Coaching

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.

Trust, Evaluations, and Honesty

photo via  NBC Sports

photo via NBC Sports

Spending my life around teams, it's not uncommon to hear players discuss not knowing their standing in a team, or what the coaches really think of them. Whether due to lack of communication or just plain differing viewpoints these can be situations frustrating for all included. In reading about how different coaching staffs and sports organizations operate, I’ve found player evaluation and feedback to be a topic that is constantly discussed and refined in order to make things clearer for the player and the club. Personally being a young coach I find one of the most challenging parts in dealing with players is giving them honest feedback and a clear evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses. It can be an awkward or hard conversation but ultimately I feel as though players really value being told the truth. From my own personal experience as a player, this was never easy for me. Like most people, I could have a biased view of my abilities. In hindsight, I appreciate it more when I was told the truth and when we remove our ego we usually improve and see things for what they really are.

There are many approaches to how coaches deal with giving players feedback. One that really resonated with me was how Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs operate. In truth, Epstein credits Mark Shapiro, the General Manager of the Cleveland Indians as the originator of this process but utilized the system with the Red Sox and now the Cubs. Epstein implemented what they called ‘Individual Player Development Plans’. These are in-depth reports that were shared with each player at his meeting on either an annual basis (for Major League players) or three times a year (for Minor League players). These plans are created by the staff but ultimately discussed and agreed upon with the player himself. Not only did they find this to be the most useful way to share with players what the club viewed as their strengths and weaknesses, it also allowed them to create better personal relationships with players. According to Epstein in the Tom Verducci book, The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse  

The review covers the player’s physical, fundamental, and mental strengths and weaknesses. The information is logged on a review sheet that the player must sign. The player keeps one copy and the team keeps another.

Epstein also notes that he “wanted a culture where players could trust the front office” and he felt that by doing these development reports it gave them “the opportunity to create open and honest personal connections”. 

In addition to providing these plans to their players, the Cubs also have real two-way meetings to discuss where improvements have been made and/or still can be improved upon. Epstein describes how meetings tended to change over time,

‘Here’s what we see. Here’s what you need to work on to become a big leaguer. Here’s a plan to work on it.’ Then a player gets to give their feedback and give their input. They get to argue, ‘No, that’s actually not a weakness. I do that fine. Here are things I want to work on.’ “And you see this transition. Their first year they’re just listening. They sign the page. But by the time they reach Double-A, the guys who are starting to reach their ceilings, they’re starting to take responsibility and accountability for their own development. “The kids who really start to take responsibility start to run the meeting. ‘Okay, here’s what I need to work on. Here’s where I’m at.’ That’s the key to player development—when you stop developing them and they start to develop themselves. They start to trust you that you’re in it for their best interests because you’re being transparent. You’re not hiding the ball. It’s really different from the way it used to be.

My biggest takeaway is that they deem the key to player development being when players start to take responsibility and detail what they need to work on and they start to develop themselves. Coaches tend to talk about how they want players to take responsibility for themselves. Ultimately we must look and see whether or not we are giving them the chances to do so. I think that by implementing plans similar to the Cubs and other MLB organizations we may be able to trend in a direction where players take the initiative.

Coaching in college and at the younger ages primarily, I understand that many kids don’t have the understanding of how to create a plan for their improvement in a specific area yet. However, I would say that we may be surprised that by allowing kids to think more critically about how to do these things we may see even more benefits long-term. It’s always our job to shepherd this in the right direction but giving young athletes more ownership in their development and in doing so it may help them see more improvement over time.