Thursday, January 04, 2007

Can Academic Staff Learn Anything from Sports Coaches?

My daughter played competitive sports for many years. I feel she learned many lessons as a player that carry over to general life skills and strategies. Recently I became aware of lessons that athletic coaches can learn, and how these also carry over to leadership in other areas of life.

The December 2006 issue of Fastpitch Delivery, a softball trade journal published by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), has a good article where Jeff Janssen and Greg Dale interviewed some of college sports' top coaches to determine the secrets of their success. They discovered a new style of coaching they call "credible coaching" that focuses on developing solid relationships with athletes based on trust and respect. This is unlike the traditional style of coaching which used fear and intimidation to motivate athletes.

I think many of the characteristics of what they call "credible coaching" can carry over to team building and leadership in the real world. So here are a direct quotes from Jeff Janssen's article on Credible Coaching: "Coaching is about relationships....You have to create an environment of trust among your staff and athletes. Without trust, you have nothing. If you do have trust, you will be able to accomplish great things."

Janssen and Dale identified seven primary components associated with successful coaches. Credible coaches are:

1. Character based
They seek to do the right thing. They are honorable people with high ethical standards and great integrity. They tell the truth to their athletes and never manipulate or play mind games with them. They conduct themselves in a professional manner and take pride in representing their teams and athletes with class.

"A lot of our success in Duke basketball has to do with character. And at the heart of character is honesty and integrity" (Mike Krzyewski)

2. Competent
They have a thorough understanding of the strategies and fundamentals of the game. They know how to make the appropriate adjustments. They are highly inquisitive people who continually look for innovative and improved ways of doing things. Further, they understand that admitting their limitations and mistakes is actually a sign of strength, not weakness. Even though they are highly capable and often revered people, credible coaches tend to remain humble and keep their success in perspective.

"Sometimes the most important listening you do is the listening that comes after you've reached the top, after you've gotten very good and could be susceptible to the idea that you know everything." (Dan Gable)

3. Committed
Credible coaches are highly committed people. They create successful visions for their teams and are more than willing to put in the time required to make them happen. They have a true passion for sport and coaching which fuels their intense drive and enthusiasm. They also have incredible reserves of energy and resiliency which enables them to weather the inevitable storms of adversity.

4. Caring
Credible coaches care about their athletes as people. They sincerely want the best for their athletes in all aspects of their lives and are willing to help them in any way possible. They invest the time to get to know each of their athletes on a personal level, showing an interest in their athlete's families, friends, faith and future goals.

"I know if somebody really cares about me and is really fighting for me, I'll go through a wall for them. The same works in reverse. If somebody knows you don't care about him and aren't really fighting for him, then he won't go through the wall for you" (Mike Shanahan)

5. Confidence-builders
Credible coaches continually build their players' confidence. Credible coaches have a special knack for making people feel good about themselves, capable of achieving almost anything they set their minds to. The are demanding and set high standards, yet are patient enough to help athletes develop and improve. When athletes do fall short, they use a good balance of being challenging and supportive to get people get back on track.

"When people realize that someone has faith in them, productivity usually increases. We have a natural desire not to want to disappoint those who believe in us and trust us" (Tom Osborne)

6. Communicators
Credible coaches are excellent communicators. They are open, honest and direct when communicating with individuals and the team. They continually remind and refocus people on what they need to do to be successful. They seek to involve their athletes as much as possible and value the input they receive from them. They have the remarkable ability to truly listen to their athletes. They take the time to understand where people are coming from and are able to make decisions accordingly. Because of their ability to listen, credible coaches are often aware of concerns and conflicts, and proactively address them before they become major problems or distractions.

"You have to listen to develop meaningful relationships with people....You can't do that by talking. You do that by listening. What I have learned is, coaching is not all about me going into a locker room and telling them everything I know about basketball. It's a matter of knowing how they think and feel and what they want and what's important in their lives. Listening has allowed me to be a better coach" (Pat Summitt)

7. Consistent
Credible coaches develop a sound philosophy of coaching. This philosophy remains stable over time, but they are flexible enough to adapt to changing situations or personnel. They maintain a consistent approach to rules and standards for the team. They tend to be highly organized people who take their practice and game preparation very seriously.

I could not find the article on the NFCA web site, so I have taken the liberty of directly quoting relevant passages for the benefit of the non-softball world.

My opinion is that being a "credible coach" is a big, challenging task, and that it is hard to find a coach that scores high in all the above areas. Naturally, you also need talented players and support staff to be successful. The above principles only provide a successful path to reach a common goal, once you have that talent on your team.

Not all of these components may be relevant to leadership in academic settings, and most IS staff probably do not want clones of Pat Summitt or Mike Krzyzewski yelling at them from the sidelines. And, I'm sure that Pat Summitt teaches as much as she listens. The point, though, is that listening is very important to her.

However, some of the concepts Jeff Janssen and Greg Dale have found can be used by leaders in any field to improve the effectiveness of their teams. All levels of leadership, starting with the staff member that supervises one part-time student assistant, can benefit. It is perfectly justifiable to cherry-pick the components that resonate to individual situations.

One should note that not all good players make good coaches. I remember two players that helped a college win a national championship, and then graduated and made a mess of coaching a summer team of young girls. So, some of us may be happier and better suited to playing on the team than coaching from the sidelines.

A final thought is that in sports there are usually winners and losers. In academia, everyone can be successful, there do not have to be any "losers". Maybe that's one reason why a few slightly-jealous folks claim we "don't live in the real world"!