is a systematic approach to success based on a great deal of experience. It has certainly evolved as the world has changed, but it has remained consistent with those original values. Even with all the changes we’ve made, players who were part of the program four decades ago would recognize and feel comfortable in it. If you follow the protocol that we have developed, you will eventually become the best person you are capable of being; you will continue to improve; you’ll draw confidence from the system and, as we’ve seen, that will lead to winning. This method, this system, doesn’t just apply to football or competitive sports; it’s just as applicable to whatever goals you want to accomplish. Let me warn you, though: You can’t cheat, and you can’t cut corners, but if you follow this system to the end, you will have earned the right to win.

Excerpted from EARN THE RIGHT TO WIN: How Success in Any Field Starts with Superior Preparation by Tom Coughlin, in agreement with Portfolio | Penguin. Copyright (c) Tom Coughlin, 2013.