The Aggregate Of Your Attitudes

photo via ESPN

photo via ESPN

When I began coaching a couple things were quickly apparent. First, there were a lot of things I didn’t know and I needed to be ok relearning the game from a different perspective. Second, as a coach you must have a plan and a philosophy.  Initially we think we have ideas and ways in which things should be done but ultimately until the hours we spend add up and the games and trainings we see continue to mount, we can’t truly formalize a philosophy. Even though my coaching career is still in its infancy, my attitudes and beliefs toward various matters are taking shape. I have learned that it is extremely important as a young coach to deliberately think about important issues surrounding the sport you coach, the players you coach, the way you coach and ultimately why you believe what you do about these issues. Legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Wash sums this up perfectly,

 “A philosophy is the aggregate of your attitudes toward fundamental matters and is derived from a process of consciously thinking about critical issues and developing rational reasons for holding one particular belief or position rather than another.”

The beautiful thing about developing a philosophy is that as individuals we have the freedom to develop it how we see fit. That’s really the point. As you read more about different coaches and leaders you see how each has their own way of doing things, a philosophy they built over time through vast amounts of experience. But what’s interesting about a few that I have come across recently is their simplicity in nature and focus on basic things. For example, Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s philosophy was summed up nicely in Tom Verducci’s book, The Cubs Way, 

“Maddon’s entire managerial philosophy begins with those interpersonal relationships. His golden rule of managing can be summed this way: before you can manage and lead, first you must establish trust, and before you can establish trust, first you need to establish a personal relationship with your players.”

Another example of the basis of a philosophy that resonated with me was from Gregg Popovich. His assistant coach Ettore Messina describes it nicely,

“one of the biggest things in coach Popovich’s philosophy is the ‘we can’t skip any steps’ principle. It means there’s time and place for every process. In order to not skip any steps, it means that the Spurs must start from the very beginning. As anyone who attempts to master any skill, the fundamentals must be strong before you can advance. And that is exactly what the Spurs do every season.”

Just two examples but you can see how to each is own and they have foundational reasons for why they believe what they do, and how it is then implemented within their teams.

But we must remember that our philosophies must remain fluid otherwise we run the risk of becoming stuck in our ways without the ability or willingness to evolve. Martí Perarnau describes how Pep Guardiola’s philosophy changed while observing him during his time at Bayern Munich, 

“A good coach should be constantly revising his beliefs, amending and adapting them to achieve the perfect synergy between his own philosophy and the club he represents. A belief system should never become the straitjacket of dogma and it’s clear that Guardiola now sees his philosophy as just a frame of reference within which he can move and expand.”

Through our experiences we have the freedom to cherrypick things we like and utilize them, or observe things done in ways we ultimately don’t agree with and choose to do it differently. What’s important is that we don’t just say I like this or that with no foundation underneath it. We need to, as Coach Walsh says “develop rational reasons for holding one particular belief or position rather than another”. This stuck out to me because there are many times we start talking about issues or ideas without really believing in them, or without giving careful thought to why we think this way. This in turn can make us sound unauthentic when we relay certain messages to others. Which as I am sure we’ve all experienced and can have crippling effects within a group or team.

Ultimately how I have approached beginning to build a philosophy will be different from you, or the next person, but what’s important is that from the outset we must think about this deliberately. 

Make Them Better

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

Why is it that so many coaches are quick to make comments about what players can’t do? Even if we say we’re not this way, we’ve all been guilty of this line of thinking at some point. It’s likely we’ve commented on the negative before even thinking about the positive. We make assumptions about what players must be thinking, when in reality we have no idea. But why? Is it easier? It’s easier to justify that our opinion of this player is correct and we are right. But without knowing we’re doing it, we create this bias within our own mind or the minds of those we make these comments to. This does is nothing but hurt the player being discussed and ultimately it’s just our opinion. With that being said it’s still interesting that we don’t make more of an effort to focus on the positives, to regularly talk about these aspects of a players game and try to capitalize and continue to improve on them. Or even more revealing is that we don’t talk about how we can, or should, be making these players better. In Seth Davis’ book, Getting To Us: How Great Coaches Make Great Teams, members of Doc Rivers’ staff discuss his attitude during a rough patch in their season,

“Every day during that losing streak, he came in and he would never say anything negative to the players,” says Armond Hill, Rivers’s longtime assistant coach. “Even when the coaches were alone, he wouldn’t rip the players. He might get frustrated about what was happening, but he would always say, ‘We gotta make them better.’”

I do not teach anyone, I only provide the environment in which they can learn
— Albert Einstein

It’s refreshing because it puts the emphasis back on the staff and what they can do, it doesn’t necessarily make the staff believe that the players aren’t good enough. Maybe they ultimately aren’t good enough but if the mindset is such from the beginning, how will they ever really improve? We must do everything in our power to help make them better.

I wonder what the trajectory of a players development would be if rather than speak to what they can’t do, we first focus where they excel. I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t critique a player and their overall skillset or specific performance. That’s not at all what I mean. But in order to do that we should probably employ more energy to help them express their positive qualities and start there rather than the opposite. Plus if we really assess our jobs, and like Rivers says, we gotta make them better. I just wonder what kind of players we could develop if while providing honest feedback on a continual basis we first focused on improving positive areas of their game. I’m just as guilty as anyone else. We can all be quick to say things like, “this guy is no good” or “he can’t pass/shoot/dribble”. Maybe we should start thinking with thoughts like “this guy really is good at X, let’s see how we can foster more of that”. Seems simple in theory but I know it’s hard in practice. I don’t think it’s realistic, nor should we, live in a faux positive environment all of the time. Sure there will be times when we need to get on players and things will tend to be a little more negative or critical. Ultimately players are either going to get better or they won’t, it’s our job as coaches to help foster an environment where they can and hopefully not one where we don’t even give them a chance to. 

As Einstein said, “I do not teach anyone, I only provide the environment in which they can learn”. We should focus on creating those environments.

Brilliant Simplicity

photo via  90min.com

photo via 90min.com

By modern day standards he is not gifted with what many would consider exceptional “athletic” ability, size or strength. His engine is otherworldly, most likely down to part genes and part work. You probably don’t even know what this man sounds like because you’ve never heard him speak. Nonetheless N’Golo Kanté’s rise to the pinnacle of soccer has been nothing short of extraordinary. But the brilliance about him is that almost nothing he does in and of itself would be considered extraordinary. In fact it is the simplicity to his game that makes him so effective in every team he plays. To summarize his career thus far, he went from not being picked by a French academy to pursuing a vocational diploma in accounting while still working to become a professional soccer player (A feat he didn’t accomplish until he made his debut at 21). Working his way to playing in the France's Ligue 1. Winning two Premier League titles with two different teams. And most recently, winning the World Cup. To put his trajectory in perspective, based on information from Transfermarkt, his value when he made his debut in 2013 for Boulogne was a mere €50,000. As of July 16, 2018 his value is €$80 million. Kanté’s rise is more like a startup company in an industry where assets like himself just didn’t exist, or aren't nearly as effective. 

Everybody knows that N’Golo Kante can run for 11 players – that’s his best quality…He’s everywhere!
— Paul Pogba

Since his professional debut he has been racking up unprecedented individual awards to go along with team honors. These include being voted the 2016/17 Premier League Player of The Year as well as Player of The Year for both Leicester and Chelsea in 2016 and 2017 respectively, FIFA FIFPro World XI in 2016 and 2017, French Player of The Year in 2017 and a finalist for the highly coveted Ballon d’Or in 2017. This is just to name a few. As I mentioned, he also won the Premier League in back to back seasons with two different clubs and most recently lifted the most elusive trophy in sports, the World Cup. All the while Kanté’s game has remained the definition of simplicity, consistency and effectiveness. He’s won these individual and team awards while utilizing the attributes, that more than anything, HE controls. That’s whats so refreshing. The fact that for the most part his game is structured around skills that everyone has at a base level. He has just worked to elevate his to another stratosphere. This, to me, is much more replicable than aiming to be the next Pogba or Messi or Ronaldo. Not to diminish enthusiasm of young players but it’s still about being realistic. Kanté is realistic. At only 5’5’’ he has proven that the most effective player on the field can still be one who works harder than everyone, covers more ground, plays simply and reads the game brilliantly. Anyone who pays close attention could see that not only was Kanté arguably the most important member of France’s title winning squad, he was maybe the best player of the tournament. The fact that his game is structured upon work-rate, determination, competitiveness, fitness level, simplicity and reading plays makes his performances all the more impressive.

It’s impossible to say why exactly he wasn’t picked for any academy in France, but it most likely comes down to the physical attributes he had no control over. This isn’t the first, or last, occasion of a player being looked over due to these reasons but in Kanté it leads to the other part of his story. Unlike many stories we hear of players going from zero to sixty, Kanté’s rise to stardom contains aspects that many young, ambitions players are in fact able to relate to and replicate. Although what he does is viewed as spectacularly important, his game is one that is quite simple at it’s essence. First he relies on work-rate (In seven World Cup matches he ran a ridiculous 42.5 miles) and reading the game. Not only does this allow him to be extremely effective in any system he plays, they are both qualities that any player can build into their game. Work-rate and fitness level are self explanatory. Some players are gifted with a better starting point but regardless of where they start, everyone can dramatically improve with work and desire. Those are things that, outside of being injured, the player has complete control over. For anyone with professional ambition it must be the foundation their game is built upon. Reading the game is really where Kanté excels. In the World Cup he managed 61 ball recoveries. Here is some perspective. In their first two group matches he had 27 ball recoveries. In the 2014 season Paul Pogba had 28. The entire year! This may be something that comes naturally to certain players while others find it more challenging. With modern technology we have the ability to work on training our minds to see things we may not have seen while on the field but can then watch and apply in the future. Watching film, working with coaches and a true commitment to learning will undoubtedly help players improve in their reading of the game. 

I was at the Chelsea training ground last week to see Eden Hazard and noticed Kante wandering back to the changing rooms. So I went over to him and stood in front of him. And I poked him in the chest. I had to, just to check if he was real!
— Thierry Henry (about Kanté)

Kanté’s quiet confidence is also a beautiful thing to see. This, coupled with his competitive nature creates astounding results. His performances dealing with some of the best players in the world in the likes of Messi and Hazard we're truly remarkable. I don’t know exactly where this confidence comes from, but I would guess that it has a lot to do with the path he took to get where he currently is. Every notch on the proverbial professional belt that he was able to achieve must have helped him in this area, because each level was a struggle for him in some way. A lot of young players in America don’t have to deal with this struggle, or difficulty, and so many bail out or make it someone else’s fault. Kanté is a shining example of what happens when you push through the difficult times. A resiliency and self belief are formed that don’t come from taking the easy path. 

Now, his passing.I understand that generally speaking the position Kanté plays asks little of the player in terms of his ability to create plays going forward. But what it asks a lot of is the ability for a player to play simply and consistently. He may not stand out here but during the world cup he completed 324 passes out of 365 attempted. Almost 90% pass completion rate, again, effectiveness, simplicity and consistency. I feel that often times current young players in this country want to replicate aspects of players games that are so special that they forget to lay the foundation first. Be creative. Learn different moves on the dribble or find unique ways to pass and score. But take a page out of this man’s book and find the beauty in doing the simple things first. 

To top it off, his humility and down-to-earth mentality make him absolutely beloved by teammates for both club and country. A good message to send players and a fantastic example of how the most unassuming player can become the most important.

This is a bit on Kanté but also my love of every intangible he brings to the pitch and how THOSE are the aspects of a professional player that our youth players should in fact look to mirror.