Why This Coach Focuses On Processes Instead Of Outcomes (And Why You Should Too)


At 11 years old, “Little Nick” (as he was known in his hometown of Monongah, West Virginia) was paying his dues, working at his father’s service station.

In-between customers, he and “Big Nick” – incidentally, the newly appointed Pop Warner football team coach – would pass a football to one another in front of the pumps on Route 19 on West Virginia.

When a car pulled up, they’d go to work. Little Nick, like his father, would take enormous pride in his work and wouldn’t be content until he’d received his father’s approval.

He commented:

“The biggest thing I learned and started to learn at 11 years old was how important it was to do things correctly. There was a standard of excellence, a perfection. If we washed a car and there were any streaks when [my father] came, you had to do it over.” [1]

Unbeknownst to him at the time, his father was teaching him an extremely valuable lesson: The importance of only focusing on what you need to do next and doing it to the best of your ability.

Little Nick, or as he’s now known, Nick Saban, is recognised as one of the greatest coaches in college football history, winning three BCS championships with Alabama in 2009, 2011, and 2012, and another with LSU in 2003.

What’s remarkable about Nick Saban’s approach to American football, isn’t his work ethic, nor is it the standard he holds himself and his players to. It’s what his father imparted on him and that which he now imparts on his players – the importance of process.

The Process

“Well, the process is really what you have to do day in and day out to be successful”

– Nick Saban. [2]

What Saban is interested in is what he refers to as “The Process”.

Instead of asking his players to focus on winning the championship or the game, he asks them to focus on what the next action is. The next drill. The next play. The next touchdown. In other words, what’s directly in front of them, now.

To Saban, it’s not the outcome that’s important, but the process.

In his own words:

We try to define the standard that we want everybody to sort of work toward, adhere to, and do it on a consistent basis. And the things that I talked about before, being responsible for your own self-determination, having a positive attitude, having great work ethic, having discipline to be able to execute on a consistent basis, whatever it is you’re trying to do, those are the things that we try to focus on, and we don’t try to focus as much on the outcomes as we do on being all that you can be. [3]

The Problem with Goals

We all have goals we want to achieve. We want to write and publish the next New York Time’s best-seller; go on a diet and lose 14 pounds; win our team the national championship; become an entrepreneur and become financially independent and so on.

And, like most people, you’ve probably been taught to write down your goals, read them aloud daily, visualise them as if they’re already a reality and put them somewhere you’ll see them every day, among other recommendations.

The problem is setting goals can be problematic for three reasons.

First, you can fall prey to the trap of only feeling happy (or any other positive emotion) when you’ve achieved your goal. For example, you may write: “My goal is to find a boyfriend. When I have a boyfriend, then I’ll feel like I can love myself”.

Unfortunately, these outcomes are often out of our control and if the outcome doesn’t meet our expectations, we can feel disappointed in ourselves (because we’ve read it would work) or worse, think we’re the problem and never try again.

Secondly, we’ve been taught to use arbitrary metrics when setting goals. For example, if you’re going on a diet, you may decide “I’m going to lose 14 pounds amount in the next 30 days” or: “By (X) I’m going to weight (Y).”

However, if you don’t meet the specific metrics you outlined for yourself, again, you can feel like you’ve “failed” and you’re the source of the failure (“I only lost 7 pounds”).

And thirdly, people can become obsessed with their goals which can cause them to blind themselves to what other options could be available if it didn’t work out.

If your goal is to become an Olympic athlete but an injury forces you into early retirement, your tunnel vision may inhibit you from realising you could be an exceptional trainer.

Ultimately, it can be difficult to differentiate between what we want and what we think we want. And even if we’re certain about what we want, it may not meet our expectation when we achieve it.

A Shift in Focus

If you’re committed to change in the long-term, then having goals isn’t enough. You have to be committed to the process of taking action on a consistent (and preferably) daily basis.

In other words, you have to organise and commit to a process where positive outcomes are inevitable. What can you do every day that will guarantee good results?

Maybe that means applying The Rule of Five or The Daffodil Principle to move you closer towards your goals. Whatever it is, it has to be an action you can sustain over time.

Let’s make one thing clear here: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having goals. In the beginning, they can be the catalyst for change, but in the long-term, it’s a well thought-out process (or system) that’ll keep you moving forward.

When it comes to goals vs. systems process, process always comes out on top.

How You Can Become Process-Orientated

“Eliminate the clutter and all the things that are going on outside and focus on the things that you can control with how you sort of go about and take care of your business. That’s something that’s ongoing, and it can never change”

– Nick Saban. [3]

If you’re committed to your goals, it’s not enough to occasionally try new behaviours: You have to learn a tiny, powerful idea and internalise it. You have to redefine who you are as a person. You have to make what you want a part of your identity.

When you commit to a process over an outcome, you begin to redirect your focus on that which you have control over – the actions you’re committed to taking regularly. You become process-dependent and outcome independent.

If your outcome is to write a book, your process isn’t to write when you feel inspired, it’s to become a writer; the kind of person who writes every day and is focused on improving their craft.

If you outcome is to own your own business, your process isn’t to develop your business when you feel motivated, it’s to become an entrepreneur (at least, in mindset first); the kind of person who develops their business every day, regardless of how they feel.

If your outcome is to lose weight, your process isn’t to become a dieter (the word “dieter” implies you’re not in it for the long haul) it’s to become a healthy eater; the kind of person who loves eating healthily and doesn’t have to resist the temptation of unhealthy foods.

A Final Word

When you’re commit to the process, you always win because you’re improving daily. You’re constantly progressing towards what it is you want. There is one caveat to this: constant and never-ending improvement.

Galt’s Law argues any complex system evolved from the one that preceded it, so err on the side of simplicity to begin with. Don’t make it overly complicated by setting yourself unrealistic expectations, you can always improve it.

In other words, if you want to become a writer, don’t decide to write 1,000 words every day if you’ve never done it before. Write 100 and gradually increase it when you feel ready. Don’t burn yourself out, you’re in it for the long-term, remember?   

In closing, decide what you want and the kind of person you’re going to have to be (“what am I going to have to do consistently in order to have what I want”); and commit to the process that’ll help you achieve it (refining it along the way). The outcome (or one that you hadn’t even considered) will inevitably be a positive one – trust me on that.

“It’s the journey that’s important. You can’t worry about end results. It’s about what you control, every minute of every day. You always have to have a winning attitude and discipline, in practices, weight training, conditioning, in the classroom, in everything. It’s a process.”

– Nick Saban. [4]


[1] Gribble, A. (2013) Full Transcript of Alabama Coach Nick Saban’s Final Press Conference before BCS National Championship, (Accessed: 1st September 2014).

[2] Bishop, G. (2014) Saban Is Keen to Explain ‘Process’(Accessed: 31st August 2014).

[3] Bishop, G. (2014) Saban Is Keen to Explain ‘Process’(Accessed: 31st August 2014).

[4] Anderson L. (2014) Nick Saban and the Process(Accessed: 31 August 2014).

[5] I was inspired to write this article after reading “Goals Versus Systems” in Scott Adam’s How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life