Saturday, November 15, 2008

The team is only as strong as the commitment of its least-accomplished member

A story in the NY Times earlier this week begins this way:

"Holding his award in his hands, Tom Donnelly, Haverford College’s longtime men’s cross-country and track coach, walked to the banks of the Mississippi River and tossed the trophy in the water. This was 2001, but it could have been any of several years that Donnelly has won an N.C.A.A. Division III Coach of the Year award."

Says Coach Donnelly of the incident:

"I don’t want any of those trophies. I appreciate the gesture, but a coaching award distracts from the essence of a coach’s job, which is to educate the students. You can only justify the existence of a team at a college campus if being on the team benefits the athletes’ educational experience. Being a truly committed member of a team can be a highly valuable learning experience. That’s what is important, not some trophy."

In 34 years at Haverford, Coach Donnelly "has has developed a reputation as something of a spiritual running guru who molds teams of decent but not exceptional high school athletes into elite college runners. As a Division III institution, Haverford awards no athletic scholarships, and Donnelly still recruits by writing letters to prospective runners in long hand."

For Coach Donnelly, working with the team's weakest athlete is as important as working with its strongest. According to one of his former runners:

"I remember that Tom spent as much time working with the slowest kid on our team that day as he did with [the fastest]. Whoever you are, if you want to come and work hard, Tom has time for you. He says this over and over: ‘The team is only as strong as the commitment of the least-accomplished person on the team.’ ”

Perhaps most interesting is that Coach Donnelly's "primary coaching messages are not delivered in conventional form." As described in the NY Times article:

This first Donnelly team attended a preseason high school camp in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. One night, in the dark, Donnelly took the team out for a walk.

“It was pitch black and all these Philly kids were way out of their element as we walked along following my single flashlight,” Donnelly said. “Suddenly, I turned off the flashlight. I waited about 10 seconds, and when I turned it back on, they were all huddled together, trying to find some strength or courage in a close group. And I said to them, this is how a team works. If you come together, you will get through the times when you really need each other.”

Donnelly’s first team won its league championship.

A recent Donnelly pep talk "was laced with tales of Civil War battles." His point?

“You may be really nervous about this race right now, but this is something we do for fun and it is not pressure,” Donnelly later said. “Nobody is shooting at you in battle. History gives us real examples of pressure. Go back to the Great Depression. Pressure is not having a job with five starving kids. This is a race. All you have to do is try your very best. Then you cannot lose.”

It should be pointed out that Coach Donnelly doesn't throw out every award. On the wall in his office are more than 100 All-American certificates his athletes have been awarded over the years.

Why, he was asked, was it acceptable to keep and display those awards?

“Those recognize the achievements of some people who worked extremely hard and had great teammates,” Donnelly answered. “I didn’t have anything to do with those.”