“Compete Without Compromise”

I read a great article a few years back about Kenyon College swimming coach Jim Steen.


The quote that stood out to me was this one:

“Find a place within yourself where success and failure don’t matter, a place where you can engage in battle without compromise.”

How many different things affect the level we compete at?  Attitidue, approach, fatigue, injury, talent, success, failure… The list of things that actually affect the level we compete at is just about endless.  You can use any excuse you want as a reason not to compete.

Our goal as a program is to get our compete level so high that nothing affects it.  The way we compete becomes second nature, and circumstances have no bearing on it.  It’s certainly uncommon, for sure, because it’s natural to have an explanation for why we didn’t.  Did I give absolutely everything I had today?  Well, no, but practice was early, we haven’t had a day off in a while, I’m a little banged up, we’ve had a rough travel stretch.  There is always an available excuse for not competing at a high level.  It’s overcoming those natural excuses that allow you to be great.

I’ve started with the way we compete as the foundation of our teams since I became a head coach.  In my years as an assistant coach at 4 different schools, I learned a lot about the things that we couldn’t control.  I felt like many head coaches spent too much time on the things that they couldn’t control, so I wanted to focus on the things we could control.  Competing at a high level?  That was something we could control.  That certainly doesn’t mean it is easy, but it is something within our control.

Rhode Island College turned out to be a great first stop for me as a head coach, because the players we could attract tended to be the overlooked, chip-on-their-shoulder kids with something to prove.  They showed up with a natural competitive edge, and we were able to make that the foundation of our program.  But as proud as we were of the culture we built, the challenge to get our guys to compete at a high level was always there.  Competing at a high level became common for us, but that still doesn’t mean we brought it the right way every day.  All of the same distractions that can affect how you compete were in play, but our guys were willing to attack them and fight them every day.

Compete without compromise.  It starts with trust, with developing a connection with your guys so that they are willing to allow you to push them.  It has to come with a clear, concise message, so there is no confusion, and I think it’s important to de-emphasize results, as hard as that sounds.  If the only goal is the result, you won’t develop the ability to compete consistently at a high level, because the scoreboard won’t always be in your favor.

But when you get there, when you get to that place where results don’t matter, where you can engage in battle without compromise, it’s almost as if a transformation takes place.  A trust and toughness surrounds your program that allows you to perform at an uncommon level, and to do it consistently.

Affecting Change With Positive Energy

Phil O’Brien (@YCG_OBrien) made a great presentation at our Dynamic Leadership Academy on “Effective Change Management” that I’ve referenced here before.  One of the great things he talks about is “increasing the dissatisfaction level” for everyone in your organization.  O’Brien says you have to make sure everyone knows that the current model you are using is unsustainable in order to create real change.

It’s a great approach, and also a great challenge when it comes to coaching your team.  It makes sense to make your guys uncomfortable with the status quo when you are trying to affect change, however it’s easy to then end up with a negative environment where the players are being blamed.  It’s hard to make your guys uncomfortable without the atmosphere turning negative.

Two things that I’ve found are vitally important as a coach in creating change are taking ownership and leading with positive energy.  I have to take full responsibility for the environment we have created around our program, even when we want our guys to be uncomfortable in order to affect change.  We can’t as coaches create an us against them mentality, where it’s the players fault and it will only change when they decide to start listening to me.  They have to know we are in this together, that I’m going to get my hands dirty with them, and that being dissatisfied with what we are doing does not mean it is their fault.

Understanding that is really important and leads to the second part, which is leading with positive energy.  It’s one of the toughest challenges as a coach – we are leading in a high-intensity, instant-feedback environment.  It’s different than an office or business workplace.  Our games and practices are by nature incredibly intense environments.  So how do you affect change by increasing the level of dissatisfaction – and making your guys uncomfortable – without the approach becoming negative?

Direct conversation is one way to do it.  O’Brien also makes a great point by saying when it comes to change “you can never over-communicate.”  Of course there are plenty of times when your instruction has to be loud and in front of the entire team, but you have to make sure you teach directly in one on one or small group situations as well.  A direct connection, where you ask your guys for feedback on what you are asking them to do, really increases the level of understanding.  After that, when practice becomes uncomfortable, they understand why you are upset and they should be as well.

With direct conversation it then becomes important to empower everyone in your program to lead.  If you are going to set a tougher tone at practice, one that will likely make people uncomfortable, you need your assistants to stay connected to your players and keep them up.  You also want the most effective leaders on your team to be vocal and upbeat, to encourage their teammates with positive energy to fight through the tough times.  Direct conversations with your veterans can really help this, so they know what is coming – hey guys, things are going to get tough because we really need to change things, but I’m counting on you to keep everyone positive.  Empower them with the responsibility of keeping everyone in the right frame of mind, despite the fact that things might get uncomfortable.  Your best leadership should come from the middle of the organization, not from the top down.

You also want to let them know you are all in this together, so take ownership of your own mistakes publicly in front of your team.  Things are going to get tough for everyone, and you are right in there with them – so talk to them about decisions that you made that haven’t worked out, even though you had the best of intentions.  You don’t want your players to feel like you have everything right and they are the ones screwing up.  By owning mistakes you increase the buy-in level, which is essential when you know things are going to be tough.

It’s also OK to lighten the mood when things are really difficult.  Make a joke about something you see on tape, point out a funny reaction that someone made on the bench during a film session, have your players ask you questions about the staff that are unrelated to basketball.  In the middle of making things uncomfortable, affecting change, and increasing the dissatisfaction level it’s OK to let them know that it is still a game.  It’s not the most important thing in the world, despite how important it is to all of us.  Some sort of fun drill or simple joke where they see you laugh can help keep what you are doing in perspective, and help you get more out of your team.   It creates a more positive environment even when things are uncomfortable.

Affecting change is difficult, and in a lot of ways it requires you to make things uncomfortable.  Throw in the intensity and bottom-line nature of athletics, and it can be very hard to keep the energy positive while you are doing it with your team.  It’s so easy to fall into a constant negative tone, creating an environment that is unproductive.  But you can still make your team uncomfortable and affect change without creating a negative environment.  Thinking about ways to do it with positive energy is a great challenge for a coach trying to make change happen.