A few days ago, Matt Patricia was asked to explain how he had gotten better at his job since he became the Detroit Lions’ head coach in 2018.
It was a difficult question and Patricia couldn’t cite one specific example.
Even though NFL coaches are used to giving extemporaneous answers to a daily gauntlet of questions, burnishing your LinkedIn profile on the fly isn’t easy for anyone.
Shawn Windsor: Lions stopped practice and spoke to the world; time to listen, like it or not
But what Patricia couldn’t do with words a few days ago, he did with his actions Tuesday when he canceled practice and allowed his players to engage in a long, emotional discussion about racial injustice after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times Sunday.
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The players had heartfelt talks with each other about their vastly different experiences. Then they spoke with reporters via Zoom and outside the Allen Park facility. You could hear it in their voices: the emotion and empathy in Taylor Decker’s, the frustration and anger in Duron Harmon’s.
Patricia gave his players the respect and the space they needed to let that happen. In doing so, he became a better coach Tuesday.
It might not seem like a big deal for a coach to cancel one training camp practice and to let his players speak publicly about racial injustice, an issue 65% of American adults support protesting.
But you have to understand something about Patricia. Even in the work-to-exhaustion culture of NFL coaches, he is obsessive in the pursuit for improvement. During the season, he sleeps in his office more often than he does in his own bed working endless hours to find the slightest advantage. To him, every practice is precious, every distraction a destructive threat.
Patricia admitted his nose was so firmly pressed to the grindstone that he only became aware of Blake’s shooting and the resulting outcry Monday night.
“Honestly,” he said, “for the most part I’m in my own little bubble here in the football world and sometimes I miss things that happen.”
When the players returned Tuesday from their day off, Patricia wasn’t sure how they might react in the team meeting before practice.
But Patricia had two things helping him: a device he regularly uses to stoke discussions and understanding, and a keen interest in the attributes of leadership.
Patricia uses a theme for every day of the week. On “gratitude Monday,” players are invited to stand up in the team meeting and discuss something they’re grateful for.
The fact players are in the habit of sharing personal and meaningful experiences certainly contributed to Tuesday’s discussions and actions.
In February, I sat at Patricia’s dinner table at a hotel in Troy, New York, when he returned to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to give the keynote speech at his alma mater’s military ball. I listened to him speak extensively about leadership. He had learned about “the leadership of listening” from a friend in the Navy who commanded effectively, even though he personally was far from the fighting, by listening to his troops.
We ask so much of NFL coaches. We want them to be brilliant tacticians, master motivators and engaging speakers — all while being consistent winners, of course.
On Tuesday, Patricia was up to the task and he won in a big way. He took another step in capturing the hearts and minds of his players and the trust of his bosses by showing he’s the right person to lead this team.
And he did it all by listening. Something we should all be doing more of these days.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.