For the last twenty years or so, I have heard people on sports talk radio, Twitter, or anywhere someone has an opinion on sports call certain players, “System Guys.” The term refers to athletes who fit into a system that has been created and developed by coaches within their philosophy of how they think their team should work.
This concept happens in any organization in the world, from sports teams to classrooms to mom & pop stores to Fortune 500 companies. Whenever you have an organization of multiple people operating with certain goals in mind, the leaders of the organization will put systems in place to help accentuate the talent in the organization, thereby creating an environment that can lead to success.
In sports, there are many types of systems that the team leadership can put in place to help lead the team to success. Notice here that I said “team leadership.” In professional organizations, there is more than just the coaching staff creating the systems for the team to follow. The owner, general manager, and all of the other administrative staff will work to create systems that lead to the team becoming known for whatever they become known for.
This takes years and years to develop. It takes stability on the part of the ownership, administration, and coaching staff to be able to implement, develop, and build systems that become known as “our way.” If there is constant staff turnover, it is hard to ever get any continuity within the organization, so it is hard for the systems to produce success, for they are constantly having to reteach the systems to the new members.
The word “culture” has become a huge buzzword in the last twenty years or so, too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. As leadership of an organization is trying to determine how best to proceed to become the successful organization they seek to be, they need to develop an identity. “This is who we are; therefore, this is how we behave.” This is how a culture gets established and then developed. It then takes having a system or systems in place to create the culture the leadership wants.
The Team Level
Once the leadership of the organization is on board with the culture and system that they want in place to run the organization and create success, they can begin to build the systems at the team level. More than anything, it is at this level where the sports talk pundits and others are talking about “system guys.” More than anything else, they are referring to the philosophies that the coaches have and are working to develop with their teams.
This is also the level where the players come into the equation. In a corporation or other business, this is where the workers come into play. It is imperative for the team leadership (coaching staff) to outline what the culture of the organization is, what their philosophies are, and what systems they will use to implement them.
In my book, Time Out! How We can Fix the Problems in Kids’ Sports Today, I discuss the four major philosophies all coaches should have in place: General, Sport-Specific, Practice, and Playing-Time Philosophies. It is critical that head coaches have each of these philosophies in place and that they have communicated them to all of their coaches on staff. It is then critical that the players (and parents for high school levels on down) understand those philosophies, too. Otherwise, the team’s chances of success at implementing and living by those philosophies is almost impossible.
For the purposes of today’s discussion, though, the two most important of the philosophies above are the General and the Sport-Specific Philosophies. This is where the “systems” concept comes into play the most.
The place I hear the word “system” used as an adjective to describe someone more than anywhere else is when people are talking about quarterbacks in American football, especially quarterbacks in the NFL. And most often, the people using the term are using it as a negative, a criticism: “He’s just a system guy.”
Translation: He’s not nearly that talented. He is only successful because he is in a good system, and he follows that system.
Or another translation: He doesn’t have the talent to be a great quarterback because he’s a system guy.
Now, I’ll admit that I come at this from a coach’s perspective. I have systems that I create with my team, and I like them. I have developed a general philosophy and a sport-specific philosophy, and I work to implement those with my teams. I also want the members of my team to work, behave, and play within those philosophies and systems.
So, when I make the points I’m about to make, I understand my bias is that of a coach.
But I also understand that if we want our teams to succeed, we need our players all on the same page. We need them operating as one unit. If we have one player operating under his/her system or way of doing things and another player operating under his/her way and other players operating under their ways, things are going to fall apart quickly.
When that happens in professional and college sports, all the pundits and fans talk about what a terrible coach is leading the team. “There’s no identity! They’re all over the place! Everyone is just running around doing their own thing. There is no chemistry!”
Great points, every one of them. Because the players are not working together within the “system” that has been established, they are struggling to succeed.
Why is it a Bad Thing?
However, when players on a team do operate within the system and they start to have some success within it, we start to hear the pundits and critics call out some players as being “system guys.” And as I said earlier, they don’t mean it as a compliment.
I LOVE system guys! They are exactly the kind of people coaches love to coach. They embrace the system that has been set up (usually, by the way, to accentuate the talents that those players have), and they run with it. They seek to become the best they can be within the system, so that they maximize their chances of success.
And the best ones, the truly great players, elevate their own level of play and then elevate the system to heights that may or may not have been imagined by the coaches. They say with their actions, “Within this system, if I operate in this manner, we will have a better chance at success. I will take all of my skills and use them within the concepts of this system for us to be the best we can be.”
Why is that a problem?!
Who wouldn’t want that?!
If you are trying to lead an organization to success (which in sports is usually a championship of some sort), wouldn’t you want the most talented people on your team using their talents within the system you have established to lead the team to the victory you are after? Isn’t that the very nature of team sports and businesses all around the world?
One guy who I heard this “system guy” criticism about for a long time was Tom Brady. No matter where you stand on your love or hatred for Tom Brady, get past that a minute and follow along with the argument. And if you still can’t admit that he is the GOAT — Greatest of All Time — then stop reading now because you will never understand any of this. (Though I’m not necessarily a TB fan or hater myself, let’s face it: he’s the best ever.)
For years people called Tom Brady a “system quarterback” in a derisive, condescending manner. Even after 4, 5, and 6 Super Bowl victories, they were calling him a system guy in that way.
And you know what? While I don’t agree with their criticism and derisiveness, THEY WERE RIGHT!
Tom Brady was a system guy — but not in the negative way they meant it. In fact, I maintain, he was the best system guy ever. He took whatever system his coaches established, worked within it with his team, and then elevated that system to the ultimate heights.
His talent level, work ethic, brains, discipline, and drive catapulted him to achieve at a level unlike anyone else ever had — all within the system that had been established by the leadership of the New England Patriots. It was the “Patriot Way.” People derided it (and still do), but they achieved success unlike any other team in the history of the league.
Now Tom Brady has moved to Tampa Bay. He is in a completely different “system.” He has a new owner, administration, coaching staff, and teammates. And he just took a new system and worked at it, tweaked it, and massaged it throughout the year. Then, he elevated it to, once again, another Super Bowl Championship.
Yes, I believe so. Again, though, not the negative way the critics and naysayers mean it.
He is a system guy in that he takes whatever system is in place wherever he is and works his own talents within it, while at the same time working to tweak the system to fit his talents, and then he elevates it.
He is the ultimate system guy out there — and I want him and anyone like him on my team any day!
The Other GOAT
For those of you still reading, thank you. You, obviously, either are understanding my point that you are right there with me, or you are “hate-reading” right now, and you can’t let go! Whoever you are, thanks for staying this long.
Let me now turn to one of the other GOATs of the sports world — Michael Jordan.
Most people consider MJ the GOAT in basketball. That one is still up for debate (and I’m from Chicago and love MJ), but for the purposes of this post, humor those of us who think he is the GOAT for now.
When did Michael Jordan become the GOAT?
For his first seven years in the NBA, he was the most amazing, athletic player on the planet. He could do things that no one else had done or could do. (And that’s hard for me, a die-hard “Dr. J” fan, to admit.)
His talent level was off the charts, and people were saying he could become the greatest of all-time.
But what did he need to become the GOAT?
Yet he didn’t even get to the NBA Finals in his first seven years in the league. He was the most amazing talent anyone head ever seen. But without a championship, he couldn’t enter the GOAT discussion.
The Real GOAT
What did it take for Michael Jordan to eventually win a championship — followed by another and another, and then after taking a year-and-a-half off to play baseball, three more?
It took a system.
It took Phil Jackson and Tex Winter.
It took Jackson’s “Zen Warrior” philosophies of mindfulness, team, and togetherness, paired with Tex Winter’s “Triple-Post Offense” — known as the “Triangle.”
I know that right now many of you are saying, “NO WAY! It was Jordan who made all that work!”
To which I say, “Absolutely!” He made those systems work unlike anyone else, with the exception of maybe Bill Russell who played in Red Auerbach’s system and won 11 NBA Championships in 13 seasons playing with the Boston Celtics.
(By the way, why isn’t Russell in the GOAT discussion? 11 NBA Championships in 13 seasons!! The answer, “Well, he didn’t score as much as Jordan, and he wasn’t as dynamic, and he … and the league wasn’t …” and so on. He was one of the greatest system guys ever, and that is probably one reason he isn’t in most people’s GOAT argument. Yet, every coach in the world would want Bill Russell as the anchor of their team.)
Michael Jordan took his unbelievable, incredible talents, and he used them within the philosophy and systems that Phil and Tex developed, and he took his talents and their systems to the ultimate heights in their sport. Sure, he went off-script at times. All the great ones do. But they also work within the script because the script helps to create the chemistry and the culture.
Michael also had the best supporting cast around. There has never been a better Robin to a Batman, than Scottie Pippen was to Michael Jordan. And the rest of the team fit the pieces of the puzzle — the system — perfectly.
Phil & Tex probably wouldn’t have done what they did without Michael, and Michael would have probably struggled without Phil & Tex. Most people believe he would have gotten a championship eventually, and I agree. But again, there would have been some system that Michael would have been working within and then elevating to a new level to get there.
By the way, Phil & Tex took their systems to LA and helped Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal get their first championships, too. Again, these were two of the most dominant, physical, alpha dogs to ever play the game, but they needed a culture, a system within which to elevate their incredible skills to a championship level.
I’m sure many of you will try to bring up various athletes in other sports who would be outliers who debunk my theory. First of all, I don’t have a theory. I’m merely saying that the concept of being a “system guy” should not be seen as a negative. We all need systems to succeed, and all systems need talented people who are both great at what they do and at the same time willing to give of themselves to the team to succeed.
However, there is one outlier I would like to mention — Lebron James. Lebron is the other player in most people’s GOAT discussion when it comes to basketball. For most people nowadays, it comes down to Michael and Lebron.
This post is not to argue who is the GOAT. It is about the concept of a “system guy.” And of those athletes mentioned so far, the greatest argument for not being a system guy or needing a system is Lebron. After all, he has now won multiple championships in three different systems, with three different head coaches, so it must not be the system.
I understand the argument. But let me push back on it and say what may seem outrageous:
Lebron may be The Ultimate System Guy!
What?! How could that be? You just said he won championships in three different systems.
I think Lebron is the greatest Swiss Army knife we have ever seen play basketball. He has the most varied skill-set at the highest level of any player ever. He makes things work wherever he goes because he adapts his game to the system that the coaching staff has implemented. He then does whatever his team needs him to do to succeed, and he does it better than anyone I can ever recall.
I believe that the fact that he has won in three different systems under three different head coaches shows exactly what I mean. He can win in any system. And just like Brady, Michael, and Kobe, he has elevated those systems to championship levels.
Quite honestly, though, of all of them, the strongest case for not needing a system can be made for Lebron. But I still believe that the way he plays the game, the way he makes everyone on his team better, yet puts the team on his back when needed, tells me he is the ultimate system guy. He just does it better than anyone else ever has.
In closing, every one of the great athletes mentioned here (and others who you can think of), have been incredibly talented, amazing athletes who have raised the system they played in to the ultimate level.
But every one of the championships they led their teams to started with a culture and a system designed for success that had been developed by the leadership. Those great players’ phenomenal abilities coupled with their willingness to embrace and adapt to the culture and system allowed them to elevate those systems to the loftiest heights of all — hoisting multiple championship trophies at the ends of many seasons.
Okay, it’s your turn. Leave a Comment below.
Fire away and tell me what an idiot I am.
Show me how wrong I am, and how “system guys” are a joke, and none of these guys should ever be called a system guy.
I can take it.
I have thick skin. . . I have to. . .
I’m a coach. . . which makes me a system guy.
Those are my favorite guys in the world!