Mike Tomlin is a player’s coach. He knows it. Everybody knows it. it’s a distinction that is well-deserved, and well-earned, when used in its pure sense. Now heading into his 14th season as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you would be hard-pressed to find a man who has played under him who would say they weren’t treated like a man and held accountable for themselves.
Cameron Heyward has been playing under Tomlin longer than anybody on the roster on the defensive side of the ball, having been the Steelers’ first-round selection back in 2011, and serving as a full-time starter since 2013. In the second half of his career, he is on a three-year Pro Bowl run, with two first-team All-Pro nods.
The veteran recently appears on The Lefkoe Show podcast to talk about the Steelers and the 2020 season, and he discussed his relationship with Tomlin as a coach. “The thing I love about Coach T is, he not only challenges me, but he lets me be me”, he said. “I think so many times, it’s always the coach’s way, and he’s trying to mold me into a certain player, but with him, it’s ‘I know what you’re capable of, I just expect it every time you’re out there’”.
I’m sure by now all of us have heard enough soundbites from Tomlin from games or from practice videos, or at least accounts of the sort of things that he says to his players. He has a friendly but combative and motivating relationship with all of them, whether they are a first-round starter or a rookie undrafted free agent.
What we don’t see is when he’s talking to his players in the meeting room, and according to Heyward, that’s where Tomlin may do his greatest motivating work. It may be reverse psychology, and it may even be transparent, but it works.
“He knows when to push my buttons, and say, ‘oh, they think less of me than this guy’, and I feel like I’ve got to take that test and show him otherwise”, Heyward said. “But it’s about understanding each player, because I think he wants to have that relationship with his players as well”.
“I know when he’s doing it, but still, I have to play it. Because it’s like, there’s no way in Hell I’m letting Mike T just think about that stuff”, he added. “Like, I’m gonna settle it then and there, and I’m gonna go in the meeting next week like, ‘oh, you were talking about that stuff?’, knowing that he was doing it on purpose”.
Challenging professionals, letting them know when and where and how they are being underestimated, is a motivating tactic that has been historically proven to be effective. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it’s rooted in one of the most primordial tendencies of man, so it’s no surprise that it continues to work today.