Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

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.


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