Like many life lessons, I learned about how to be a good coach on the athletic field.

I was playing in the last lacrosse game of my junior year, an away game vs. Clarkson University.  Games at Clarkson were always a challenge. They maintained one of the only true grass fields in the league (all the other schools had upgraded to synthetic turf) and their field was perpetually muddy, frozen or both.

On top of the usual challenges, this year was particularly hard.  Just before the season began, our coach who led us to win the league championship the year before was replaced with a new coach who was much less experienced.  The new coach was young and full of fresh ideas, but he had a very different way of running the team and even late into the season he had yet to earn the respect of all the players.

The moment of truth came with six minutes left in the fourth quarter.  The score was tied at nine goals each.

We had just missed a shot and the ball careened out of bounds – to be recovered by our opponents.  At this point our new coach seized the opportunity to call a “10-man ride,” essentially pulling the goalie out of position in order to get an extra man on offense.  It’s a risky and aggressive move, leaving the goal totally unguarded.

The whole team had about 10 seconds to get into position and execute the ride correctly.  I can picture the scene clearly, even today.  From my spot on the defensive line I saw our huge 6 foot 3 inch goalie race passed me, out of the goal and into position for the play.  The problem was, only about half of the rest of the team moved with him, the other half of the team stood flat-footed in protest – they did not agree with the aggressive play-call.  When the whistle blew to resume play, only half our team was in position.

Clarkson capitalized on our disorganization, racing down the field and easily dunking the ball into the open net.

Objectively, it was an unusually aggressive play-call.  Typically the 10-man ride is reserved for desperate situations where your team is losing by several goals, not when the score is tied.  But that isn’t the point.  If everyone had run the play, we may have gotten the ball back and won the game.  It wasn’t the play that won or lost us the game – it was the fact that we all failed to move together as one unit.  We heard the play-call, but we were divided and failed to execute.

If I had to point to the single difference between my sophomore year lacrosse team that won the league championship and my junior year lacrosse team whose season ended at Clarkson after a blown 10-man ride, I’d point to believing and “buy in.”  Between the two years, most of the team was made up of the same players.  The difference was that one year we all believed in the plan and moved together as a team – the next year, we challenged our coach and didn’t buy into his play calls.

Looking back, this whole experience really taught me a lot about coaching a team.  As a coach, there are only two things that are truly important:

1)     A clearly articulated plan
2)     “Buy in” from your team

Without these two things, you will almost always fail.  With these two things, everything else is just icing on the cake.

The Key to Being a Good Coach
  • Andrew, I definitely agree that establishing a team dynamic where there is 100% “buy in” is essential to success. I would love to hear your strategy to achieve the respect and trust of your players…

  • I think you might want to discriminate between “icing on the cake” and “necessary but not sufficient”…

    Also, I don’t really like your example. Your coach basically decided to take a risky bet that would end in either victory defeat, instead of playing a safer bet that had a better risk of a draw, with tails at victor or defeat. I’m not sure it says much about playing as a team, since the counter-factual is unclear (if you had played as a single unit). It’s no slam-dunk.

  • Fair point re: necessary but not sufficient. However, I do think that often times fundamentals are undervalued relative to more advanced tactics. I also agree with your evaluation of my example – but that’s all i had :)

  • My guiding assumption here is that everyone is primarily motivated by adding value and contributing to the team. This assumption holds up much better for Gen Y “players” than for other generations – but it’s worked as a general guiding assumption so far. Given this assumption, the best way to gain trust and loyalty is by getting out of the way. Give others an opportunity to shine, develop expertise and add value. Hmmm- maybe there’s a future post in here somewhere :)

  • Interesting perspective. I tend to believe that the general consensus of Generation Y is quite negative – without necessarily having any materials to reference. I examined GenY in the workplace a few years back, but I may take your prompt and explore it further in terms of group dynamics now (re: http://cnslt.biz/10cmP1E).