It’s the first week of January as I sit to write this blog entry, and I suspect my thoughts are focused in much the same direction as yours—that’s right, it’s college football bowl season! Those of you who know me are no doubt aware of my obsessive love for, and dedication to, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team. While the Crimson Tide has had a long and storied history, the past decade has been particularly spectacular with the Alabama team reaching a level of excellence that is unparalleled in college football history. Much of the credit for this dazzling string of successful seasons goes directly to the football coach of the University of Alabama, Nick Saban. Coach Saban has brought an intensity, an expectation of excellence, and a respect for doing what is necessary in order to accomplish one’s goals to the Alabama community. Often referred to as the “process,” Nick Saban has brought a mindset to the University that results in a level of success that traverses the football field and has direct application to life beyond the sport.
Coach Saban’s success as a football coach does not; however, come without its challenges. One of the most significant is avoiding an attitude of complacency. After winning title after title, and having the press continually praise the athleticism and ability of his players, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to keep players motivated to do the hard work that is required for continued excellence and achievement. Saban is of the belief that complacency is a colossal threat to quality, and it is most likely to occur when motivation for success is an external rather than internal process. For example, Alabama football players are coached to de-emphasize the focus on their opponent and to turn their energies toward becoming the best they can be. In other words, play each play in an effort to do better than you did before. Saban focuses on making players better by encouraging them to be their best selves, as opposed to beating an opponent. As such, the key to avoiding complacency is to focus on self-improvement and what you bring to the table instead of concentrating on the person across the line from you.
So, how does this translate into a topic relevant to psychology? Much of my work involves working with couples in distress. Distressed couples often consider themselves experts in one key factor—what is wrong with their partner! It should be no surprise then that when couples are focused on their partner’s shortcomings, nothing seems to improve. They get stuck in a circular pattern of blaming and defensiveness. My job as a couples therapist is to assist them in identifying the true problem(s) and move out of this counterproductive pattern. In line with the teachings of Coach Saban, it is my belief that much of the time relationship complacency is the culprit in creating a lack of relationship satisfaction. So often, couples will tell me they were once quite happy with their partner, but now they find themselves extremely disappointed. While there are many, many reasons this dissatisfaction may occur, one common theme is that many people will say they don’t put nearly the effort into doing the things that are pleasing to their partner as they used to. When relationships are new, we tend to go out of our way to do what we believe will delight our partner, but oftentimes as a relationship progresses, those efforts fall by the wayside. In other words, we become complacent about our desire for a strong, loving, and caring relationship. To be more precise, our desire for a great relationship may remain, but our willingness to actually behave in a manner that gets us there seems to have faded.
So, ask yourself the question I often ask myself when trying to figure out why a troubling situation is not improving: “What would Nick Saban do?” My guess is that Coach Saban would ask you, “How good are you willing to be?” He would likely point out that everyone wants to be a champion, but not everyone is willing to do the work required to be a champion. In terms of your relationship, where are you? Are you putting in the work? Are you bringing your best self to your partner? Are you continually trying to be a better version of you? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you might want to make some changes in how you approach your relationship and life. Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, M.D. has been quoted as saying, “If one is to love oneself, one must behave in a way that one can admire.” I think these are words to live by. If you are measuring your relationship success by the behavior of your partner, you are bound to be frustrated and disappointed. Making personal growth and personal improvement your goal will help you be a better individual and partner.
Of course, solving relationship problems is typically much more complicated than just doing this, but even this basic shift in attitude will put you on the right track for relationship improvement and happiness. So, I ask you, “How good are you willing to be?” Thanks, Nick. And of course, Roll Tide, Roll!