Book Review – The Tao of Chip Kelly by Mark Saltveit

I just finished reading Mark Saltveit’s book The Tao of Chip Kelly. For anyone curious about the book, I’m posting an informal review here.

The Tao of Chip Kelly is an enjoyable read on the leadership and coaching strategies of Philadelphia Eagle’s head coach, Chip Kelly. The book presents lessons on leadership from Kelly’s coaching career, the majority of which are drawn from his four seasons at the University of Oregon. While Saltveit’s introduction claims the book is aimed towards management strategy, the book is accessible to anyone and potentially of interest to anyone interested in team strategies, football, or contemporary applications of ideas drawn from Laozi or Zhuangzi.

Saltveit writes with a clarity that matches his love for his topic, moving adroitly between analysis, argument and humor. The book can be read with even a rudimentary knowledge of professional football (as in my own case) and does not require any special knowledge of Daoism, the Dao De Jing, or Zhuangzi. My own knowledge of college and pro football is superficial at best and this didn’t prevent me from enjoying the discussions or from following the examples of plays and strategies. By the end I had a new appreciation for the complexities of professional coaching and running a successful football program.

Saltveit organizes his discussion of Kelly’s methods into six general areas: Program, Personnel, Practice, Strategy, Motivation, and Chip Kelly himself. Each of these six areas is broken down into a series of short chapters, for a total of 34 chapters for the entire book. Each chapter addresses an area of Kelly’s program and bears a title based on slogans and aphorisms from Kelly’s own interviews. These range from the straightforward to the colorful, including sayings such as “A Quarterback is Like a Tea Bag,” or “Players, Not Positions,” or “Water the Bamboo.” All of these provide engaging reading. Saltveit explains each motto and provides examples from Kelly’s coaching career at the University of Oregon and occasionally from his newer role as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Saltveit’s experience with stand-up comedy is clearly evident in the writing, as he builds each mini-chapter around a blend of insight and humor.

For anyone curious the direct comparisons between Kelly’s program and Daoist ideals happen at the end of the book. In Chapter 33 Saltveit defines specific elements of Kelly’s programs and relates them to passages from the Dao De Jing or Zhuangzi. I thought many of his choices were well-made. He discusses Cook Ding, Effortless Action, the Uncarved Block, and other key examples. Saltveit’s interpretations are generally pragmatic and focus on application to concrete situations. This book is not intended to be a discussion of Daoism primarily, so the comparative discussion is brief but useful:

Kelly’s offense is an uncarved block, built around a few flexible formations. With running backs who catch passes, tight ends (and quarterbacks) who run, receivers who block, and read-option plays that don’t reveal the choice until the middle of the play, Kelly preserves all of his team’s choices as late as possible. That type of flexibility is hard to coach against. (Kindle Edition Location 1229)

Despite the brevity of the direct comparisons between Daoism and Kelly’s approach, anyone familiar with discussions on Daoism will recognize key themes as they appear throughout the book. These include simplicity, adaptability, cultivation, effortless action, rejecting tradition for the sake of tradition, and decentralizing ego and emotion in favor of observation and understanding. The following passage provides a good example of Saltveit’s appraoch, and readers will see the philosophical influence in his analysis:

Start with reality, not with your grand schemes. Who is on your team? What is their maximum capability? All your coaching should be aimed at getting these individuals to their peak. And when you get new people, your brilliant plans should adapt. This de-emphasizes the coach’s personal role, but it gets him more wins. The leader needs to swallow a little ego in order to succeed. (Kindle Edition Location 202)

In each case Saltveit demonstrates how Kelly’s approach embodies these values, again by providing examples from Kelly’s professional coaching career or interviews.

Overall I enjoyed Saltveit’s discussions of Kelly’s program and his comparisons with different Daoist concepts. Regardless of whether or not Kelly knows anything of the Dao De Jing or Zhuangzi, Saltveit’s thesis bears fruit. Philosophically Saltveit’s interpretation of Daoism relies primarily on pragmatism and the idea of “no-self.” My concern with these approaches is the danger of becoming merely instrumentalism: what prevents Daoism from becoming an efficient means to any end, no matter how morally problematic? Saltveit does not address this issue directly but several of his discussions provide material for possible solutions. Saltveit’s endorses honest evaluation, cultivation of natural ability, and flexibility in the face of difficulty as necessary elements of successful management. While these don’t provide a definite answer to the problem, Saltveit may also be assuming that any truly successful endeavor requires honesty and attention to the health and well-being of people under one’s guidance.

Because Asian philosophy courses are based on primary texts and textual scholarship, I wouldn’t include this on an Asian Philosophy syllabus. However, I would gladly recommend The Tao of Chip Kelly to anyone as an enjoyable read, as an entertaining analysis of coaching methods, and as one possible approach to contemporary applications of classic Chinese philosophy.

8 replies on “Book Review – The Tao of Chip Kelly by Mark Saltveit”

  1. Thank you for the kind words.

    The question of instrumentalism is very interesting. Donald Sturgeon posed a very provocative thought experiment here about the most morally problematic endeavor imaginable, titled “The Daoist Nazi Problem” to which I wrote this response.

    In the case of football, the obvious value is winning, but Kelly’s approach quietly models a moral (or at least mature) approach with notable elements of sportsmanship, clear communication, hard work, egolessness, teamwork, discipline, non-complaining and personal responsibility by the coaches as well as players.

    One of his aphorisms is “Just tell me the rules, and I’ll play by them” — which is his response to opponents who complain about the referees. When discussion turns to weather or turf conditions, he’ll usually say something like “As near as I can tell, both teams face the same conditions, so I don’t see really a problem.”

    Retaining the joy of playing is another value of his, and one that I think could be described as moral (and Daoist) in a sense.

    As with much of what I see as Daoist morality, it works in reverse; exemplary standards that prevent people from being tempted to do bad things in the first place, rather than a rule on what to do or not do.

    And very often (if not always), the instrumentally successful approach creates good results. For example, Kelly’s emphasis on sports science and nutrition helps athletes perform well, which helps the teams win, but it also prevents or minimizes the injuries resulting from his orders as coach. Which further helps the team win, etc.

    • Chip Kelly simply does not give one on one interviews, and no one has asked him this at a press conference, so I have no evidence either way.

      He’s a smart, open-minded guy who went to college, so it’s not unlikely he’s run across a Daodejing somewhere, but who knows?

      He may be a Butcher Ding who found Tao through mindful immersion in his craft. If he doesn’t give it a name, so much the better, eh?

  2. Mark, thanks for the excellent reply and for providing the links to the earlier posts.
    I appreciate you going further in depth regarding the pragmatism question and how to avoid mere instrumentalism. In your reply to Donald’s thought experiment you raise what I think is a key point of Daoism: certain goals and methods are going to be incompatible with Dao. Methods that are violent, oppressive, and destructive will engender contrary and oppositional responses. These responses (as you describe with your example of D-Day) exploit and subvert the internal structures of the domineering position. These structures may be physical structures and machinery or symbolic and linguistic structures – none are held constant in the manner required to sustain the domineering force.

    These kinds of concerns, I think, are much of what gives rise to the DDJ’s concern with ego, fame, and presenting one’s self as an “expert” or leader. As you point out, an absence of ego is what allows the practitioner to focus on actual conditions and how to “play” the situation. As the DDJ points out (DDJ) a ruler avoids clinging to fame or success, and instead nourishes the ten thousand things.

    If I may add a few words in defense of your position and in opposition to the instrumentalist view, I believe trying to look at the Dao De Jing in a purely instrumental way is a sore misreading of the text. The text expresses concern for the people being ruled and the stability of the state (32); it expresses concern for nourishing and the imporance of allowing things to grow (51); it explicitly warns against the dangers of ruling by force and violence (74 and 31); and it expresses remorse at needless warfare and loss of life (31). There are further examples, but these are sufficient for the moment. The point for me is that the the Dao De Jing presesnts a genuine concern for human well-being.

    One of the strengths of Daoism (in both Laozi and Zhuangzi) is that I think we see a breakdown of the means/ends distinction. If a state is running properly in the Dao De Jing, then the actions and pursuits of the people will be inherently rewarding – the activity of nourishing Dao is itself a rewarding activity and worthy pursuing. This goes in hand with the general view of nature in Chinese philosophy – things are never at rest but always changing. Living well means successfully navigating the different circumstances of life. Nourishing Dao takes constant effort – and may appear as not working towards anything “lofty” or “valuable,” but is a practice that is in itself rewarding.

    • This issue usually comes up in discussions of politics rather than sport, of course. Other than flat-out cheating (like Lane Kiffin’s assistants letting air out of footballs, or Bill Bellichick sending video spies), the ethics of sport is a topic that rarely arises. Smashing people to the ground is encouraged. The Richard Sherman controversy (where he talked trash in a TV interview) was more about viewer’s perceptions of class and race than any ethics.

      Kelly has stated one principle, not running up the score too high when an opponent is beaten. But typically, he also observes that rule in a way to helps his team; he uses the opportunity to give substitutes major playing time, and occasionally to experiment with new plays and alignments.

      Politically, the DDJ seems to fit modern ethics, as you describe, mostly because IMHO ego and self-interest blind clear perception. However, there are a couple of passages that adopt an attitude toward citizens that can be generously described as “superior,” such as chapter 65. It certainly could be used to justify government secrecy, clandestine plots, etc.

    • One of the things I enjoyed while reading the book was thinking about the parallels between Warring States society and the world of Professional Football. I’m thinking in particular of some of the descriptions of the Shi class in general, as described by Michael LaFargue in Dao and Method: non-nobility who nonetheless gained employment by demonstrating expertise and convincing reagents of their leadership and organizational abilities.

      While the modern world of professional football may be less overtly lethal it nonetheless is a an environment where coaches and managers are expected to manage resources, organize personnel, and succeed in highly competitive situations that affect institutional reputation and financial status. Futures of players and coaches are constantly on the line and the ability to survive depends on constantly attaining success. A team’s reputation and its ability to succeed in a league depends on many factors, but owners ultimately hope to find techniques and strategies in the same way that the nobility in ancient China sought to strengthen their domains and defeat their opponents.

      This naturally applies to many different areas in modern life but I think the comparison with football teams is really appropriate, with the addition of being fun.

      To me this an interesting line of thought because much of the DDJ applies to surviving and even flourishing in an imperfect world. This is one reason I find the text compelling and of great interest to living in contemporary society – we must often contend with situations that are not ideal, where we must pay careful attention to circumstances in order to navigate uncertainty and risk.

  3. Here’s another indication of Chip Kelly’s (and owner Jeff Lurie’s) ethics. The team released veteran Jason Avant today; his production has declined as he aged.

    But both men went out of their way to praise his character, integrity and mentoring of younger players, his willingness to do unglamorous tasks (such as blocking for other players), and his locker room leadership.

    They also released him early, before they had a chance to evaluate any new potential replacements, in order to give him the best chance of finding another team in free agency which begins at the end of this week.

    They demonstrated that while football is a business, it’s not JUST a business.

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