I was sitting at a recruiting event about 10 years ago talking with a friend of mine who had just finished his first year as a Division I head coach. I had been the head coach at Rhode Island College (Hey, I wrote a book about it) for 5 or 6 years at that point, and we had built a really strong program that would go to 8 straight NCAA Tournaments. He had taken over a really good job late, didn’t have time to change much, but won enough games so that his fan base was excited about the future.
We were talking about running a program, managing practices, playing time, and getting everybody bought in. Just a general conversation about everything you have to deal with as a head coach, and how you really establish your culture and approach. He was telling me about his best player, a guard who led his team in scoring but didn’t shoot a very high percentage or help make his teammates better. He kept going on about all of the things wrong with the kid – selfish, lazy uncommitted. He said he had a hard time coaching him.
“Why did you play him?” I asked, with a pretty good idea of the answer I’d get.
“We had nobody else. I had to play him.” Yup, as expected.
“How many games did you guys win again?”
“Seven games. And how many do you think you would have won without him? I mean, playing him all those minutes got you seven wins. Did it really matter?”
“He was our most talented player. We had no one else,” came his reply.
We got into talking about playing time and buy-in, and how you get everyone on board with your program. He was convinced he had to play this guy because of his talent, and I kept pointing out that his talent could not have made that big of a difference if he still only won seven games. At that point, we had been really good at Rhode Island College, and he asked about how I went about establishing playing time. I told him I liked to play a lot of guys. We had a lot of good players, but I also liked the competitive edge it brought to practice. I played 10-11 guys every game, and they knew coming to practice that they could earn playing time if they competed hard and produced. There was no set rotation. What was expected at practice was laid out very clearly, and the guys knew what they had to do to play.
He said he didn’t have that much talent, so he couldn’t play a lot of guys. He said he had to keep his main guys on the floor, or they would have gotten smoked. I reminded him they won seven games. He kept asking about how guys dealt with a different rotation each game, not knowing when they were going to get off the bench or how much they were going to play. I told him the criteria for playing time was explained very clearly, and everyone knew they had to be ready. I’d make the decisions based on what guys earned in practice every day.
His response was “We can’t do that here. That wouldn’t work at our level.”
I was confused. He kind of pulled the division I card out on me, as if being a division III coach, I just wouldn’t understand. Things were different at that level, according to him. You couldn’t offer up playing time to everyone and let them earn it. The players wouldn’t accept it They wanted to know “where they stood.” I told him my guys knew exactly where they stood. They knew exactly how they had to earn playing time. Everyone had the same chance. It made our team better, made practice that much more competitive.
“I like that. I just don’t think it would work for us.”
I’m a strong believer that leadership is highly contextual and situational. There is no one right answer when it comes to leadership approach. It has to fit who you are as a leader and the environment you are in. I’d never tell anyone this is how you should do things. I think leadership development is about sharing ideas, getting your mind to think a different way, and seeing the possibilities in a new (and maybe uncommon) approach. It’s not about taking somebody else’s approach and making it yours.
I’ve always been surprised – and a little confused – when I’ve heard coaches say that over the years. “That’s great. But we couldn’t do that at our place.” A clear and direct message. A chance for everyone to compete for playing time. A transparent approach. It seems like that would work in most programs.
Over the years, as I’ve worked with different coaches, teams and organizations, I’ve learned that “we can’t do that here,” or “that would never work for us” are the battle cries of the mediocre. It is a comfortable place that allows them to stay average – and to remain comfortable. I hear it a lot in coaching, but also with any organization that is contemplating change. High school coaches say that couldn’t work for us. College coaches see an idea they like from a high school coach and say, “yeah, but it’s high school.” Small businesses look at something that works in an athletic arena and say “but that’s a little different.” It is a common mentality that cripples progress, maintains the status quo, and gets in the way of any meaningful progress. But it keeps us in our comfort zone.
I have a good friend and mentor who uses the phrase “terminally unique.” His take is that most organizations are terminally unique, in that they look at great ideas and say, “I like that, but we could never make that work, because we are School X!” Every play I have worked at has some level of terminally unique qualities on display.
Yes, context is important. Yes, you have to find an approach that fits your organization and works for you. But that doesn’t mean you should stay close-minded to new ideas. If you don’t like the idea or it isn’t a good fit for your team, that’s fine. Don’t mess with it. But don’t let the fact that you are terminally unique keep you from trying new ideas or making progress.
“We can’t do that here” is a comfort zone for the mediocre.