Last week we participated in my son’s high school basketball banquet, celebrating the end of another successful season. Five different teams across four grades were highlighted, all of which had winning seasons. Each player was introduced by one of the coaches who made insightful comments as to how that player contributed to the team’s success. Parents, players and siblings enjoyed the accolades which mark such occasions.
In particular the head coach went out of his way to talk about the joy it was to coach this year’s varsity team. He hyped their unity, dedication, and work ethic. He highlighted their selfless play and chemistry. He put the spotlight clearly on the players and their accomplishments.
But we all know that it takes a leader who can create a unique environment for those qualities to be able to grow and flourish. I would submit it takes a servant leader, one who cares more about the development and success of others above his or her own success.
But it wasn’t until the end of the evening that my imagination was stirred. A varsity player who was a graduating senior, and one who had been recognized as one of the best players in the state, stood up to commemorate the head coach. In almost a jesting manner this player lifted up three events that took place during the season that made all the difference between success and failure. They all took place during practice and all three were initiated by the coach.
1. Jersey Switch. In the middle of the season, during district play, the varsity team suffered a three game losing streak. The district crown was on the line and something needed to change. During the last practice before the next game the coach informed the entire team that everyone would be wearing a different jersey number for that game. Why?
The charge was “play for someone else.”
The coach realized that the issue wasn’t talent or scheme. It was motivation and belief. By not playing for yourself, and therefore not consumed by your own play, you could dig deeper and play for your teammate. It worked. The losing streak ended and they won the district championship.
2. Freeze Tag. There was also a point in the season where practices had become routine. The energy was lacking and precision was being lost. The coach showed up at practice one day and declared that the team was going to play freeze tag that day. Rather than doubling down on a rant about how lazy the players were or the need to be more dedicated, he simply decided to change the whole dynamic.
The real need was a change of pace and to do something totally different.
The routine was broken by something fun and creative. It was actually disrupted by reverting to a child’s game. But it worked and the players were re-energized.
3. The Hugging Line. This might have been the most controversial thing the coach did if you were to ask any of the players in public. But the best basketball teams play together as a unit. You can have your superstars, but unless all five players on the floor at any given moment are committed to the same end you will end up with a mediocre season at best. They must be committed to each other and not just a successful season. Thus the coach walked in one day and instituted the hugging line. The players had to line up and give each one of their teammates a hug in appreciation for who they were and what they brought to the team.
It was a tangible expression of care and commitment.
For every player to play their part, their role, there had to be a level of mutual care and commitment.
It strikes me at a principle level that all three of these ideas could be implemented in any team environment and a “successful season” would be possible. It takes a servant leader to figure out what the team needs to operate at a high level and do what is necessary to take them towards success. True servant leadership can lead to a successful season.