What you can learn from the Super Bowl ending

Three lessons about making decisions under pressure gleaned from the wince-inducing conclusion to the game.

By Joe Duran

Feb 3, 2015 @ 1:47 pm EST

The critical play that ended Super Bowl XLIX.
The critical play that ended Super Bowl XLIX. Getty Images

I was as dumbfounded as anyone at the end of the game.

With a minute left and three timeouts still to use, with the game's best running back (who had just pounded out four yards) in the backfield and one yard to Super Bowl victory, the coach decided to let the clock run, then elected to heave a pass into the crowded end zone.

We all know what happened next, and I care too much about people I know in Seattle to bring it up again. But the obvious question was “Why?” And, more importantly, is there anything we can learn from this epic end of Super Bowl XLIX? None of us can get into Pete Carroll's head at that particular moment — no doubt he'd take back that play call if he could. But why would an outstanding and wildly successful coach make a call that almost no one watching could imagine? And what lessons does that provide for all of us about decision-making under pressure?

(More: How to evaluate and cope with the people who make mistakes)

1. Pressure makes us fall back to our natural state. I watched Mr. Carroll's complete dominance of the Pac 10 (now 12) as he led USC every season to the top of the league. As a Cal grad, I'd be disappointed when his team would pulverize the Bears (whose amazing tailbacks included Marshawn Lynch and Shane Vereen). Mr. Carroll likes the brave call; he likes to play his hand and control his destiny. His fallback when stress is high is to go for it. It usually works, but sometimes it doesn't. Just ask University of Texas players how they felt near the end of the national championship game when USC went for it on 4th and 2 and the ball on the 47-yard line. If it's a make-or-break moment, Mr. Carroll leans toward going for it, especially if there is too little time to evaluate. None of us are that different. Pressure causes us to go with what feels right, and that might not be the correct answer all the time.

2. There's a fine line between a calculated risk and a gamble. In a crunch moment, it's next to impossible to assess the multiple scenarios resulting from possible choices. Adding even a few minutes can change everything. A timeout might have changed Mr. Carroll's mind about the play he called. If you aren't sure, adding time can help you to look more clearly at the available alternatives and know whether the risk you're taking is a smart one or a dangerous one

3. Even the best-intended plans can go awry. No matter how careful, deliberate and analytical, nobody makes the right move all the time: Invariably, there are unforeseeable occurrences. Consider Green Bay's late-game collapse against Seattle two weeks before the Super Bowl. We can only hope to make the best-informed and most appropriate choice at any given time. That is why nothing is more important than having a process around decision-making that is consistent and replicable, and that everyone agrees on. If it fails, you at least can go back to the process rather than simply beating yourself up about the outcome. That's true whether you are playing a sport or making a decision about your financial life.

I had no dog in the hunt and was simply thrilled to watch a game that so wonderfully captures the essence of sport. Here it was for all to see: Exceptionally talented people making snap decisions, using their skills to execute, then having to adapt throughout an unpredictable game. Isn't it just a warp-speed, athletic version of life?

Joe Duran is chief executive of United Capital and author of “The Money Code: Improve Your Entire Financial Life Right Now.” Follow him @DuranMoney.

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