Why Coaching Provides You an Inviting Model for Leadership

I love sports. Both watching and playing.

Granted, there is much that exists in the sporting world that tires me: the Johnny Manziel sagas that just will not go away, the “being the best” mentality that consumes too much conversation, the off-the-field incidences that detract from the game, the frequent objectification of women as sex objects, dirty players who are looking to actually hurt others, and the list goes on.

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But when you strip away all the “stuff” that taints sports in general, and when you look at the nuances of a coach and players, strategy and play-making, momentum and motivation, there is much to get excited about.

We are a basketball family. At our public school, my wife coaches the girls varsity, my oldest daughter coaches the girls junior varsity, my youngest daughter plays on the varsity team, and I take stats. We’re all in.

And I would have to say this: I am not sure there is a more pure essence within sports than a JV girls basketball team.

Parents are just…supportive.

There is very little ego going on because many of the girls have never played basketball before.

There is very little pressure on the girls or the coach. JV life is pretty basic – learn how to dribble, rebound, and shoot such that it actually hits the rim.

The dominant theme is “fun.” No one is looking for scholarships. Parents are not screaming at coaches about playing time.

Girls get excited after scoring a basket.

In the very purest sense, it is just…a…game. Imagine that. 

My oldest daughter is in her very first year of coaching and she is starting her career with our local public school as the girls JV coach. And this past Friday night they got a win. And here is some of the footage from the end of the game.

You would have thought a championship had been won. But actually, it was her team’s first victory of the season, and the first team victory in a couple of years.

When you can take away all of the distractions that I mentioned above, there are multiple angles of the game that leap “off the page” at you. And one of those is the abundance of leadership examples, things you can take off the court and into a workplace.

I have coached boys varsity basketball in the past and there are an amazing number of similarities that exist between the world of coaching and the world of leadership. And I would like to offer up six of my observations.

Remember where you came from

One of the reasons that my daughter really wanted to coach these girls is because she graduated from this same school two years ago and was invested in as a player. She now wants to give back for what she received in her two years in school.

Doesn’t that same mentality make for a great leader within an organization? Remembering who mentored you? Recalling how others came alongside you in patience and shaped you in what it means to be part of a team?

God talks a lot in scripture about the theme of “forgetting.” We are charged in many passages to not forget. The same holds true in our leadership. Those who forget their roots typically make for poor leaders, entitled leaders, abrasive leaders. And they end up pushing the very ones away whom they are trying to lead.

Lots and lots of praise

My daughter, as the coach, is constantly praising her team. On the court they are encouraged. And as they come off the court, here is what I have heard:

“Good job rebounding.”

“Way to play defense.”

“That was some good boxing out – keep it up.”

“And the rest of you on the bench – way to cheer on your team!”

It is too easy in leadership to notice what is not going right because, after all, they should know “all these other things” because they are…well…expected. Leadership demands paying attention. Closely. And hearing what is not being said. And noticing what is not being noticed. Seeing the small things and then acknowledging them.

Starting where the team is at

There are eight girls on the team and four have never played basketball before. And so, with that detail, my daughter has to take them from where they are at. That means that she has to have a realistic benchmark from which to begin before goals can be set. These are girls who are young in their knowledge of the sport of basketball.

And what is important is that she recognizes that. And by recognizing that, she is able to view the team realistically where they are and not unrealistically where she wishes they were. This is vitally important in leadership. Because if I incorrectly assess those I am leading, I will foster two detrimental mindsets in the minds of my team: apathy because I assess a person far short of where they are, or frustration because I have assessed them way beyond their abilities.

A team as individuals

In this fun JV win, I also heard something else. A team was viewed as a unit. But yet the team was viewed as individuals.

This girl played the post well.

That girl played in-your-face defense the entire night.

Though the essence of team must trump all else, the team must also be viewed as eight young ladies, each with different strengths and needs. The score ended up being a barnburner: 16-13. And they outscored the other team 8-2 in the second half to win by three.

And it was evident that each girl had to be encouraged to do their part for a successful night. A recall my daughter talking about how much that their win was a combination of their doing all the things right that she challenged them with: defense, post play, rebounding.

Here was her Facebook post after the win:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I love these girls. They pulled off their first win of the season. It’s been so fun to see their improvement and development, and I love seeing their hard work pay off. Out of my 8 girls, 4 of them have NEVER played basketball before. I love their determination, I love their teamwork, I love their fight, and I love their spirits.

It is essential to incorporate the “each girl” mentality when leading your own team. Strength must play to strength. And for that to happen effectively, I have to pay attention to not only the team, but each member of the team.

Push, push, push

I have been to almost every JV girls game, and I have noticed one core element of my daughter’s coaching that has become status quo: she is constantly coaching from the sidelines. These girls are not to the stage of “basketball maturity” where they can coach themselves on the floor. They are young.

And so my daughter is helping them succeed by making sure that her voice rises about all others for what her girls need to hear. And I am not talking about volume, though there is plenty of that. I am talking about influence. One girl, who is new to basketball this year, plays post. She has the height to be successful inside. And Friday night it all came together for her. I believe she had what every coach longs to see: a player who had a basketball “aha” moment.

She rebounded. She made put-backs. She played stellar defense in the closing minutes when it really counted and got multiple steals. She was finally getting all the pieces put together at one time in the same game. And she was elated. And though it was due to a combination of different elements, my daughter has coached not only while this player is on the bench but also while this player is on the court. She has pushed this young player to places unknown. 

And that is exactly what great leadership does. The leader observes what is going on and helps the team member make course corrections in the field of play. Course corrections are much easier to manage than only assessing when a task or project is completed.

And course corrections in the field of play are extremely valuable because you as a leader can push in the direction of the momentum. And the pushing does not feel like running into a brick wall for the player. Rather, it feels more like the runner who has the coach running next to him or her, providing energy drinks and helpful word-bursts that give that runner fuel in both his or her physical and emotional tanks.

Genuine love 

These JV girls love my daughter as their coach. They listen to her. They esteem her. And in building that trust, the team did what they were coached to do. And they produced a win.

But more importantly, she loves them.

It is why in a Christian worldview that I can serve Jesus with joy and gladness instead of fear. Because of His steadfast love that He initiated with me, I am free to serve and follow Him because He now loves me as He son and has given His all for me. My response can be none other than absolute love to Him, gratitude, and following.

The same principle works with leadership. People can obey because they fear losing their jobs, or people can follow and take their own initiative because their leader has invested in them, sacrificed for them, and in general, “has their back.” 

In a word…love.

Get the most bang for your buck: authentically love those around you.

And so the season moves on. I am not sure how many more wins this team will have, but it does not matter. They are experiencing the true dynamics of a team through their coach that will transcend JV girls basketball. Good work Coach!

I’d love to hear from you — please leave a reply below if you have any thoughts to add to the conversation.

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2 thoughts on “Why Coaching Provides You an Inviting Model for Leadership

  1. Awesome! Well said Antone, and congrats Court! These are certainly non-negotiables for a successful team at any level. They may look a different at times, but I would guess they are there in some fashion.

    I think another element that could be part of the “starting where the team is at” section is the ability of the coach to adapt a plan for the players they have. So many coaches want to conform the players schematically and strategically to fit what the coach knows and does best. A good coach evaluates what they have, and adapts their plans to that particular group. Not every team is “plug and play.” It takes work. I think it’s also a good leadership skill as well.

    Thanks again Antone!

  2. Good thoughts Paul – really like your addition to the “starting where the team is at.” And that is one element that makes the coach so valuable to players…especially these who are young. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Paul!

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