Not everyone is a natural, vocal leader. Not everyone shows great emotion when they play. Not everyone is naturally talking or engaging with their teammates on the court. Not everyone handles success and failure the same way.
I had Arkansas coach Eric Musselman on my Dynamic Leadership Podcast and we talked about his approach with is players. He told me that he used to demand leadership out of all of his players. I asked him what he did with guys that just weren’t comfortable leading and he gave me an interesting quote. He said he finally asked himself “Why am I forcing a sandwich down his throat when he isn’t hungry?”
That quote has always stuck with me when I think about my approach to coaching players. While I do think you can (and should) require leadership of all of your players, there is a way to define leadership to make it comfortable and accessible to everyone. Not everyone is going to be comfortable speaking up, providing emotion, or criticizing their teammates when it is necessary. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to win or they can’t lead. It’s just that approach doesn’t fit their personality.
It strikes me that there are a lot of teams out there where we expect and demand traditional leadership (positive energy, speaking up) out of many of our older and better players, and we don’t really expect it out of our younger players. But there are plenty of those younger players who are actually better, more comfortable natural leader than their older teammates. Still, we expect it and demand it out of some older guys who don’t want to do it.
I’ve learned that if you force your players out of their personality comfort zone on the court, you aren’t going to get the most out of them. I had a first team all-league center for two years at Rhode Island College named Mike Akinrola, one of the best players I’ve coached. For a year I was trying to get him to show more fire, to speak up more, to be more of a “leader” in the traditional sense, and it just didn’t fit his personality. I was trying to stuff that sandwich in his mouth. When I finally realized he wasn’t comfortable with the vocal leadership approach, I left him alone, and I got the most out of him. I told him he needed to lead by being our best player every day – in how he approached practice and how hard he competed. He did just that. He was a monster in practice every single day in the way he competed. That was a comfortable way of leading for him, and I needed to recognize that. When I asked him to do something he wasn’t comfortable with, I was making him worse.
We’ve all coached players who are naturally quiet and don’t like to talk. They just keep to themselves, on and off the court. Expecting those guys to become really vocal players on the court just isn’t going to happen. Yes, there is a certain level of communication you have to have to be a good teammate – talking defensively, executing plays – but as far as being a vocal leader, it just isn’t going to happen. Those guys are uncomfortable talking when they don’t need to, and forcing them to try and do it isn’t going to help. Some players can’t do their job when they are talking.
It’s not as simple, however, as just leaving everyone alone. Of course you have to coach your players to get better, and you don’t simply want to accept their shortcomings. You have to figure out who they are and where you can make them better. But when it comes to their personality, I don’t think you are going to change much. That laid back kid isn’t going to grow into being an emotional barometer for your team. The quiet kid who stays to himself won’t be your vocal leader. Yes, you can work on helping them to come out of their shell and be better in those areas. But if you spend a lot of time trying to force them to be someone they aren’t comfortable with, you’ll make them worse.
It’s all about knowing who your players are and figuring out how to get the most out of them. Too often we have an idea of what a senior leader is supposed to look like or how our veteran players should act on the court. Not everyone is going to fit into the mold you have for your team. Getting the most out of them is more about who they are than about what you want to see. Forcing a sandwich down their throat when they aren’t hungry isn’t the way to go.