Well, Coach Neal, my college Basketball coach, was named the WBCA NAIA Coach of the Year! And I'm bitter about it. Why? Because, I only got to play for him for one year . . . in college, where I was a woefully undersized forward at 6'1", and mostly sat on the bench. He was supposed to be my coach for three years in High School, where I was a starter, and where he was the coach until he got "railroaded" by a bunch of . . . well, I won't label them . . . other than to say "immature kids" . . . and the complicit adults . . . before my sophomore year. Without going into the details, the end result was that the board of education, I think taking the politically safe course, suspended him for a year, to appease the disgruntled and the local college, recognizing a good deal, promptly offered him their open position. The only redeeming factor, as far as I was concerned, was that this let me play a lot of "noon ball" with him--and even tryout some prospects--but it wasn't quite the same as working one-on-one with this talented leader.
But this post isn't really about my Coach--or my bitterness. It's to set the stage for what I am about to tell you. A life lesson that has stuck with me throughout my career as a leader. It's the story about what makes a good team.
You see, after the kids (and their enabling cadre of adults) got rid of Coach, I played with two distinct groups of players. One, a very talented group of athletes that was a terrible team, followed by an average group of athletes that, as a team, excelled. What was the difference? I'll tell you . . . in a minute. But first, let me jump forward to the end . . . .
I still can feel the shock. It was my senior year. We had just finished the district final. We had been beaten. Badly. Our "arch-enemies," and the best team in the state, which they proved in the state tournament, had just beaten us for the third time, ending our high school career and launching them, in our place it felt like, to the state tournament. Why in "our place," given they were admittedly the best team in our Class? Simply, because,we never expected to be beaten. Ever. Why would we feel so confident having been beaten twice before? Because each time we had lost only by a few points and each time we had a starter injured who did not play. Now we were back to full-strength, and at full strength we just didn't lose. But, we just had lost . . . it was inconceivable.
But, let's go back now to the moment when Coach was suspended . . . .
Playing on a team where the players have just successfully "booted the coach" is interesting to say the least. Once Coach Neal was suspended, my ninth grade coach--a nice man but not a charismatic leader--was promoted. This good man struggled, I think, going into a situation where the "inmates" were really in charge. Oh, he tried to take charge and lead but underlying everything was the feeling that the players could call "mommy and daddy" at any moment and the coach would have to answer for the player's complaints. Not an inviable position to be in as a coach! The result of this, as far as the team's performance, was devastating. The players were good. The team was bad.
A say the players were "good" because they had a lot of potential. Compared to the team that would follow, they had advantages in height, speed, and most of all, in talent. (For example, the average height? Over 6'3" the latter team? Barely 6'0") They were fiercely loyal to each other--but only to each other--and they made sure the other players knew they were to "stay in their place." (There were, to be fair, a couple exceptions to this rule but only one played, so it had minimal effect) Over the next two years, whenever my play elevated to the point that it threatened their status . . .they "messaged me" with their displeasure. In a scrimmage, I received a hard elbow to the sternum which laid me out (I didn't know until that moment that you could bruise your sternum!), I had a player take a swing at me in practice (I dodged it), and had two random fans ask me after one game, "why wouldn't they throw you the ball in the second half?"
I found myself adapting to survive. So, when my coach rushed across the court after the player took a swing at me and asked, "Did he just try to punch you?" I deferred . . . "I dunno coach, you'd have to ask him." When fans asked about not getting the ball in the second half, I said "I don't know," --when I had a pretty good idea.
The season, as a reflection of these dynamics, was a disaster. The team only won 5 games. One, proving their elevated talent level, was over the third-ranked team in the state. With enough talent to challenge for a conference title and a trip to the state tournament, it was a complete and utter failure. Meanwhile, the next team, the "Junior Varsity," was having more success. What would happen when they became the Varsity? Shorter, less talented, less experienced--the prospects were not promising.
So, after the 5-win season, the ninth-grade-coach-turned-varsity-coach was out, and a new coach was brought in. The coaching change, in my opinion, had little effect. The new coach, certainly came in under a better political climate, but his leadership was not such that it inspired any exponential improvement or motivation. As a change it was simply a replacement, not an upgrade. Besides, the JV had no trouble playing for either coach.
But, something was different.
Athletes would say this next team was "coachable." With less talent, this team was far inferior "on paper" than the older team. Yet, this team played beyond its potential. This team beat every team they faced except three--two of the three went to state and one being the best team in the class that year. This was the team that played in the district final and were defeated, as told above, by the number one team presenting them from going to the state tournament.
Two teams. Two different talent levels. Two different outcomes. One grossly underperforming. One excelling.
The difference was . . . trust.
There was no trust on the older team. Everyone played for themselves. The awareness that the players had ousted the coach, made the coach be timid--who could blame him in a situation that was potentially dangerous. (After stepping down as the coach, he went back to teaching and, I think, coaching the 9th grade team). Underclassmen knew that the older players were more interested in their own status than having a great team. The older players just wanted the starting role and played to their egos, not as a team. One game, a player's shoe came untied, as the other team moved the ball down the court, he ran behind, signaling to the coach that his shoe was untied. The coach shrugged, knowing, I think, that the referees would not allow a time out when the other team was on a "fast break" and about to score an "easy bucket." Not good enough for this player, and frustrated by not being attended to, he violently kicked his shoe off-. . . sending it flying high over the bench where we sat and on to the track behind us. Then, he became "unhinged" . . . fouling indiscriminately in his anger. Coach let him go. It is the first, and only time, I have seen a player foul out in the first four minutes of a game.
Meanwhile, the JV team didn't care about status. They wanted to win. They played with whomever the coaches deemed would make them the best team--even when it meant that the center position, occupied by one of their buddies was replaced by an underclassman. No one was concerned about who was "the star" on any given night and, consequentially, different players excelled throughout the season.
Maybe, we learned from the chaos and failure of the older team, we certainly witnessed it and experienced its effects. But I don't think that was it. If it was, we never once talked about it. This latter group, I believe, just had the idea that being successful was more important. Because we shared that goal, because our behavior aligned with that objective, there was trust.
When the season was over. It was time for the post-season awards. Some players shared with me their expectation that I would be voted "All Conference.." The facts supported this assumption. I was the high scorer on the second-place team in the district. I appreciated the fact that my fellow players would acknowledge that I should be considered. When the list came out, however, I was not on it. One of my teammates, who was in attendance said our new coach made a mistake in putting up three candidates for the award which resulted in our votes getting split. Perhaps they were split due to who performed best against each specific coaches team? I don't know. Oh I won't tell you that I wasn't disappointed not to get the award. But, with the hindsight of many years, it really was the most fitting ending to it all. This really was the success of a great team . . . not of a great player.
My coach and teammate respond! A follow up post.