The best teams check each other. On the court, in practice, every day. The players check one another. I mean they confront the bad behavior. Whether a teammate doesn’t run back or doesn’t sprint to help side, they are hearing it from someone else in a practice jersey. Not just the coaches. The best teams play for one another, and are accountable to each other – not just to the coaches. Sure, the boss is the one who can bring the hammer down if necessary, but there needs to be some understanding amongst the players that certain behaviors that get in the way of winning are unnacceptable.
I remember coaching our best teams at RIC, after we got it rolling for a few years. I had to do so much less as a head coach. I’d blow the whistle, and literally before it would drop out of my mouth and have a chance to speak, somebody would be saying something. “That’s not good enough! Let’s do it again!” If I blew the whistle because we got beat off the dribble in shell drill I’d hear “No middle! Guard the ball. Let’s go!” It’s a powerful feeling as a coach. So often all I had to do was pause, and sometimes say “Did you hear what he said? No middle. Let’s go.” When you get your team to that point you can sustain elite success. You know your kids are bought in to what you are doing, and they are unwilling to accept bad behavior from their teammates. It’s a powerful place to be as a team.
You have to create this environment as a coach. I don’t think it comes naturally, and I don’t think it happens quickly. You have to be aware of how dominant your voice is in practice, because if they are alway listening to you than it’s likely no one else is talking. The strength of your voice and your presence, while you think it’s providing leadership, at times is suppressing it. Make sure you give your team a voice and actually listen to what they are saying. Don’t ask them a question and then answer it for them. Make them comfortable speaking up. Blow the whistle at times and hesitate, giving your players a chance to fill the void. This will help them take ownership, and check themselves when the behavior doesn’t meet your standard.
It is interesting to think about whether or not this is a lot harder to establish today. We are now at the point where every kid has grown up with a cell phone and is used to communicating in a different way. They also get all of their information in a different way. We’ve had conversations for years about how kids “don’t know how to talk to each other” today, and it’s worth thinking about the impact. I’m not complaining about cell phones or this generation. I’m the last person to say “kids these days are…” because I think it’s a cop out. I’m sure 30 years ago coaches were saying the same things about myself and my teammates, and 60 years ago they were saying the same things about my father and my uncle. I don’t think the kids are different today, but everything around them is different. If they are used to communicating differently we certainly have to think about the best way to communicate with them.
So is it harder to get your kids to communicate the way you want them to in practice today, possibly because they just aren’t used to having the same face to face conversations? I do think it’s something we have to think about. If they have less one on one interaction on a daily basis, it’s natural that they might be uncomfortable with direct verbal confrontation. They may naturally react defensively because they aren’t used to anyone speaking to them that way. They just don’t have as many verbal interactions as we did when we were younger.
The best teams check themselves. I’ll always be a big believer in that. You want to get your team to a point where they know exactly what the standards are and they are willing to protect them. And if that means confronting one of their teammates on certain behavior, they’ll do it. The challenge as a leader is to make that environment comfortable for your team, and specifically make sure your guys are ready and willing to receive the message the right way.
Getting your teams to communicate, and getting them to check each other is still essential to long-term sustained success. You just might have to work a little harder and go about it a little differently today to make sure they get there.