Developing a Championship Mindset

with Tufts University football Coach, Jay Civetti

By the time the cork was pulled from the bottle of champagne, it was stale. For years it sat in a duffle bag, wrapped in towels, awaiting the end of the nation’s longest losing streak. The Tufts Jumbos went 0-31 over three seasons before it was popped. For Jay Civetti and his staff, it was a long wait.

Civetti took over a Tufts football program that has routinely been filled with high caliber academics and high character people, but its on-field record rarely reflected that quality.

In the two years prior to his arrival, the Jumbos went 2-6 and 1-7… he would be charged with stoking a fire in the football program. In the fickle New-England weather, that fire would be slow to start. It was not for lack of effort and ability, however; Civetti had coached with success at a variety of levels, including Boston College and NC State, before finding his way to Tufts. He maintains a high football acumen and continued to surround himself with a high quality staff, but the wins were slow to come.

It wasn’t a matter of Xs and Os – Civetti and his staff were on a mission to change a culture.

That first win came in 2014. The dusty champagne bottle was finally popped, and the Jumbos earned an even 4-4 season record. The next year, they went 6-2. The year after, 7-1 and Civetti was named the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston’s Division III Coach of the Year.

The threshold had been crossed. In 2017 they were 5-4 and in 2018 they were 7-2… Civetti’s championship mindset has rooted, and the winning tradition at Tufts in rolling steadily along. We talk about that build in Episode 37 of the Good Athlete Podcast.

“From the day I was born I have been around coaching,” says Civetti, who comes from a family of coaches. He learned early that clear communication regarding expectations and behaviors are essential to the craft.

He is clear about his high standards, and his teams must be able to respond to three questions popularized by Lou Holtz: Can I trust you, Are you committed to excellence, and Do you Care?

Civetti’s athletes must be able to answer those questions honestly, which sometimes means having difficult conversations. Accountability within his framework is essential. “If you avoid conflict, that’s a guarantee for dysfunction.” The only problem you can’t solve is the one you don’t name – with everything else you have a shot.

High standards on the field are a clear expectation in the Tufts football program, which aims “to put a [championship] ring on your finger at the end of the season,” and he encourages that mindset in all areas of life. The same approach he expects of his team when they are down at practice for two hours should transfer to academics. “I expect you to kick ass in the classroom.” High standards. Passion and intensity. Behaviors which lend themselves to those standards. Simple.

When reflecting on “the streak,” he reminds us all that superstitions don’t work. “There is no magic parking spot” which will magically lead to success. No lucky pregame meal. But if you park well, and eat well, then you have a solid chance at success.

This didn’t always come easy to Jay, who was occasionally, “a terrible teammate.” He says that, as a player, his intensity on the field was actually a distraction. This is often seen in highly motivated athletes. Jay would ultimately recognize that his desire to win each personal battle was a selfish one, and although the team needed his intensity, they needed to play with them. “I could have been such a better teammate… but at the time I thought I was doing everything I could.” He figured it out and was honored to be named Captain of his Trinity team.

When we asked him how he would address that athlete – the modern version of himself – he said that he would go to the athlete’s teammates, since that mindset can be better addressed by peers than coaches. That athlete would need to know how much that behavior was impacting those around him.

Sometimes being ‘right’ as a coach means handing off the baton to another coach, or an athlete, a teammate. Empowering others is key. You can’t do it all alone.

And although Civetti seems to be the catalyst of the strong football tradition building at Tufts University, he is quick to acknowledge that it is the people around him that make it go. It is the coaches, the players, his family at home, who keep the herd moving steadily – and proudly – forward.

Civetti’s Championship mindset seems to be built on Clear Communication, High Expectations, and being explicit about the Behaviors the team should expect within those standards.

The model works.


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