This week, my office organized a “Career Showcase” for the high school aged students at the school that I work at. It was a great evening with many alumni coming back to campus to talk about their career journeys. In my instruction to the speakers, not only did I ask them to talk about their successes, failures, what worked and what didn’t, I also asked them to talk about the people who made a difference in their careers. Mentors, connections, networks and advisors are all crucial to success.
As a coach, I have been extremely lucky to have had three mentors in my life. I learned different things from all three and I mention regularly in my blogs the two coaches who really taught me the game of hockey and how to coach. But I don’t mention as much the coach that taught me how to think - not just as a coach and teacher of the game, but as a young adult in the world.
Jim Gregory was my junior baseball coach. I played for him for three years, the first year was the season after finishing high school as an 18 year old. Jim was a very smart guy with many passions - not just baseball. He had been coaching for a number of years and in fact, my last year with him was his last as a coach when he finally decided to retire from the game.
Coach Gregory had so many strengths that he brought to the field. First and foremost, he knew his X’s and O’s. He was a smart baseball guy, taught the game extremely well and ran the bench better than anyone. Part of that was making sure every player knew what his role was and deploying his athletes regularly and often, and in situations that best helped the team. And, situations where each player could be successful.
One of his greatest strengths though was bringing a team together - both recruiting players from around the Toronto area and creating a culture of “team first” once the team was finalized. Part of that team bonding was also getting to know Jim, not only as a coach, but as a person. As I got to know Jim better, he would invite our shortstop Chris Rankine and I over to his place for a beer (always Miller Highlife), listen to jazz and talk baseball. He had many of his players over to his place during the season and as we enjoyed talking baseball and jazz, others enjoyed talking sci-fi books, rock and roll, and philosophy. Much of our baseball talk was about statistics and how that related to the game and coaching decisions. We would often show up with many hand-calculated sheets of numbers from Major League Baseball (we didn’t have computers - dating myself!) and debate things like “what exactly constitutes a ‘quality start’ for a starting pitcher”, “what are the important numbers for each position in the batting order”, and “whether we could devise one stat for true player value”.
When I say that Coach Gregory taught me how to think, it stems from Jim’s never allowing us to get away with a faulty argument when we were discussing baseball, statistics, jazz, really anything. At the end of a particularly long discussion about any topic that we disagreed on, one where we could find no common ground, he would usually pull out the old line “Well, have it your own ignorant way!” Sounds harsh, but you knew when that line came out that you were probably on the wrong side of the argument.
One of Jim’s coaching philosophies was that a coach can’t affect a team positively, only negatively. Now, I know this argument will just be semantics but, I think it has some merit. Jim argued that a team has what we could call a “peak potential” and a coach’s sole job is to make sure the team plays to their “peak potential”. Anything less than that and a coach has affected the team negatively. Being able to find peak performance is all about players developing and playing to their ability individually, being able to deploy players to maximize their skills, in hockey getting the right players on the ice at the right time, preparing athletes with proper pre-scout of opposition and creating a culture that allows athletes to be their best.
Now, clearly as a coach we never think in term of not making our teams better, so the thought that we only affect teams negatively doesn’t sit well with us. It actually sounds absurd. But, the mindset of finding a way to get your team to “peak performance” is one that you can take to practice, season planning and in-game decisions. Ask yourself questions like: What does peak performance look like for my team? What does peak performance look like for each individual player? What can I do in practice today to make every player better? What can I do in practice today to make my team as a whole better? What in-game decisions should I be making to allow my athletes to play at “peak performance”?
The notion, then, is that great coaches minimize the negatives. They let nothing get in the way of peak performance and find ways to make their team and every player on it the best they can be. All the time!
*A quick note: I will be officially launching my new book Just Go Score! tomorrow morning. I am excited to finally have it complete and out to fellow coaches in time for spring tryouts and season planning for next year.