Invariant Strategy

Don’t let the boredom of the fundamentals get in the way of your coaching or leading.

Back in the 1980’s Michigan Football had one of the best offensive lines in all of the college game. All-Americans and future NFL stars at every position. In one game when they were playing cross-state rival Michigan State, leading 14-0 the Michigan State defender Smiley Criswell hears Michigan’s play call from the huddle and immediately starts yelling, “off tackle right, off tackle right.”  When Michigan’s left tackle Bubba Paris hears all of this as he waltzes to the line of scrimmage across from Criswell and says, “That’s right, it’s an off-tackle play.  It’s coming right at you, and we’re snapping it on three and there ain't nothing you can do to stop it.”  Three seconds later, Paris pancakes Criswell, and the tailback walks into the end zone for a touchdown.  This behavior is called “invariant strategy.” 

The “invariant strategy”  applies to a team when the execution of their game plan is at such a high level it does not matter if the opponent knows what is coming  They know it’s coming, and they cannot do anything about it. 

The real definition of a great team is: 

Being able to do something well when the opponent knows it’s coming.  If you don’t have tendencies, you cannot be a great team. 

The term comes from science, “invariant” is a quantity that remains constant during the execution of a given algorithm. In other words, none of the allowed operations changes the value of the invariant. The “invariant” is beneficial in analyzing the result (or possible results) of an algorithm because we can discard any potential effect that has a different value for the invariant as impossible to reach.

Michigan had great talent but more than that they had great fundamentals.  Great players don’t become great without doing the same things over and over and over again.  Don’t let the boredom of the fundamentals get in the way of your coaching or leading.  Trick plays have their place, new games help solve some weekly problems, but a team that wins consistently must have a core identity that centers on fundamentals.  No championship-level team wins because of trickery, or deception, only from being a highly-trained unit that can operate and perform at critical moments when everyone knows the game is on the line. 

When a team can tell the opponent the play, and still dominate, then it’s reached the highest level and has mastered the invariant strategy. 


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