Coaching talent and management strategies

I started to brainstorm this post after reading the article “Success Can Make You Stupid” in Fast Company. This morning, I visited Vern Gambetta’s blog and he had written this:

If you are a sport coach it is good to have some exposure to the game as a player at some level. With professional baseball the pedigree they often look for is someone who has played Major League baseball, this results in severe inbreeding bordering on incest. It allows little creativity or innovation. I think Bill Belichick is the coach he is because he did not play pro football.

Because I never played professional basketball, I agree with the assessment. In the FC article, Chip and Dan Heath wrote about the self-fulfilling prophecy within the entertainment industry. According to research in the Administrative Science Quarterly, Hollywood executives tend to spend more money on teams or writers, producers, and directors with whom they have a relationship; that is, who they have worked with before. The belief is that the experience generates more revenue.

However, research has found that these teams do not make better movies the second time around; instead, the increased revenue is because the studios back the films differently, opening on better weekends with more publicity and a bigger budget. The studios create the success through its marketing and product placement.

Coaches are hired because of experience or relationships. A Head Coach is more likely to hire a coach with whom he has worked previously or knows through a mutual source, possibly a previous employer or employee. When these coaching relationships work out, it justifies the future hiring of another coach in the same manner. However, when the coach does not work out, few question the hiring process of hiring based solely on experience and connections because everyone knows that is the way the business works.

In one of my favorite books, First Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham argued that the best managers [Athletic Directors, Head Coaches] hire based on talent, not experience or connections. Unfortunately, how can a Head Coach or Athletic Director measure coaching talent? One interview? A practice session? A questionaire? Some schools (Tulsa University) are famous for producing talented coaches (Nolan Richardson, Bill Self, Tubby Smith). Does this mean that the ADs at Tulsa do a better job identifying talent? Does he/she know a secret others don’t? Few administrators are willing to be the one who breaks the mold and hires an unorthodox candidate, enduring the criticism, especially if the coach is unsuccessful.

The problem with hiring solely based on experience and connections is that talented coaches with different ideas and different approaches are ignored. The styles of play, the practices, the teaching, etc. stagnate; there is no rejuvenation through new ideas and creativity.

The standard procedure for getting a college or pro job is to work one’s way from the bottom to the top, gaining experience and connections along the way which help to get the next job which leads to the next job. However, many top coaches did not follow that path. Avery Johnson practically went straight from playing to the Head Coach; Pat Riley went from the radio booth to his Head Coaching position; Mike D’Antoni coached professionally in Italy. In each instance, someone noticed the talent each of these coaches had and did not bother with the normal, gradual procedure.

Unforunately, head coaches, hiring for their assistant positions, are less likely than a GM or AD to hire based on talent. Almost all hires are based on experience and/or connections, and without connections, it’s hard to get experience. This prevents new ideas or concepts from breaking into higher levels because if you don’t have connections to get an assistant position, you can’t gain the experience and connections to get a head coaching job, unless you find the rare individual willing to gamble (often his/her career) on talent rather than experience and connections.

In sports, and many other businesses, there is a sense of entitlement: people get jobs because they deserve the job. We equate “deserve” with “paid their dues,” “worked their way up,” etc. As Buckingham wrote, the best managers do not fall into the entitlement trap; jobs are not lifetime achievement awards. A manager’s job is to build his or her business. The best way to build a business (sports program) is with talented, motivated individuals, not the best “ass kissers.”

The FC article states:

In Hollywood, the conventional wisdom is to bet on relationships, but this seemingly reasonable idea leads to mistakes that cost millions of dollars.

The sports world relies on the same conventional wisdom; how much does this wisdom cost NBA teams and NCAA institutions? Where would the Patriots be without Bill Belichik?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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