Saturday, October 25, 2008

For coaches, being judged by others is part of the job

Back in 2003, the great Bill Walsh, a Hall of Fame coach who led the Niners to three Super Bowls, got a call from Mike Singletary, the former Bears LB who was considering getting into coaching.

Coach Walsh, who died last summer, invited Singletary to visit him in California. According to one article I saw, Singletary would catch a flight from Chicago to SFO, have dinner with Coach Walsh, then fly home.

"I got more from coach Walsh than I did any other coach. To this day, I don't know why he took the time with me. He walked me through everything. I'm very appreciative of him. I'm very thankful for all my mentors. Without them, there would be no me."

After reading Coach Singletary's comments, I grabbed off my bookshelf Coach Walsh's book "Building a Champion." It's a must-read for coaches.

My copy of the book is really frayed. I've literally worn it out. There's too much in it for one blog post, but here's what Coach Walsh looked for when hiring assistant coaches and his personal thoughts on coaching and the coaching profession (pages 131-136):

"I needed to feel comfortable with [my assistants] because I knew there would be difficult times, stressful times, when people can misunderstand each other. At such times, any little idiosyncrasy is magnified.

I wanted functional intelligence, because I knew that one person who is not very bright but very aggressive in pushing his ideas can destroy an organization. He can steamroll others, so you waste time undoing the damage he's done.

We needed knowledge and experience in the business dynamics of the NFL. It takes many years to understand the league's operational procedures.

I wanted [assistants] who would be enthusiastic and inquisitive, and who would thrive on work.

He must have a complete working knowledge of the game, because the players respect that above everything else. Athletes can be coached in almost any style if they're confident that the coach really knows what he's doing.

Coaches must be able to effectively implement a program for each player that best develops his individual skills. Taking a personal interest in each of his players, regardless of their roles, is absolutely essential.

You must have people who can communicate well under the stress of a season, so you need the kind of personality that can work with others. The ability to express oneself is vital, because a logical, articulate person is best suited for teaching. If he can both impart what he knows to the player and deal with others under stress, he's your man.

The coaching ethic of commitment and personal sacrifice is the basis of the job. There are some who just can't bring themselves to work a coach's long hours. By and large, those men have eliminated themselves by the time you get the the professional level.

The chemistry of the staff is vital. Everyone has his own distinct personality, so you must bring together a group of men who will not only work smoothly with the head coach, but also with the other coaches and with the players.

The life of the assistant coach must be a labor of love. These are the men who have totally committed themselves to the game. The sacrifices in time and effort, the lack of long-term security, the relatively most compensation, and in a sense obscurity can be equated only with a sincere dedication. It's almost a 'calling.'

The obscurity is a requirement of the job, and speaking from experience, this can be frustrating and repressive. In such a competitive, even volatile arena, a singular voice or symbol of control or command is necessary. An outspoken, openly vocal staff member can be very disruptive. An organization just can't function effectively when sending out mixed signals.

Only those who can adapt to public scrutiny survive in coaching. Most find very soon that being judged by others is an inherent part of the job. Once players, writers, the public, even other coaches identify a coach as being too sensitive or prone to becoming very uncomfortable when caught off guard or when under pressure, his effectiveness is dramatically compromised.

Coaching is only for certain people. It may appear to be an exciting, adventurous existence. As a career, it is often attractive to young assertive men who have the need for continuous satisfaction and gratification, and who enjoy a competitive arena.

Coaches have to remind themselves that the gratification they get from their work should come from their day-to-day involvement, the process itself, and no so much from reaching a titled position with high visibility.

The means itself should be more important than the ends. When it isn't, we see examples such as the high school coach who so desperately wants to become a college coach that, throughout his high school career, he never fully enjoys the players, the game, and the wonderful environment of education.

A coach should celebrate because his players are, not because he has just won another game.

Or we see the young assistant college coach who feels surely destined to become a head coach and so will disdain any conscience or ethics, walking over his fellow coaches if necessary and bending or even breaking rules in order to receive recognition from the head coach.

Or the head coach who, under pressure to win, will compromise everything. Players become objects, and he will manipulate them and everybody around him to survive, to satisfy his own personal needs.

I've always felt coaches should appreciate the athletes and remind themselves that the game was not designed for him to orchestrate, but for the athletes to participate."

[I'll try do a couple more posts from Coach Walsh's book later this weekend.]