Quite a few years ago, we had a group of 8th grade girls that would be coming into our high school the next year who we could tell were going to be really good athletes. They were especially good at basketball. There were four of them who potentially would be able to start on the varsity team as freshmen. I was the athletic director at the school after being both the AD and the girls’ varsity basketball coach the prior 4 years.
The high school players who would be returning the next year were struggling a bit with all the attention the 8th graders had been receiving. At the basketball banquet at the end of the season prior to the new freshmen joining the program, I told the returning players and their parents, “You have been hearing about this great group of 8th graders for a few years now, haven’t you? In fact, you may even be a little sick of hearing about them.”
I saw a lot of head nods and a couple of disgusted looks on faces of some of the girls. I then said, “Well here’s the deal. If you are truly in this to be a great team and create a great team experience for yourself and your teammates, you have to embrace them.” The looks on their faces were priceless.
I continued. “That’s right. You have to embrace them. You have to bring them along and teach them what it means to be a member of this program and this team. But at the same time you embrace them, you have to fight them tooth and nail for everything they want and you want. You have to be the best teammates you can be to them while at the same time competing with them and trying to beat them out of a spot on the team.”
The room was silent now. All eyes were like lasers searing my eyeballs. “Because if you truly want what is best for you and for this program, you understand that the better you are, the better we are. But at the same time you also understand that the better they are, the better we are. And the only way that is going to happen is if you become the best you can be. You have to go out and compete against them the best that you can, so that you make them AND you the best that you all can be.”
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
To their credit, most of the girls who were returning and who were good players but stood a good chance to lose their potential starting spots went out and did just that. They worked to make themselves better while at the same time embracing those incoming freshmen and making them better. They taught the freshmen what it meant to be a player in the program. They helped develop the culture that our head coach was seeking to create. And they pushed the freshmen every single day to become even better.
Those freshmen played in the state tournament all four years of their high school careers, taking 2nd place twice and third place once. They helped raise the bar for what success meant in a program that had not had too much of it in recent years.
That program continued to be one of the best in the state. Much of that credit goes to the coach who did an incredible job creating a culture of excellence for every girl in that community to aspire to.
Many people will also give credit to that group of freshmen girls who came in and created a new level of success due to their talent and their commitment to excellence, and they are certainly deserving of such credit.
But I always think of the sophomores, juniors, and seniors ahead of them who pushed those freshmen girls so hard while at the same time embracing them and welcoming them into the program. To me, they deserve as much credit as anyone for how that program took off and for where it continues to go.
It is not easy to do this. It takes a bit of a special attitude to fight as hard as you can, compete with everything you’ve got, while at the same time embrace the people against whom you are competing.
Yet, it shouldn’t have to be that special of an attitude. It should be the norm in team sports. But how often do we address it?
I have been a coach for over thirty years. For the first twenty-one of them, I never really gave that concept much thought. I was always about TEAM. My mantra has always been “Team-First.” Put the needs of the team ahead of your own. I think most coaches think and feel that way.
The Paradox on Teams
But it wasn’t until after that team, twenty-two years into my coaching career that I started to really delve into the idea that there is a paradox that I have never really addressed much before.
I have always wanted every kid to be a great teammate. But I have also wanted every kid to be the best s/he can be. I hadn’t thought too much about how those two notions can be at odds with each other.
I hadn’t really thought about the idea that these kids all want the same thing first and foremost – to play and to play a lot. But in order for us to have success and for us to be the kind of team I want us to be, that desire might need to be secondary to the needs of the team.
Because of that, every day they live in a paradox. They must try their hardest to beat their teammates in every drill, every sprint, and every scrimmage, while at the very same time be the best teammates to those same people by helping them get better, putting them into position to have success, and cheering them on when they subsequently have success, sometimes at their own expense. When you think about it, it takes a somewhat special person to be able to do that.
Yet we take it for granted that our players should just be that way. While I love the notion that we think so highly of athletes in team sports that we would automatically assume that our players will be willing to put the team first while at the same time trying to be their best competing against those teammates, I realize now that I should have been more aware of what I was asking. I realize now what a mistake it was to not address this more with my teams earlier in my career.
And after that year with the incoming freshmen girls, I started addressing the concept with my teams more often. However, I believe I need to do it even more.
More importantly, I need to make sure that the players address it, too. They need to know that it is okay for them to want to beat their teammates out for positions on the team.
But they also need to know that if they are going to be part of this team, they need to help those same teammates improve in such a way that the teammates may beat them out.
And all the while, they must all embrace one another as great teammates do. This is how the best teammates behave in team settings.
I talk a lot about the importance of coaches being intentional in creating their culture. Well, here is another place we must be intentional.
We must intentionally discuss this concept with our kids and work on it with them, so that everyone is on the same page. We do not want to leave anything to chance.
By taking the time to address it with our players, we give them ownership of what they are feeling. Once we do that, we can empower them to be their best while helping their teammates and their teams become the best they can be.