If you’re the head coach of a college or high school basketball team, it’s safe to bet that you’ve probably had a few years coaching experience at a variety of levels. This is a true communication and leadership success story.
It all begins with one of the most successful college coaches who started as a newcomer to college coaching. He had never coached a national powerhouse high school team or a star-studded AAU program before he was hired to resurrect a storied D3 college basketball program. He will tell you about a coach doing it all. Scheduling games, running practices, mapping out strength and conditioning programs, arranging travel – private school coaches roll many responsibilities into one demanding job.
The fact that Jim (not his real name) didn’t have high-level expertise in the coaching profession is what enabled him to develop his winning strategy and tactics. Since Jim didn’t have all of the answers, he needed to find the correct contacts to find out what needed to be done. Don’t get me wrong, Jim could coach the heck out of a basketball team, but he was no Coach K or Coach Cal. The most critical decision Jim made was to reach out to his former players and retired coaches — especially those who had worked at this college basketball program. However, what he asked them was even better. He asked them one thing, a question that coaches, founders, CEOs, small businesses, and -suite executives would benefit immensely from understanding:
That single, simple question opened the floodgates as how to coach this team into the future. Jim learned what was working, what was not, and most importantly, what former players and coaches thought the team should do to turn things around and go positively forward. The proof of his success was apparent — two years later they had its best year ever under Jim’s coaching and management with the first winning season in ten years. A few years later, Jim was hired by a higher ranked school with more resources, reputation, and recruiting capability. That university expects him to do his magic again, which is to build a winner.
Here are a few takeaways to keep in mind about Jim’s strategy:
1. Get out of the office or the coach’s office and onto the basketball court.
Jim joined this lost D3 college basketball program; they were losing, lost and struggling to work as a team. The answer couldn’t be found while sitting behind his desk or at the end of a whistle. That’s why Jim went to the front lines of his team to speak with former players and coaches that had worked directly with his team in the past.
When I speak with other basketball coaches, this is a strategy I always encourage. Go out and talk with former vital players that played for your team and be open to their opinion — you may find innovative answers, even from those smart players that sat on the bench. They’re precious assets that you should cultivate and seek out.
2. Check your ego at the door.
The turnover rate at this program was extremely high — which gave Jim the task of regaining assistant coaches, managers, fans, and players trust and engagement. Instead of entering the new position as an outsider thinking he had the all of the answers because he was the new head coach, he engaged others in the problem-solving process. Of course, he was new to college coaching and this particular college, so he didn’t have pre-developed ideas as to the way things had been run. You may not have that specific advantage, but you can still do this successfully.
When I encourage coaches to speak to these key individuals, I occasionally get an eye roll. Some leaders’ egos won’t let them even consider the opinions of lower-level employee or old assistants, especially if they contradict current processes and approaches. It is important to recognize that everyone offers new ideas and methodologies from his or her unique experiences and expertise. The point is to listen, learn and not get offended by other’s thoughts if they disagree with how you would like to run things. Listening and learning is the opportunity to consider new and often challenging concepts. You’re in this to learn, grow and challenge yourself, not for a series of compliments.
3. Put your discoveries into action.
Here’s where Jim succeeded where many others failed. He spent months gathering ideas and formulating a plan — then he put it into action. Jim understood the position that the team held and realized it was tough to compete for head-on with other teams in their conference. Instead, he embraced his team’s unique abilities, something his predecessors missed and took for granted.
After you’ve spoken with your team, don’t waste too much time on the plan. Instead, focus on implementation and ensuring all your members are 100% engaged and motivated. Without taking action, all of the above steps are pointless. Today you see Jim’s plan being put to use with the team’s new style of fast-paced play and aggressive approach. Jim’s generally inclusive coaching style that incorporates what he learned on his journey is a winner with fans, players, and the college community.
4. Real conversations lead to actual results.
Coach Jim blended his outsider’s perspective with real, raw answers from his new and old assistant coaches and combined them to make success possible for Jim’s new team. He saw things from a “Fresh Pair Of Eyes” strategy, and leaders always seek out an innovative and sometimes unusual approach to success. Keep these methods in mind when faced with a new or familiar challenge, and you sometimes will find the tactics and answers you need in hidden and unlikely places. Maybe the mail room, delivery driver or longtime employee who has vision and honesty.
As for Jim, I’m sure he will be shortly visiting the Final Four and making the rounds asking coaches, fans, associates, athletic directors, and sportscasters what they think needs to be fixed –plus, he now has the benefit of successfully coaching a winning college program.
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