Sunday, April 22, 2018

Coaching high school sports is an awesome opportunity to lead

With more than 700 games on the bench as either the head coach or an assistant, my leadership journey started with organized sports

I absolutely love coaching so when I began seeking K-12 leadership positions last year, it hit me that I will be stepping away from coaching high school basketball. This fact makes me sad. In addition to leaving the classroom at a time when teaching brings me incredible fulfillment, coaching has been a major part of my professional identity for more than 15 years.

Trading team huddles for something new leaves me conflicted because my involvement in high school athletics has given my life so much meaning. After all, the joys and challenges of coaching were factors that pushed me to explore my interest in advancing a career in leadership. Educational leadership is a career move that excites me and I am ready for the challenge.

This was the scene after a last second basket to beat our top rival. 
We are the team in white. The basket came after a timeout where 
we designed a play to score. As often happens, the players adjusted 
when our plan was not working and the unlikely shot won the 
contest. The picture was sent to me by a parent.

My growth as a classroom teacher has gone hand in hand with my development as a coach. Many of the parallels are obvious - a shared community of like-minded people working to help others. In addition to working on the craft itself, through coaching I have learned how to gain trust, communicate more effectively and listen better.

I am proud of my association with hundreds of parents as well as dozens of coaches and referees throughout my career. Most of all, the student-athletes in my charge have been at the center of my pride. Since I began working toward the next chapter on my career journey, I have enjoyed coaching at a deeper level. The thrill of coaching in big games and the connections made with young people on the hardwood never gets old.

In coaching, the drawbacks are humbling and failure is on public display. Those failures steel a coaches approach to leadership and simultaneously make us vulnerable. That realization led me to these nine takeaways from a coaching career that includes buzzer-beaters, raucous locker room dancing, season-ending injuries and even hostile parents demanding I be fired.

I often tell people that coaching is just teaching with a ball and just like classroom teaching, reflecting on the lessons learned is a valuable exercise.

1. Being right is overrated; losing is underrated

Most of the time it’s not worth it to be right. In fact, it usually doesn’t even matter if you're right because the failure to understand and validate people’s perspectives comes at a greater cost than being wrong. I wish I had figured this out sooner. Whether dealing with student-athletes, parents or even my athletic director, not being right has liberated me to focus my energy on building stronger relationships. The time wasted fighting to be right is better spent listening. Regrettably this lesson usually materializes in losing scenarios when it is most difficult to properly evaluate the situation.

Sometimes it takes a loss to recognize weaknesses that were present all along. A loss at the right time can lead to more success in the long run. We have a saying on my teams that when you win it doesn't mean you did everything right and when you lose it doesn’t mean you did everything wrong.

Coaching requires leaders to distinguish the process from the the results. Striving to win is great, and my teams remind me not to be fooled by scoreboards or other people's measures of our success. Losing is a necessary and healthy part of growth. This lesson is directly linked to lesson number nine, it ain't about me.

2. Respect is given, trust is gained and confidence is earned

From the whiteboard in the locker room - I enjoy 
delivering pre-game speeches and this one was 
especially intense. We won a close game and the 
celebration is one of my favorites. When step back 
from coaching I am not sure how I will fill the void
Despite popular lore, the notion of people having to earn respect is outdated and backwards. My student-athletes do not need to prove to me they deserve my respect. I do not want them clamoring for my appreciation and approval. Each player takes a risk by trying out for the team, they sacrifice their time, meet immense physical demands, fail repeatedly throughout the season and bounce back over and over again. Who am I to determine whether they deserve my respect? Commitment to our team comes with a mutual understanding that each player is naturally respected.

My teams have shown me that we are better off putting forth our effort to gain mutual trust rather than trying to prove we're worthy of respect from coaches and teammates. If we can build trust both collectively and individually then it becomes safer to take risks, exert maximum effort and get to the business of improving. We begin earning our confidence in a culture where trust is acknowledged and valued every single day. Self-confidence and confidence in teammates comes with hard work, repetition and discipline. There are no shortcuts to earning confidence - it requires effort, respect and trust.

Two of my players after a game. They hurried 
out of our locker room to perform in a concert 
and I got to see part of the show. It is rewarding 
to coach well-rounded players. I stay in touch 
with dozens of my former players. 

3. Relationships make the experience

One of my most successful seasons came later in my coaching career. While we lost 70% of our games, I learned how to adjust and focus on building stronger relationships with my players. Winning teams thrive on trust and losing teams depend on it in order to stay together. I was constantly working on forging a positive culture by starting with personal relationships with and among members of the team.

Relationships have always been critical to my fulfillment as a leader but this was different because my competitive nature could have made the process miserable. We were not a good basketball team and I had grown accustomed to coaching teams that won a vast majority of our games. My struggling team helped me learn how to adapt and coach with a winning mindset. We developed meaningful measures for our growth and we hung on to high expectations. Success and failure are never by accident and both are a function of relationships.

4. Learn to follow

Some problems have a lot in common and others are so unique they leave your head spinning. The common denominator that has spanned nearly every one of the headaches in my coaching career is that people have an unwavering need to belong. A condition of that fact is that players and their parents ultimately want to be heard and understood. When I have lost sight of these simple common denominators, my ability to lead has suffered.

We should not expect people to understand what we want as leaders if we fail to listen to what they need as players and parents. From the most disgruntled to the most valuable, everyone wants to belong. In roles outside of my own leadership, I have witnessed good leaders helping others and bringing meaning to the experiences of others and it reminds me that all leaders benefit by learning how to follow. I have had to learn how to get out of my own way so I could grow into a better follower. Coaching has taught me how to adapt to the various leadership styles of authority figures in my school. Leading a team provides great opportunities to build rapport with diverse parent groups and establish that I care about the young people in our program at a crucial time in their development as adolescents. There is no better training ground for learning how to follow than coaching children.

5. It is a marathon, not a sprint

This is the mantra I repeat most often during the season. I love planning and leading our practices because I know the reward for the entire process is in the journey. The annual basketball banquet at the end of the season is a highlight of my year both personally and professionally because it marks the celebration of our team and our seniors in the basketball program. As coaches, we invest so much in our teams that it naturally becomes part of our personal life. Coaching has never been a hobby for me. It is an extension of my teaching.
Over the years I have gained a better appreciation for 
all the people involved, even the refs! I have a lot of 
respect for referees and have gotten to know quite a few.

Devising practice plans, evaluating our team needs and helping fellow coaches gives my long winter days a little extra punch. The whole process is a series of steps and unexpected challenges that keep my team engaged. Injuries, opposing teams, road games, the referees, rigorous practices - so many unknowns to contend with every week makes the process alive.

There’s also something about the daily work that brings out my best energy. I love working with my players. I enjoy the details and the drills. I love building habits and teaching our system. When my players simply feel prepared they are more likely to have success. Sometimes that feeling can go a long way, but actually being prepared is critical for teams trying to get to the next level. That is the marathon part - stringing together days and weeks of working our tails off to be better today and at the finish line.

Whether it involves the promise of the early season or the late-season grind, my coaching experience has taught me more than any other leadership endeavor that the process is the result. Focusing on the marathon keeps my leadership in perspective. I love a strong finish.

6. Making the experience uniquely ours

My student-athletes have spent their youth hearing and seeing all kinds of motivational quotes about how to be great. The slogans are plastered on t-shirts, placards in locker rooms, in song lyrics and all over social media. Being great is marketed to kids as a product they can have by simply watching motivational YouTube videos. I don't buy into the hype, but I do intentionally find moments to share motivational stories with my team. I try to create those moments in my pre-game speeches to set a tone. Those pre-game speeches and motivational lessons always have a basis in our shared experience and that's what makes them meaningful.

I thoroughly enjoy when those special occasions emerge in a season and they become part of how we define our team experience. I refer to this collection of events as "honest moments" and like my best coaches, I have learned how to harness the power of those unplanned parts of a team experience that are consequential to our story.
Each November, our boys and girls basketball
programs lay wreaths at the graves of military
veterans as part of our community service
initiative. This is part of our program culture.

My student-athletes have taught me to appreciate the authenticity in the moments we experience together as a team and build our lessons around our struggles. They have also helped me remain mindful of the togetherness outside of practices that help define us too - the times when we do community service, joke around after practices, and go through shared experiences like final exam week together - all of that is part of the team story.

I learned how to shape the stories we tell and the strategies I employ for practice around the qualities that make each team unique. My players taught me how to leverage our unique story to inspire them rather than depending on general platitudes.

7. Who gets your water?

If you want to see how a high school team is really doing, look at the bench during games. My best teams have always included players who were willing to fill up the water cups before timeouts and deliver them to players in the huddle. These small selfless acts, often by the players who play least, contribute to a culture of lifting others up.

Your team culture reveals your values. A culture includes a lot of elements and often times the guys pushing others in practice despite a lack of playing time are central to the culture of a team. Expressive cheering and shows of support are part of it too, but even those things can be fleeting. A culture is built in practices and in the habits, the body language and the approach taken by players and coaches every day.

The cool thing about a winning culture is that it remains constant in times of struggle or great success. Everyone can embrace the culture because it’s based on who we are and our commitment, not unpredictable conditions.

8. Space required

I am so grateful that 
my wife and children 
support my coaching 
commitment. The 
experience is one that 
we share and it means 
the world to me. (By 
the way, my team is 
the Tigers - hence the
striped costume)
Great teams dance with risk and failure and balance it with security and predictability. We need space to grow and that means we should expect and embrace some discomfort. My teams have helped me accept that uncertainty and frustration are a necessary part of our growth. My players have helped me learn how to let go of futile stubbornness and old ideas in the face of new evidence. In order to become our best as leaders and teammates, we need space to grow. This space encourages all team members to own mistakes, honor the team and remain mindful. As a coach, I learned to embrace opportunities to model this ownership and the response from young people and parents has been overwhelmingly positive.

9. It ain't about me

It seems that at anytime in my coaching career that I began to lose focus of this lesson I was humbled and realized quickly how much I don’t know. The games, the team record, the big wins or tough losses - none of it is about me. Admittedly, it took a few seasons to realize that not only is it not about me now, but that my success leading others in anything will never be about me. The positive relationships with young men and women (I have assisted with high school girls basketball too) that I will keep forever leaves me feeling grateful that I am aware that none of this is about me.

Coaching has accelerated my professional growth and the realization that my passion revolves around improving the lives of others. My life is richer because of a career spent in education.

Coaching lineage is often referred to as a "coaching tree" and I have always been grateful that I can trace my roots back to some remarkable men. I am hopeful that as my players approach adulthood, they will feel the same way about me.


My junior high basketball coach Steve Walter made the 100 mile 
trip to watch me coach. We are pictured here with my children. As 
it turned out, our team completed a come-from-behind win on a 
last-second shot after trailing the entire game. I was so proud my 
coach came to support me. I was truly fortunate to have a lot of 
special coaches in my life. 
I would like to dedicate this entry to the special coaches in my life.

  • Starting with Kyle Henry who introduced me to baseball, which I still love. Now I share that love and coach my own children.
  • Phil Agostini who taught me how to be a part of a team and stuck with me as a kid when I had a tendency to challenge authority.
  • Steve Walter is the coach I wish my own children could have because he was such a great teacher.
  • Mitch Mercer with his incredible ability to relate to kids and see the big picture.
  • Darin Magley, a remarkably patient and kind role-model. Great for kids.
  • Jim VanSyckle & Chris Booth - Both men spent a lot of time helping me learn the value of patience and hard work as I sat the bench trying to earn playing time. A lot of coaches don't talk about sitting the bench, but I share the experience with my teams every season. These two coaches helped me grow through the challenge and I am a better coach because of them.
  • Scott Swinehart - the most prepared and detail-oriented coach I ever had as a kid. Our team respected him and responded to his demanding expectations. A master of consistency.
  • Jim Graham - Skillful deployment of the pre-game speech and motivating his players to go all in. Fired up and proud.
  • Jerry Reams - One of my all-time favorites. "Old Dawg" was the finest assistant coach a young man could want. He always encouraged us, made us laugh and kept the game of baseball a game. I appreciated him at the time because his calm approach to coaching and his kind heart kept some negative influences at bay for me. He always found the positive and we knew he respected the game. More importantly, he cared about us as players and we knew it.
  • Joel Leipprandt was my JV basketball coach and I still call him each season before big games. I knew early on how lucky I was to have him in my life. He was a selfless leader, an authentic man with high expectations and integrity; on my coach's Dream Team.

No comments:

Post a Comment