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Leadership Lessons & Coaching Philosophies Shared By New Seahawks Coach Mike Macdonald

Mike Macdonald addressed high school coaches earlier this month at the University of Washington’s Be A Pro Coaching Clinic, sharing plenty of interesting insights on his coaching beliefs.


"My favorite thing to do in the world is to talk football," Mike Macdonald said to an auditorium full of high school football coaches from across Washington state.

The new head coach of the Seahawks then proceeded to spend the next 40 minutes talking about football as part of the University of Washington's Be A Pro Coaching Clinic. And yes, there were plenty of Xs and Os, with Macdonald talking about things like how defensive fronts and coverage work together, or about defending screens, or about handling opposing offenses' increasing use of pre-snap motion, but more than that, Macdonald's time with local high school coaches helped shed a little bit of insight into the coaching philosophies and leadership style of the man who earlier this offseason became the youngest head coach in the NFL.

Macdonald's coaching style and philosophies won't fully emerge until he has spent some time leading the team and coaching games, but there were still some interesting things to glean from his time addressing those high school coaches earlier this month. So with players getting on the field this week with coaches for a voluntary minicamp, their first on-field work Macdonald and the new coaching staff, here's a bit of what we learned from Macdonald earlier this month:

When it comes to winning in the trenches, "We believe in knocking the crap out of the guy in front of you, and then some."

While answering a question about defensive fronts and pass-rush in particular, Macdonald noted that, for the most part, he isn't interested in moving linemen around for the sake of dressing things up. At the high school level, he noted, there can be more value in doing that when there are more physical mismatches to compensate for from week to week, but in the NFL where every team has top talent, Macdonald has a different goal in mind for his defensive front, one that if executed right, can set the tone for an entire team.

"We believe in knocking the crap out of the guy in front of you, and then some," he said.

How Macdonald plans to start with the basics when it comes to installing his defense.

When asked about what offenses are doing to stress defenses in today's NFL, Macdonald took a long and informative route to get to his answer, explaining how he wants to bring his defense along, from the start of offseason workouts in April through camp, so that by September it will be ready for those challenges offenses present.

"There's no perfect defense, otherwise everybody would run one call and everyone would be happy," he said. "There's strengths to calls and there's weaknesses, we call them stressors. So when we're installing these rules to our players, Day 1, these next two weeks in Phase 1, I'm not going to give them one call. All they're learning is coverages, structures and techniques. They're learning stresses and strengths of those calls, and how to execute individual techniques. By the end of Phase 1, we'll learn how to get lined up, then Phase 2, we'll start introducing calls, and then at that point all you're doing is just learning adjustments and it should be easier to learn.

"Imagine being a player and you get 17 things based on how an offense is lined up, there's no way I can play the way you want me to play, play the right way, consistently. But if you just say, hey I'm going to do the thinking for you and we're going to live in these five or six worlds, and just know them cold like the back of your hand, we're going to make it look the same, we're going to change the looks, move guys around and attack offenses differently, well now, shoot, those guys can play those six pretty good. They understand the stressors, but for the offense to find that for a 60 or 80-play game, that's going to be tough for them to do."

"I love guys who love football, man."

At one point in the clinic, Macdonald was asked about the most important traits he looks for in players, and while yes, there are physical traits that obviously are a big factor, he didn't hesitate to point out one of the most important traits that has nothing to do with size or speed or athleticism, and that was equally important in building a coaching staff.

"I love guys who love football, man," he said. "We do a lot of football. With coaches, what I wanted to hear when we interviewing guys was, when we turned the tape on, 'Oh man, this was awesome, we had this one problem, but we thought about the problem in a new way, and what happened was…' You can hear the excitement. You want that type of mentality of guys that love ball, and I thought that was something that popped with the guys we ended up hiring."

Macdonald went on to quote the two Harbaughs he worked under in Baltimore and at Michigan.

"This is a Jim Harbaughism," he said. "'You get good at football by playing football.' So we're going to get reps, we're going to maximize the time and be efficient."

Later, Macdonald added, "This is a John Harbaughism: 'Guys are allowed to get better.' You do that by getting direct reps and coaching them up the right way and positive reinforcement, and if guys don't love football, then you're not going to be out there. I believe in our ability to develop players, and it's fun to work with the guys who love it."

Why playing with "shocking effort" is important, and how Macdonald plans to make that happen.

A coach's scheme is important, as is the talent on the field, but for Macdonald, another key to playing winning football is, "shocking effort. It should pop off the screen like, 'Holy crap, how do they play like that?' Then it all starts from there."

Saying you want shocking effort, of course, is one thing, while getting it out of a team takes more work.

"So how do you get that?" he said. "Well you've got to be in great shape, you've got to have guys who love each other and want to play for one another—you can't be selfish. What you're asking them to do is be incredibly clear, and in order to do that, you have to build confidence. And when you build confidence, guess what happens? They communicate, because they know what the hell they're doing… We're talking pre-snap alerts, post-snap alerts, we're communicating, everybody knows exactly what we're doing, we're flying around, we're leveraging the ball, then you have, and then it starts to look like shocking effort. But it doesn't just happen overnight.

Macdonald's thoughts on leadership and the importance of supporting players.

Macdonald frequently points to lessons he learned from Jim and John Harbaugh when it comes to leading an NFL team, but when he was asked by the high school coaches about his approach to leadership, he quoted a less likely source, referencing a speech Steve Jobs gave to the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1992.

"I now take a longer-term view on people," Jobs told the group of students. "When I see something not being done right, my first reaction isn't to go fix it. It's to say, 'We're building a team here and we're going to do great stuff for the next decade and not just the next year, so what do I need to do to help so that the person that's screwing up learns,' versus, 'how do I fix the problem?'

For Macdonald, that message taught him that, "Sometimes you've got to swallow your pride, a guy may not get it right away, but just keep hammering, be positive, build them up, they'll buy in.

"It's a consistency, it's confidence. One thing that John and Jim share, and I intend to follow in their footsteps is, have your players' backs. They need support. They need guys who will go to bat for them. Even when the guys aren't doing what you want them to do, they need our help, they need us to have their backs. When they feel like we're in their corner, then they'll start to grow. Try to find ways to build them up, give them more responsibility, praise them in front of people, things like that. Give them opportunities to talk to the team in the right way. Be creative with it. Having support in your players, that goes a long way."

Seahawks head coach Mike Macdonald continues to build out his coaching staff for 2024 so check out who will be will leading the team next season. (02/28/24)

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