Josh Bonhotal, Director of Men’s Basketball Sports Performance at Purdue University, writes exclusively for the Leaders Performance Institute on leading from the middle to create a player led culture.
One of the toughest things we as coaches can do is relinquish control. It is in our nature to lead, dictate even. Yet, I would argue the opportunity for the greatest potential development comes from relinquishing that very control and giving ownership to the athletes themselves – thus forming a partnership. This requires a coach to check his ego and display ultimate humility; to provide guidance and direction without necessarily making every decision for the athlete. Still, I have found in relinquishing the very ‘control’ we so often desire, a funny thing happens. We are able to gain influence. By educating the athlete, involving them, giving them choices, we are empowering them. Now the work they do becomes meaningful because it was their decision. Many coaches talk about building a culture in which there is compliance. If we really stop to think what this means, it is actually one of obedience. While this may offer short term success, ultimate and uninhibited growth occurs not through obedience but involvement. In order to truly maximize each athlete’s potential, it is absolutely critical to form a relationship with them. If I as a coach cannot have a conversation with one of my athletes and get to know them as a person, why should I ever expect them to trust and believe that what I am asking them to do will help them?
Rather than a dictatorship, I seek to form a partnership with each one of my athletes. I do my best to educate them on what we are doing and how it will help them; the ‘why’ of training. I encourage them to ask questions. I want them to challenge me. I do not have all the answers, and I am willing to admit when I am wrong. This does not mean they run the programme or that they are the ultimate decision makers, it simply means they are given a voice. They get a vote in the plan for the day and moving forward. I think when you are able to show this level of humility to your athletes is when you truly have them hooked and can achieve ultimate buy-in. At the end of the day, we will never maximise their performance potential using fear tactics. They must be invested, understand why, and believe in what they are doing in order to fully grow.
Language is especially important. Players must be able to attach personal meaning to any mantras or key words and phrases we are using to define and reinforce our culture. When there is personal meaning attached, simply hearing the word or mantra can be enough to serve as a trigger forming a habit loop leading to the positive behaviours we are attempting to promote. Without personal meaning, it just becomes words that sound good but ultimately ring hollow.
“By educating the athlete, involving them, giving them choices, we are empowering them. Now the work they do becomes meaningful because it was their decision.”
For us, our actions are driven and reinforced by two words: ‘finish’ and ‘until.’ While seemingly simple, both are loaded with meaning. The first, ‘finish,’ serves as a reminder of past failures and a trigger to never let up. With around three minutes remaining in our first round game of the NCAA tournament this past March, we held a comfortable 14-point lead and seemingly had the game in hand against a supposed overmatched opponent. What happened next was a display epitomising the dichotomy of tragedy and triumph affectionately referred to as ‘March Madness.’ Although the game appeared to be over, we failed to finish off our opponent ultimately losing in a double overtime thriller. Thus, every time we come together to huddle up at the beginning and end of a training session we yell out in unison, ‘FINISH!’ With the uttering of this one simple word, we are instantly brought back to the disappointment and the pain felt that day in the locker room, and the vow to never let it happen again. It is a vow to work towards fixing our shortcomings and to not let ourselves become complacent. To not let up until the job is done. To see the finish in sight and use it as a trigger to raise our intensity and that no matter how bad the pain feels in the moment, it is nothing compared to the pain felt that day our season came to an end. ‘Finish’ reminds us to finish every rep, every set, every play, every workout, and every game; to not stop until it’s done.
This leads us to the second word, ‘until.’ While ‘finish’ serves as a reminder, ‘until’ speaks to our mindset. Our guys have become fond of saying, “we work until…” Don’t be fooled by the three dots at the end of the word, there is no more to the mantra. It is a mindset that rather than counting reps or time, we work until we get it right, until we are sure, until the job gets done. This mindset also helps bring our guys to the present. Instead of thinking about what we have left, focusing on what we have right now. It is a mindset to put forth the effort and attention on this rep before worrying about the next; to not just do it, but do it right. This is a phrase we adopted from Kevin Eastman who shared with us a personal story in which he asked Kobe Bryant how long he would work to learn a new move. To which Kobe responded, “until.” When Coach Eastman followed up asking again how much time or how many reps, a frustrated Kobe once again replied, “UNTIL.” Drawing inspiration from this story, we have not only embraced this mindset but also designed workouts to embody it.
“I encourage them to ask questions. I want them to challenge me. I do not have all the answers, and I am willing to admit when I am wrong. This does not mean they run the programme or that they are the ultimate decision makers, it simply means they are given a voice.”
What we have ultimately worked to instill at Purdue is a player-led culture; one in which accountability, discipline, standards and expectations are both defined and carried out by our players themselves. I do my best to provide guidance, but I want them to feel empowered to make it their own. This means they have freedom to take initiative and make decisions on their own without having to seek my approval. This is something the Navy SEALs refer to as Decentralised Command. Frequent communication up and down the chain of command, from head coach to player, is essential to establish an understanding of our overall intent. Given this understanding, our players are now able to act and say, “This is what I’m going to do,” instead of asking, “What do I do?” My position is one that falls in the middle of the organisational hierarchy with our head coach essentially acting as our President and CEO; the ultimate decision maker. Conversely, the players are our frontline troops ultimately responsible for executing and carrying out the mission, each possession, each game. Within my role, I provide the greatest value to the coaches and players I serve by being able to lead up, down, and horizontally across the chain. This is quite the contrast from a simplistic and mostly outdated hierarchy of power in which my position would be tasked with taking and delivering orders. Effectiveness as a leader hinges on my ability to display what the SEALs refer to as Extreme Ownership. In other words, it is my duty to assume ownership of anything that goes wrong above and below me. This means looking in the mirror and asking what I could have done differently even when it would seem someone else screwed up. Perhaps, I did not communicate my message to a player clearly enough. Maybe, I put a player in a position he was not yet ready to handle. Could it have been that I did not fully understand what our head coach needed done and should have asked for further clarification? Or did I not speak up to provide a contrasting viewpoint for him to consider when making a critical decision?
This type of leadership requires tremendous humility and fighting a constant internal battle with our own ego. Winning that battle and having the courage to lead with Extreme Ownership at all times can be incredibly endearing, infectious even. It helps to break down the barriers that go up when we are looking for someone to blame and instead allows us to come together; directing our energy towards finding the solution. Extreme Ownership also means swallowing your pride and realising when someone else, regardless of their status in the organization, is better suited to lead. Great leaders must recognise and embrace when it is their time to follow. This is the personification of situational leadership. In order to succeed in this approach, it is critical we mentor and empower great leaders at all levels.
I strive to accomplish this through facilitating open lines of communication where everyone feels as though they have a voice and the truth is shared freely. Truth is incredibly powerful. For us to be successful, we must live it, tell it, and be able to take it. Establishing this type of culture is certainly not without its growing pains. It requires great restraint at times as a coach, being able to step back and let the players resolve conflicts internally. Additionally, there will no doubt be sessions in the short term that suffer and take a turn for the worse. This is part of the process. To truly empower them, they must be allowed to fail. This is the only way they will learn to take initiative in recognising when standards are not being met and figure out how to deal with those situations amongst themselves. My role is that of a facilitator. In cases where they fail to police themselves, I will have discussion with the senior members of our team and provide them with strategies to consider for when they are faced with a similar situation in the future.
“It is my duty to assume ownership of anything that goes wrong above and below me. This means looking in the mirror and asking what I could have done differently even when it would seem someone else screwed up.”
I expect our athletes to own the details of how we prepare and how we train, thereby allowing me and the rest of our coaching staff to focus on higher level planning and coaching. Players are responsible for setting the standard in terms of energy, approach, focus, and organisation. It is then up to them to hold each other accountable if the standards they have set are not being met. Of course I will chime in at times if I feel they are slipping or are setting their standards too low. Still, as I often remind them, they must take Extreme Ownership of their success.
As you can probably imagine, this is without question an ongoing process. The more we grow together, the more I am able to step back and hand over control to our players. To this point I am incredibly pleased with the way our players have responded and am excited to see it all play out into March as we continue to work; until…