Think of the best job you have ever had and the worst job you have ever had. Now try to remember how much input you had in each work environment. Most likely, your favorite job was one that gave you a sense of ownership and real impact on the success or failure of the business. I will even go so far as to assume that you probably gave extra effort and really put your all into the job that trusted your judgement and ability. Having no say in the direction of the team or organization will create habits of giving the bare minimum, instead of committing fully and going the extra mile. Nobody wants to feel like a cog in the machine or a replaceable part, and the same is true for players and assistant coaches. In sports, just as in the workplace, giving your coaching staff and players a sense of ownership is the number one key to achieving a championship culture.
Early in my coaching career, I was an admitted control freak. I wanted everything to be perfect and thought that my way was the only way. I was so focused on getting everyone on board with me that I was close-minded to the world of insight that I could have gained from my players and fellow coaches. What I found was that this culture was doomed to fail for so many reasons. I don’t know everything (that much is obvious) and I was holding us back by resisting valuable feedback that wasn’t necessarily in line with my philosophy. Fitting players to a philosophy that I was comfortable with didn’t optimize the unique qualities of each year’s group. Sometimes you have a square peg for your square hole philosophy, but each year is different and will give you circles, triangles, squares, etc. It was easy for players to avoid buying into the team culture because they felt like they were living in someone else’s world, not their own.
The real eye-opening moment for me that a culture change was needed came on the field. In the high-pressure, crucial moments that decided emotional games, I noticed something in my teams that I didn’t like: they all looked to me. Dictators create robots who don’t think the game or feel the game. When the game gets stressful, championship teams look to each other or inward, not to their coach for direction. This doesn’t mean they don’t look to me for a strategic decision (defensive alignment, pitching change, offense strategy, etc.). It means that they don’t look to me to bail them out. They don’t look to me to make an emotional decision for them; you can tell the difference in their eyes. I didn’t want them to look at me with fear to fix the challenge they were facing in that moment. I’m not on the field and I can’t play the game for them, I can only put them in positions to succeed with their own skills and instincts. Champions draw strength and relief from each other in stressful times, not the coach. That’s the culture of ownership we created that produced championships.
So how do we create this culture of ownership? How do we give players a sense of responsibility while still maintaining order in our program?
- Be Honest – discontent and problems breed when people are kept in the dark. Coaches being upfront with players about their role and about what they can expect in this game/week can prevent a lot of problems before they start. Mistrust is the first step to a bad culture, and so it is important that both coaches and players feel they can be honest with each other, while still being respectful. Also be yourself, players can sense a phony a mile away.
- Explain the Why – talk strategy, both big and small, with your players constantly. Make them students of the game by telling them why you made that offensive move, set the pitching rotation that way, or called that 1st and 3rd play. Ask them if they agree with you, or if they would have tried something else? Welcome strategic dialogue between your players and coaches, and TRY new ideas where possible.
- Goal Focused – Early and often, I like to remind our players of the goal we are going after, usually by invoking a visual reminder like a dogpile. Every decision that is made is easily defensible when you remind them that we are building toward a dogpile together, not to hurt feelings or show favoritism. I like to come back to this visual throughout the season and ask the players if an effort was moving us closer to the dogpile or further away.
- Give players the floor – you will be amazed at what insights your players will give the team, and how much impact words from a teammate have! Always offer your players the opportunity to address the team whenever you do. Let your players know they will always be heard.
- Let your players create their own identity – sometimes the personality of a team will not reflect the personality of its coach, and that is OK. As long as the team is giving the proper effort and respecting their opponents / umpires, let them have fun and be themselves. Whether it be walk-up music, handshakes, or other player-led traditions, remember that this game is supposed to be fun.
- Spend time with your assistant coaches off the field – So many times we are so busy with practice and our own position groups that we don’t get the opportunity to step back and talk baseball in a relaxed setting. Go out for some ‘adult beverages’ after practice or games and rehash, debate, or just talk. You will see trust develop among coaches and strategies evolve that will help the team.
I want to leave you with this final thought. When coaches talk, often the biggest criticism of any player is that he is “uncoachable”. We dread working with the player who thinks he knows it all, resists input, and doesn’t show his coach respect. Now switch the roles and ask yourself, do players like playing for me? Do I inspire my players to be fully vested in the success of this team and have their voice heard? Or am I the “uncoachable coach” who doesn’t respect his players’ input?