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Show No Fear

September 9, 2015

There were 8 of them. They all looked at me with that expectant look as if to say,

Go on. Teach us.

I remembered what a friend told me when I started: They can sense fear. 

Okay, maybe not that last part, but coaching a youth basketball team did involve a fair amount of “fake it until you make it.” I’d played basketball since I was a kid. I’d watched basketball just as long. I could watch a play by my favorite team, the Seattle Sonics and tell you if the players were performing well or poorly. 

But, until I got behind the whistle, I didn’t realize just how much different coaching is than playing, or watching. 

Those who can, do.

Those who can’t teach.

That has got to be one of the stupidest things ever written. It implies there is an ability spectrum that has player at one end and coach at the other. In reality they are two seperate skill sets. Comparable in the same sense that the president of the United States and a world famous pop star both speak english. But, we are not going to try to put them on the same scale. 

I currently play basketball a couple of times per week. I get to the gym (which happens to be located in a church. It’s a Mormon thing) about 6:00 AM and we play for 90 minutes. Most of the guys there are old. None of us are ever going to play competitively. We’re there to sweat for an hour or so and try to push back the advent of old age just a little. 

We don’t run plays. We typically play a zone defense. That means the biggest guy stands in the middle of the key right under the basket. The next two tallest guys stand to his left and right toward the out of bounds. The two shortest guys stand on each side of the foul line. Each player defends his zone. It’s a defense built for old men slow of foot. 

On offense, we pretty much run around and try to get open for a clear shot. Some guys are better at it than others. We throw them the ball more. 

As I set out to coach this youth team, I realized that my experience playing was not going to be the most help. I had to actually teach the boys plays. We adopted what was called the Stanford offense. It involved a point guard, two wings, the center stationed at the high post and a power forward that played low post. I had mostly short kids, that’s why I went with a three guard offense. 

We practiced plays. We drilled them over and over. First we’d run the play to the right side, then to the left. We introduced an option where the center would take the initial pass. We NEVER just let the boys come down and run around looking for an open shot. The boys, like most young men who love basketball, but are not part of an organized team, were new to set plays. It remained to be seen if my plan would work in a game, or if I had doomed them to an obsolete dance while everyone else ran past them. 

My basketball lessons apply in business as well. A team is more than a collection of individuals. Or at least it should be. If everyone shows up at work and “runs around looking for an open shot” you are going to see two things happen. First, just like in basketball, some will be better at finding the open shot. You will have some team members who shine. They will get the most sales. Write the most courseware. Build the most widgets. 

But, if there isn’t an overriding plan that everyone is working under, you are going to ultimately have chaos. That’s okay at 6:00 in the morning with a bunch of overweight programmers sweating through a workout, but it’s horrible for business. 

It’s why I hate individual recognition awards. You know, the employee of the month type? What about the employee who is just as hard working, just as dedicated, but doesn’t have a flaire for self promotion? Or what if their function is to be a support role? They are doomed to labor in obscurity while the shooters get the glory. 

Instead, you, as the manager should have a strategy. You should be building and running your team based on a plan. You probably cannot do the things your team members do. At least not as well. Michael Jordan, never played for a coach that was as talented as he was as a player. And yet, Jordan’s coaching career was lackluster at best. We all have skills that a team needs to succeed. A team full of shooting guards, no matter how talented isn’t going to do well against a balanced, well coached team. 

The first game with my youth team, I was a nervous wreck. We’d practiced. The boys knew the offense well. Everyone knew his role. It remained only to see how they would do against competitors. The first team we played had some kids who were bigger and faster than my team. I mentioned we were a small team and had adopted a three-guard offense as a result. 

The first couple of times down the court the boys timing was off just a little. And then it started to click. The first basket gave them confidence. The hours of practice started to show. The boys realized that running the offense, following the plan gave them the best opportunity for success. The Standford offense, like many coaching strategies relies on timing and a little bit of misdirection. You pull the defenders away from the baket just as a player is cutting behind them. 

The final score: 72-40. 

A well coached team will outplay a more talented team every time. 

If you are the manager, coach your team. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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