OK, so I’m a big Tennessee Football fan, having earned my first science merit badges as a Vol back in the late 1990s. One of the most memorable personalities to come out of UT football was General Neyland, who led the team through three intervals in the mid-20th century, interrupted by service in the Army. General Neyland was renowned for his team’s defensive play, earning the last recorded unscored-upon regular season in college football in 1939. General Neyland  loved defense and expressed extreme caution on offense. The best players were always put into defensive roles, and Neyland was cautious enough on offense to have a reputation for punting on 3rd down (why waste time getting the ball back to his best men?)

As part of his football philosophy, General Neyland composed seven maxims, seven basic guidelines to follow for success in the game. These rules are still a good guide to success in football today, but I’ve thought a lot about them as guidelines for success in science (or life; football is, after all, life to many people). Here are my interpretations of Neyland’s Maxims in terms of a successful science career; please add your thoughts in the comments.

1) The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.
This one is pretty easy: take care in your work if you want to find success. As an example, before presenting your research at a conference, practice your presentation in front of as many audiences as you can. Unpolished, error-riddled talks leave a lasting impression, as do extremely slick, well-conceived presentations. If you’re building a reputation, you want to be sure the others in your cohort are making more mistakes than you.

2) Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way – SCORE.
This axiom is tougher. Several of Neyland’s points have to do with the concept of ‘breaks’, so I’m going to try to define it here and then extend it to scientific research. Breaks in football are opportunities in the game when the psychological momentum can potentially swing from one team to the other. Common examples are long returns on interceptions, fumbles, or kicks, or strong defensive stands that prevent an apparently sure scoring opportunity. Importantly, breaks cannot be deliberately created by either team, but as Neyland suggests, a team can play in such a way to create many opportunities for breaks and quickly profit from them.

OK, but what does this have to do with science? I conceptualize breaks as those brainstorms we occasionally experience that bring several previously disconnected concepts into alignment. The day-to-day business of science is collecting data and testing hypotheses, but occasionally a researcher will have an important insight that allows her to understand something first. When that happens to you, it’s really important to SCORE!

3) If at first the game – or the breaks – go against you, don’t let up… put on more steam.
This one is about attitude. In science, there are many many opportunities for rejection. Another fooball axiom is that three things can happen in a forward pass and two of them are bad. Peer review submissions for publications and grant proposals have a similarly dire set of outcomes: rejected outright, reject but resubmit, and accepted. In the end, a scientist has to develop the same thick skin of a football player, putting on more steam in the face of rejections.

4) Protect our kickers, our QB, our lead, and our ball game.
The point here is about working on a team. Science can be an individual endeavor, but all of the best work now is collaborative and interdisciplinary. The instruction to protect the kickers and QB is directed at the supporting players, who need to prioritize the safety of the skill players, the players whose attention isn’t directed at self-preservation but towards team advancement. Similarly, when in a scientific collaboration, all of the members should be dedicated to the success of the group. Make sure your contributions to the collaboration are on time, correct, and reflect the best quality work you can do. To extend the analogy, if you have a specialist data analyist in the group (for example), protect her time by correctly preparing the data she needs for her analyses and quickly taking the analyses and writing them up, if those are your roles.

Time is the limiting factor for most science, so protecting your leader’s time is an important skill to develop as a professional scientist. Once I transitioned into a leadership position, I had to learn to better protect my own time: I was so used to helping others that I often shortchanged myself. While it’s commendable for a QB to throw an unexpected block occasionally (or to tackle after he throws an interception), QBs who spend too much time blocking and tackling don’t have very long careers.

Protecting the lead and the ball game come down to another point I often make to students: don’t be the weak link. I may not always be able to be the best member of a team, but I can always be sure I’m not the weak link. If every team member has this same attitude, it makes the whole team stronger and, importantly, more productive.

5) Ball, oskie, cover, block, cut, and slice, pursue and gang tackle… for this is the WINNING EDGE.
Here, Neyland is stressing the importance of fundamental skills. My favorite of these is the ‘oskie’, the little-known name for blocking after an interception. The overall idea here is simple: the winning team will execute its fundamentals well and consistently. For a scientist, this means working hard on the fundamentals: thinking in terms of hypothesis-testing, becoming familiar with your discipline’s math and appropriate statistical tools, practicing communication (both written and oral), and keeping up with the literature. In the biosciences, I would add tree-thinking as a fundamental, as well.

6) Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.
Number 6 is the most difficult to translate to a science perspective. Here’s the closest I’ve gotten so far: the kicking game in football is a time when most of the standard strategies of the game break down, and for a single play the dynamic of the game completely changes. Instead of progress depending on strategic explosion away from the line, a kicking play depends on more open-field action with less predictable positioning of players on both sides of the ball. Additionally, the kicking game offers more opportunities for big changes in momentum: breaks. Occasionally, a kick return can go for big yards or a touchdown, and that change in field position or score can light the fire for a previously smoldering offense. So, the kicking game is very important, because it is the least-structured time in a football game, leading to more opportunities for breaks.

Similarly, most of the ‘game’ in science is the standard fare of data collection, hypothesis testing, and presenting of results (at meetings or in print). As Kuhn has explained, occasionally, though, science goes through a ‘revolution’, when a new paradigm is established to better explain previously anomalous observations. There are a few spectacular examples of these revolutions that everyone is familiar with, like Plate Tectonics or Relativity, but I’m of the opinion that these revolutions happen at a number of scales, ranging all the way down to the insights I labeled ‘breaks’ in Axiom #2. I translate Neyland’s point here in terms of taking advantage of opportunities in science when some new insight has created a ‘broken field’ and the researcher has a unique opportunity to make yards with his science.

7) Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes.

Neyland’s last point is about maintaining intensity. Because science isn’t actually a sport, and we don’t have set games to focus our intensity, it can be difficult to translate this idea. A scientist with any experience will have worked through some ‘crunch time’, and that’s where I see the analogy. Whether it’s an undergraduate thesis deadline or an NSF proposal deadline, we all have projects that we have to complete within a set time. When time is short, don’t despair; instead carry your fight to your opponent (all the haters who will be reviewing your work) and keep it there until time expires.

I often complete projects at the very last minute, justifying my actions as using every possible moment available. Some folks think this is a joke, but I’m serious: If I finish early, I haven’t used all of my time effectively.

In this analogy between football and science, it’s possible to assign many characters to the role of ‘opponent’: competing researchers, peer-reviewers, administrators, even limited time itself. The folks who win at science are the ones who carry the fight to these opponents and keep it there until time expires.