Leadership Lessons from the End of the Bench

End-of-the-bench-(FINAL)Last week I had the privilege of serving as Honorary Coach for the IWU Men’s Basketball Team during the last home game of the season. It was Senior Night, when we recognized three outstanding young men who will graduate this spring.

It was great fun to interact with the team, and intriguing to watch Coach Tonagel and his staff work.

Like many people who enjoy team sports, I’ve always been intrigued with great coaches.  What do they see?  How do they make the adjustments that lead their teams to improved performance? How do they motivate strong-willed, talented players to give that extra, almost imperceptible effort that separates good teams from great ones?

My “duties” as honorary coach were to give the team a short pre-game challenge, pray for the team, then generally stay out of the way while the real coaches worked.  My seat for the game, appropriately enough, was at the end of the bench where I could watch, cheer the team on, and stay safely out of the line of fire.

I enjoyed getting an insider’s view of our team’s embodiment of Coach Tonagel’s “I Am Third” philosophy.  Most of all, it was fascinating to watch principles of great leadership played out in the heat and intensity of competition.

Bill Murphy says great leaders say nine things to their teams every day.  (Nine Things Great Leaders Say Every Day, Bill Murphy, Inc. magazine).

  1. This is the situation.
  2. Here is the plan.
  3. What do you need?
  4. Tell me more.
  5. Remember our values.
  6. I trust you.
  7. You can count on me.
  8. We can do better.
  9. Let’s celebrate.

Over the evening I spent with them I saw all of these played out in Coach Tonagel’s interaction with the team.  It is no surprise that he is the winningest men’s basketball coach in IWU history and that his teams have won our Crossroads League Championship six years in a row.

Here’s what struck me as I watched our winning team and their coach at work.

tonageljpgFocus — The players’ attention was lasered in on Coach Tonagel from the moment he stood up in front of them in the pre-game session.  There were other people in the room, but they may as well have been statues.  The players’ eyes never left their coach when he had the floor before the game, during time-outs, at half-time, and in the post-game wrap-up.

Intensity — Coach Tonagel is a friendly and affable guy.  On game night, however, he was zeroed in on the task at hand.  His  intensity was infectious.  Everyone in the room knew that important work was at hand.  He displayed intensity, so at halftime, when he asked the men to play at a higher level of intensity for the first four minutes of the second half, they knew exactly what that looked like.  The players listened and played like it mattered.  The opposing team didn’t score for the first five minutes of the second half largely because of the intensity of our defensive pressure.  This turned the tide of a close game and set the stage for a win.

Analysis — When we walked off the floor at the second half, I was especially anxious to see what Coach Tonagel would do.  First, he reviewed data.  He led his staff in an analysis of what they had observed and what the first-half stats showed.  He asked Assistant Coach Clark what he was seeing.  He listened to insights from the rest of the staff.  They clearly knew what information mattered and they knew how to analyze it and draw conclusions.  Then Coach Tonagel drew conclusions and tested them with the staff.  Then he formulated a plan for his team.

Teaching — With his plan in place he walked into the locker room, stood in front of the players and said, “Here’s the situation.”  He laid out what was happening to their performance.  He gave them insight.  He gave them direct criticism about their individual and collective performance.  None of this was demeaning or negative.  It was intense, direct, and confident.  After he shared his analysis he laid out the plan.  He told them to do three things: Cut down on turnovers.  Slow down and run their offense.  Raise the intensity level for the first four minutes of the second half.  In essence he was saying, “We can do better, and here’s how well do it.”

Encouragement — Everything Coach Tonagel said and did communicated trust.  His teaching removed the mystery from their performance, and conveyed encouragement.  He acted as though the outcome was within their power to control.  He communicated no uncertainty, just a positive message about their ability to succeed.

Continuity — As the evening wore on I saw that everyone was following a well-constructed, engrained routine.  They were reacting to unplanned events, but they weren’t winging it.  While they couldn’t control what the opposing team and the referees threw at them, they could control their routine.  In the heat of competition there was a structure of familiarity and security that they had practiced until it had become a set of habits.   They executed what they had practiced.
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Celebration — Finally, after they won the game, back in the locker room Coach Tonagel handed out praise to key individuals for noteworthy performances.  I noticed that he did not praise any of the “stars.”  He praised the hard-working role players who had executed key elements of the plan.  They had just clinched their sixth straight league championship, but Coach said, “Let’s go get our picture taken so we can put it on the wall with the others.  We will celebrate because that’s what we do.  But our work isn’t done.”

It’s fun to celebrate with winners.  Some say we learn more from the experience of losing.  It is best to learn from leaders who mold experiences of losing and winning into a system that enables a team to play its best, no matter what the circumstances.

These are the leadership lessons I learned from the end of the bench.