6 Takeaways for Swim Coaches from Urban Meyer’s “Above the Line”

6 Takeaways for Swim Coaches from Urban Meyer’s “Above the Line”

Urban Meyer is a three-time national football college champion. Here are six lessons in leadership and culture that swim coaches can pull from Urban Meyer’s book, “Above the Line.”

Urban Meyer is one of the most successful college football coaches in recent history. During the 2000s, Meyer won three national championships; two in Florida, and a third with the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2014.

It is that title run during 2014, where the Buckeyes would beat Oregon in the national championship, that serves as the spine for Meyer’s leadership manual, Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Program.

Even though Meyer’s book is perhaps most directly applicable to football coaches, the lessons and leadership principles are just as relevant for swim coaches. If you want to build excellent team culture on your swim team, Meyer’s book provides a thorough blueprint and set of starting points.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from Meyer’s Above the Line, along with key quotes, passages, and some of my own thoughts and highlights for swim coaches.

Books for Swim Coaches -- Above the Line by Urban Meyer

Where to Buy — Above the Line by Urban Meyer

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

Excellent leadership is a system, not an accident

My favorite takeaway from Meyer’s book is that leadership should be treated as a system and a process.

Instead of hoping that natural leaders will emerge or that a high-performance culture will assemble on its own, be intentional about creating a climate that reliably produces outstanding leadership.

Unlike most leadership books for coaches that outline a bunch of motivational slogans and platitudes, Above the Line actually gets into the trenches of how to build a high-performance team from the ground up.

  • “Average leaders have quotes. Good leaders have a plan. Exceptional leaders have a system.”
  • “Leadership isn’t a difference maker, it is the difference maker. Talent will get you about seven or eight wins. Discipline pushes it to nine wins, maybe. But when you add leadership, that’s when magic happens.”
  • “You don’t get the culture you want; you get the culture you build.”

Focus on developing a high-performance process

When you master the process, the everyday grind of training, you master the result. There is no winning on game day without conquering your process on a daily basis.

  • “Success is cumulative and progressive. It is the result of what you do every day.”
  • “For every goal you are pursuing a process is involved. There is a pathway you must follow. To achieve your goals you must commit to the process with daily Above the Line behavior.”
  • “Success is not achieved by an occasional heroic response. Success is achieved by focused and sustained action.”
  • “Goal clarity is essential, but so is process clarity. For every goal you have set, be exceptionally clear about the process necessary to achieve the desired outcome.”

Start by winning the mental battle

Success in the water is a direct result of relentless effort applied consistently. There’s no big secret or shortcut or way to outsmart the hard work to perform at a high level.

This also means doing the hard work in having a clear plan and using the right mental skills to make sure that you are winning the daily battle between your ears.

  • “Here’s the not-so-hidden secret for achieving success: clarify what you really want, then work as hard as you can for as long as it takes. Toughness can achieve things that talent by itself can never accomplish.”
  • “First you win the battle in your mind. Next you win the battle in practice. Then (and only then) you win the battle in the game.”
  • “I’ve never been in a football game where the team that played the hardest didn’t win.”

Culture drives results, not the other way around

Swimming is a results-based business. Either you win your race, make the state cut, break the world record… Or you don’t. Pretty cut and dry.

While it is natural and tempting to drive all of our attention and focus at the results, the big end goals, the championship trophies and banners, it’s the culture that makes it all possible.

Avoid the urge to be so blinded by the shine of the trophies, accolades, and medals that the culture goes to the wayside.

The culture is the thing that makes the results possible. Not the other way around.

  • “Yes, results are important. We’re all in this to produce results. But again, culture is what sustains the behavior that gets you those results. Build the culture. The results will come.”
  • “Winning behavior will not thrive in a culture that does not support it.”

The 10-80-10 Principle

The 10-80-10 principle: 10 percent of your group are the high performers, the elite, the nucleus. 80 percent are the “people who go to work, do a good job, and are relatively reliable.” The remaining 10 percent are “uninterested or defiant.”

  • “The challenge is to move as many of the 80 percenters into the nucleus as you can/ If you can expand the top 10 percent into 15 percent or 20 percent, you are going to see a measurable increase in the performance of your team.”
  • “We wanted our top 10 percent to be leaders who influenced and motivated others. This is essential because leadership is about connecting. Leadership is an activity that happens person to person and heart to heart.”
  • “How well you perform as a team is going to depend on the work you do with the 80 percenters. That’s why I devote more time to them by far than to either of the 10 percenters.”
  • “As much as you love your top 10 percenters, you don’t need to motivate them because they are doing it by themselves… But remember, your goal as a leader is to build and motivate your whole team, and the way to do that is to focus your attention on the 80 percenters.”
  • “The bottom 10 percenters are not really worth wasting any energy on. It took me a while to realize this. For years I would try to change them. I would look at their corner-cutting ways and take it as a challenge to make them see the virtue and satisfaction that comes with working hard and getting results. It was probably arrogant on my part to think I could get them to change. The lesson I learned was this: time is a nonrenewable resource. If you waste it, you never get it back, so it’s essential to pick your battles wisely.”
  • “When we discover that a player is willfully resistant to our efforts and refuses to take advantage of the resources we provide, we redirect our attention elsewhere. Kobe Bryant expressed it well. ‘I can’t relate to lazy people,’ he said. ‘We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you.’”

Leaders take time to think deeply.

Rushing through problems and challenges rarely create a positive outcome. These kind of knee-jerk reactions are not thought out. In order to craft smarter solutions to challenges, Above the Line leaders take time to pause and think deeply.

For leaders, this very often means solitude, being open to new ideas, and regularly ear-marking time to focus deeply.

  • “When things aren’t going right, the most important thing you can do is slow down, go deep, and figure out why. It is very easy in the world we live in to get so caught up in the tyranny of the urgent that we don’t make time to think.”
  • “A lot of people really don’t want to think deeply. They’d prefer to play it safe, not rock the boat, and never stray far from the status quo.”
  • “A big part of being a true leader is being open to new ideas. And those ideas come from thinking.”
  • “Sometimes great leadership demands space and doing nothing.”

Where to Buy — Above the Line by Urban Meyer

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

More Stuff Like This:

10 Things Swimmers Can Do for Exceptional Team Culture. A swim team’s culture can boost your chances of success in the water just as easily as it can hold you back. Here’s how you, the elite-minded swimmer, can do your part to create exceptional team culture.

Daniel Coyle’s “The Culture Code”: How Swim Coaches Can Build a Legendary Culture. Coyle breaks down what makes high-performing teams so great. Here are some of my favorite takeaways and lessons for how swim coaches can build great culture.

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of YourSwimLog.com. He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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