Exploring the Stockdale Paradox for Football Coaching


I’ve been reading Good to Great by Jim Collins , and in his book he takes a somewhat scientific approach to what takes a company from good to great, and in some cases, from “eh” to great.

In one of his chapters he explores what he calls “The Stockdale Paradox”, which is influenced by a story about Admiral Stockdale during the Vietnam war. Admiral Stockdale, according to Good to Great, was a POW during Vietnam who led the individuals inside the POW camp.

What is the Stockdale Paradox? The Stockdale Paradox is “retaining the faith that you will prevail in the end and you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality. (Collins, 86).

At the end of Collins’ discussion with Stockdale, Collins asked him what helped someone survive the POW camp?

Stockdale said that the “optimists” didn’t make it out, and he defined optimists as the people who said that they would all be home by Christmas, or Easter (Collins, 85). When it didn’t happen, and it kept not happening, they essentially died of what he called a “broken heart”.

Collins pondered this for a while before bringing it up with his team, and they could think of many companies which they compared (of similar size and resources at one point, where one would become great and one would not for a long period of time) that exhibited a similar behavior.

For instance, Kroger changed their style of grocery stores (nearly 100% of them) into what you see today, while A&P, a competitor, kept their stars a very World War II spartan/ration like experience. Prior to the change, sales were dropping. Kroger understood the bleak reality of the situation, understood the circumstances, but didn’t lose their focus on becoming great as they made a disciplined effort to change their stores. Kroger became great based off of Collins’ standards, while A&P took a step back.

While one could say it wasn’t a broken heart per-say that killed A&P, it was definitely the “optimism” effect. “This was successful for so long that it will turn around”, I can ponder their executive team thinking, until it was impossible to look past that.

Or, for a team on the rise, with a big opponent on the horizon, Kimberly Clark, the paper company, comes to mind. They took on the massive Procter & Gamble ( that’s like Google invading a market), not saying when they’d be successful, but just maintaining they would be. Scott Paper was in the same exact situation and admitted defeat almost immediately, trying to take the scrapes that Procter & Gamble left behind. Kimberly Clark, with their vision to become great – but understanding they had a great opponent and a much tougher market place – eventually rose to the challenge and became great. Scott Paper did not.

Applying the Stockdale Paradox to College Coaching

So many of us either aren’t willing to confront the reality of the situation and keep hope. Admittingly, this is extremely hard to do.

If you’re at the college level, saying your going to turn around a program in 3 years qualifies as an optimist if you’re a basement dweller. Yes, you’ll probably HAVE to win in 3 years for your job, but you never know what will happen. However, you know what your doing will lead to success. It might happen in 1 year, or 2, or 5, with progress in between. But if you set that hard date, then what happens from there? You’ll be disheartened. That was supposed to be the light at the end of the tunnel, and it didn’t happen.

The same could be said about recruiting. We’re going to get so-and-so athlete at QB. He’ll change our program. Then he doesn’t come.

But in both of those scenarios, you could understand your situation and make the best of what you have and stick to your guns. Find what works and excel at it. Is your team small like Navy’s because the Navy doesn’t want 6’6″ 300lb linemen? Then they understand their situation and know they’ll probably be tough being the best program in the country, but they can fight for rankings every year by recruiting athletic, undersized players at every position and running the option. Maybe they don’t be Notre Dame every year, but they will have success. They’ll be great.

Applying the Stockdale Paradox to High School Coaching

At the high school level, you might say that you need to win game against your cross town, very talented rival this year to be successful.

What happens when you lose that game in week 5 then? What about the next 4 games or the playoffs? You’ve built it up, and now it didn’t happen. What’s next?

The healthier approach, the Stockdale approach, would say understand their a good team but they’re not the end all be all. If you must beat them to get into the playoffs because of your state’s rules, maybe you won’t get them this year but you’ll get them. It might take a year or two. But understand your situation. If you don’t have the talent, you’ve got to be extremely well coached. If you have the talent, but not the coaching talent across the board, then say you’re going to be successful with player talent.

Regardless, as coaches, we can’t believe in the “no win scenario”. However, you must have a disciplined concept for achieving success, while understanding what’s wrong with your current situation. If you’re 0-7, playing a 6-1 team, your chances are slim. But why are they slim? What aspect of the game can you exploit the most to achieve success? Can you out-coach them in any one aspect of the game? Do you have a weather advantage (is it a 100% chance of raining, and you can force them to pass? – by the way, I’ve been in the 0-7 spot here and we beat the #9 ranked team at our level in the state with this strategy). How can you be successful in this one game, despite how bleak it looks? Identify your best opportunity and exploit it as much as possible.

Overall, the Stockdale Paradox is hard to understand, but it’s important for many of us coaches who, at the end of this year, are looking at a pretty rough scenario. Maybe you’re not eligible for the playoffs. But how can you define success the next 2-4 weeks, and how can you achieve it?

By the way, I’d highly recommend Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. You can order it using the links in this article.

Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. Harper Collins. 2001. Pg. 86.