Very early in his coaching career, Pete Carroll found himself in hot water because, well, he was being Pete Carroll.
"I thought it was a really cool thing that I had uncovered by talking to players and dealing with them on what they wanted to practice and stuff," Carroll said. "The head coach just ripped my butt. 'What are you doing, listening to the players and their input? You're the coach, you're supposed to be making all those decisions and choices for them, and leave them no choice.' That was what I dealt with. I tried to adhere. I didn't do very well."
Carroll, who has the Seahawks back in the divisional round of the playoffs for a fourth straight season, couldn't adhere to the classic "my way or the highway" coaching approach because doing so would mean not being himself, or more precisely, the best version of himself. And just as Carroll couldn't be at his best as a coach without being himself, he doesn't expect his players to come to Seattle and suddenly become a certain type of person. The Seahawks are full of unique personalities, and for Carroll, the best way to handle that is not to stifle those unique characteristics, or even to tolerate them, but rather to embrace them.
"He lets you be who you are," linebacker Bruce Irvin said. "We've got a lot of different personalities on this team, and Pete embraces everybody. You come as you are; he doesn't try to make you into somebody else. You handle your business on the field, off the field, don't get in trouble, he'll let you be who you are. That's the best thing about him… Pete's a great guy, he runs a great program, and you can see he gets the best out of guys."
The last part of that Irvin quote might be the most important thing about the way Carroll runs his team. Somewhere between Snoop Dogg visits, meeting-room pranks and post-practice dunk contests, a perception of Carroll formed, long before he came to Seattle, that he was a player's coach whose teams lacked discipline. Actually, let's call that a misperception.
Carroll doesn't embrace the idea of letting players express themselves because he wants to be liked by his players—though he almost universally is—nor does he let them have fun with the usually mundane parts of the week because he wants to be perceived as cool; he does it because he truly believes it is the best way to draw the best out of his players, and his record shows that philosophy is working.
"This is about helping people be the best they can be," Carroll said. "It doesn't have anything to do with sports to me. It doesn't have anything to do with sports. It has to do with parenting, it has to do with mentoring, it has to do with coaching and leading, if you want it to.
"We're trying to help them be the best they can be. Simply that's what guides everything that we do. So whatever it takes to get that done is what we're charged to find. In that, I think a person has a chance to be much closer to their potential if they get true to who they are, rather than something you might want them to be or try to govern them to be. It's simply that. If I'm going to find somebody's best, I need to get them as close to what their true potential is, and connected to who they are, and call on that to be consistent. It's really hard to be something that you're not, but that's asked of people a lot. That's not what we're doing. We're trying to realize that these guys have really special, unique qualities about themselves and then try to figure out how to fit it together. And sometimes it doesn't fit. Sometimes it's not right, and we have to govern and adjust."
But while Carroll believes in valuing individualism, that doesn't mean he runs a program lacking discipline. When Dr. Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who specializes in the study of grit, came to study the Seahawks last spring, she came away impressed with what Carroll has built in Seattle, in large part because of Carroll's ability to create such a successful, hypercompetitive environment that is also enjoyable.
"Pete is the epitome of being as demanding as anybody, but instead of being demanding and a (jerk), he's demanding and supportive," Duckworth said. "And that's the harder way to do it. Being demanding and a (jerk) is easier.
"It's how he talks to everyone. It's like 'Oh, that is integrity.' He treated me the same as he treated the guy who was serving us lunch and the same as he treated Russell Wilson. It's a lot of small acts, but it adds up to respect. It adds up to, 'OK, I trust you as a leader. The beginning of the season wasn't good, but I trust you when you say we can pull this out.'"
What Carroll has been able to put into action in Seattle is the idea that a group of individuals with different personalities, people from different backgrounds, people with different views on life, politics and just about everything else, can also function together at an incredibly high, and yes, disciplined, level. Richard Sherman feels he is at his best when he is free to talk trash on the field, spar with rivals on Twitter and make headlines in press conferences, but as part of a historically great defense, he plays with tremendous discipline in Carroll's system. Doug Baldwin has been known to let his passion boil over from time to time, yet he is well-versed in Seattle's offense as anyone, and was part of a record-breaking year for Seattle's offense. And Michael Bennett can tell all the jokes he wants, or endorse a presidential candidate with a hat in a press conference, but an occasional neutral zone infraction notwithstanding, he is part of an extraordinary disciplined defensive effort that produced the NFL's No. 1 run defense this season, and that last week held Adrian Peterson to 45 yards on 23 carries.
Simply put, no matter how fun a team is having, it doesn't make the postseason five times in six seasons, winning at least one playoff game each year, or win back-to-back NFC titles, or dominate the highest-scoring offense in NFL history in the Super Bowl, without discipline.
"I think you can misread it," Carroll said. "… We have extremely rigid standards that we operate by. To play like we play, we have to play with extraordinary discipline. Extraordinary discipline. The example of what we did last week against the great running back that we faced was all about discipline. That's doing things right, no matter what, how individualistic you might think this thing is. I think it's because of the buy in. They've committed to one another and they're willing to do what they have to do to give to the overall effort, even though they're accepted for who they are and how they are. It doesn't mean that everybody's running around crazy. That's not it at all. I don't think that we're perceived as strict as we are, to our style of play and the way we handle this game. I don't know how we could ever be as consistent as we have been over a long period of time without really rigid standards and guidelines that people have to live within. It's just that maybe the message is delivered a little differently. That's why people are confused by it somewhat, and they don't understand."
A combination of celebrating individualism and being a disciplined team might seem counterintuitive on the surface, but it is essential to the Seahawks' success.
"The environment that he's created and that he's made here, it definitely brings out those personalities of those individuals," Baldwin said. "We celebrate it. That to me is what makes our team so special, that's what makes our team unique and so close is that everybody can be themselves. You're not really walking on eggshells, you're happy to come to work, you're happy to be in the locker room. You enjoy your teammates because it really becomes a family environment."
But Baldwin also adds, "When you talk about discipline, we definitely have that discipline, and it starts from the head down, it starts with Pete and the way he runs the program and the environment he has created, but it also feeds into the players, and we have a system that kind of self-regulates. There's discipline throughout. If you're on this team, it doesn't matter if you're getting paid $20 million a year or if you're getting paid the league minimum, you're going to be held accountable. That's just the environment we have in this locker room."
That ability to build a program that is both fun and demanding, both disciplined and individualistic, captured Duckworth's attention. By the time she was on a plane home Pennsylvania, she was already trying to figure out how to work Carroll's methods into what she does with her nonprofit, the Character Lab, which works with teachers and student with the goal to, as Duckworth puts it, "use science for the betterment of kids, use psychological science to help kids thrive."
"The lens I see everything through is, 'OK, how is this going to help kids be better?'" Duckworth said. "There's only one Pete Carroll, so the question is, how do you help all the millions of kid in classrooms who don't have Pete Carroll as their coach?
"It's really about the culture you're in. People are cultural animals more than anything else, and when we are somewhere where everybody is messy and late and rude, we become a little more messy and late and rude. On the flip side of that, when you're in a culture where people are really passionate about what they're doing and they bring their all, and they show up early and stay late and they treat people with respect—which is what I saw from the beginning of my visit to the very end—then it becomes something that you emulate without even thinking about, because you, like every human being, is a cultural animal who is programed to adopt the behaviors and values and attitudes of the people around you. What I saw in that one-day visit was what I had heard… when I got to see it in action, I was like, 'Oh, he is clearly building a culture here.'"
The Seahawks traveled across country to Charlotte, North Carolina, to faceoff against the Panthers in their second-consecutive NFC Divisional game in as many years.