Broken Windows and First Impressions: How Anything Means Everything

July 12, 2015 / General
Broken Windows and First Impressions: How Anything Means Everything

In the fall of 2009, I had a feeling. It wasn’t one of those “feel good” feelings you get after a first kiss or when your toddler begins to walk; it was the complete opposite. Despite the hardest and most thorough coaching our athletic development staff was providing at University of Louisville, I just had this feeling…we weren’t going to win this year and were probably going to get fired.

Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the beast. We can write the best programs, have the best relationships with the players and even get them to “last fast & play stronger longer”. But if the team doesn’t meet the expectations of the athletic department and everyone around them, then it’s time to pack the bags and move on.

So I began to prepare for the next step. As a second assistant strength and conditioning coach, the next logical progression would be a first assistant. But, I knew I could do more. I knew I WANTED to do more. I knew with the people I learned under and trained next to on a day to day basis for two years, I was ready. I began to start putting together my portfolio; my what’s, how’s and most importantly, why’s. It was time to put everything that I had learned during my years as an intern, graduate assistant and full-time coach and assimilate it all into one holistic, comprehensive point of view.

Tipping-PointIt was during this time where I spent a lot of time reading. Books written by scientists, therapists, counselors, coaches and even economists. That’s when I found Malcolm Gladwell and read two of the most innovative and inspiring books of my coaching career; The Tipping Point and Blink. These two books would bridge the gap for my development as an assistant to head coach and shape the path with how I would manage a staff, run a department and network throughout the field as I continued on the path towards greatness. And it was two key points in these books that I always circle back to anytime new interns come in, a new season starts, or more fittingly, when I return home from a national convention like I am at this very moment. (A big thank you to the NSCA for another outstanding conference)

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell explores what has been called the “Broken Window Theory”, a criminological theory of essentially cause and effect. Popularized by Wilson and Kelling in the early 1980’s, I feel the theory can be summed up into this paragraph:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

blinkIn Blink, Gladwell hones in on the concept of first impressions and what’s called thin-slicing; ourability to “think without thinking” and snap judgments of people, scenarios and situations, all instantaneously or within the matter of two seconds or less. More often for worse than the better, it’s this skill of judging before judgement, answering before asked and correcting before mistaken that calls do not get returned back, jobs go to someone else and people are written off.

So, does Gladwell even realize the power that these two books can have on the field of strength and conditioning?

I would hope so. But I doubt it.

Let’s take the Broken Window Theory into account. Imagine you’re a head coach and you walk into your weight room before the 6am group and notice the following:

  • A loaded bar on one of the far racks, probably left over from a sport coach that somehow managed to still get a key to your weight room.

You’d probably not freak out, remind yourself on Evernote that you need to speak with your AD to get the locks changed. Or tell your interns to make sure the weight room is clean before leaving. All in all, no big deal.

But let’s say you walk in again in a few days and you see:

  • A loaded bar on one of the far racks
  • A used towel thrown into the corner
  • A half drunk Muscle Milk RTD left on a platform

Now you’re thinking “What the hell is going on here?” Enough is enough.

But was it the bar? The used towel? Or maybe the RTD?

Where do coincidence and intention intersect? When does a little fatigue turn into overtraining?

At your tipping point…

I’ll never forget the short year when I was a head coach at Eastern Michigan University. My fiancé was six hours away and I just took over the 2nd worst football program in the nation. I had nothing else to do besides stay late and work on our vision for the program.

Then, all of a sudden the locked door opened and the shut off lights turned on. I see my head football coach with one of the biggest boosters the university presently had the support of. He was giving him a private tour of the advancements we made in such a small period of time and was probably hoping for another donation. After a few minutes, I walked out and introduced myself and before I could finish he said:

“Young man. I have never seen such attention to detail in my life. Your floors are spotless, your weights are turned upside up and every little piece is put where it looks like it should be. I can tell you run a very tight ship and expect a lot of these young men”.

I replied, with a slight grin on my face:

“Thank you sir. What I expect from them is no different than what I expect from myself and my staff. And thank you for noticing.”


Have you ever been in a similar situation? Where maybe those around you don’t understand the importance of the little things? Or perhaps believing that one little mistake here wouldn’t be a big deal?

But what happens? It escalates. It transforms. A piece of trash becomes a landfill. A cheat meal becomes an all night binge. A locker room becomes the next episode of Hoarders. Whether it’s putting things back where they belong or simply showing the slightest attention to detail, a simple broken window can transform your environment and your team for the worse.

That is, unless of course, you care about first impressions.

Call it thin-slicing, call it pre-judging, call it thinking without thinking. Whatever it is, it happens and it affects every thought and action soon after it’s impact.

If you walked into an unkept weight room, you would assume there is no accountability and attention to detail. People would come and go as they pleased and do what they want.

There goes that budget increase…

If you consistently show up late to staff meetings or workouts, you would believe your time is clearly more important than those around you.

There goes that promotion…

And if you misspell the direct contact or send your cover letter addressed to the wrong school, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll say you really didn’t want this job in the first place.

It happens more than you think…

If we have less than two second to formulate an opinion of something or someone, why not do everything in our power to make the very best one?

At work, why don’t we show up early and not wait until last minute to finish that project? (I love getting intern assignments 5 minutes before they are due…)

During a job interview, why not take the extra time to iron that shirt a little better, floss those teeth and dig up a few details about the committee to show that you actually care?

And if you’re at a conference, around some of the most influential coaches, researchers and scientists in the country, why don’t you stop:

  • Disrespecting speakers by working out during their talks or walking in late/leaving early?
  • Drinking until you reach the ABYSS, wearing your university’s or company’s logo as the night gets darker and more destructive?
  • Ignoring, passing over and flat out BIG TIMING younger and aspiring coaches?

So, if you still don’t think the little things matter, take a slice of humble pie and remind yourself: 

  • When you lost that game by one point
  • When you missed that train or plane by one minute
  • When you didn’t get that dream job because of that one “other guy”

Because in the end, a broken window is more than a first impression.

It’s the catalyst for anything to mean everything, in sport and life. 

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