Before a wrestling match, I once told my younger boy – who was 5 at the time – that his opponent said he was going to take his toys from him. I’m pretty sure that’s the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life and I immediately decided that wasn’t how I would coach him in the future.
I’m one of the head coaches for our town’s youth wresting program, which includes kids in kindergarten through 5th grade. I also coach youth soccer and have coached tee ball as well. Keep in mind, I’ve never played baseball before but I’m pretty sure I could coach archery at the kindergarten level. I think back to one of the greatest sports movies of all time, Hoosiers, a movie that actually focused on the coach instead of the players. That coach knew how to get his team to perform beyond their means. What an amazing thing! You see, coaching isn’t about a coach’s physical skill, but about the motivation he provides his team.
I’ve realized that when I started coaching kids, I became a better creative leader at work. A better coach = a better motivator. I’d like to share with you three rules I’ve learned from coaching kids that have helped me coach creative teams.
1. Motivation is Personal
I often tell kids and parents that are thinking of signing up for wrestling, “If you wrestle tough at home, you get in trouble. If you wrestle tough at matches, people clap for you!” That usually widens some eyes.
When I think of great coaches, I think of great motivators. Phil Jackson and Bill Parcells, both temporarily retired, had two very different styles, but were both great motivators. Phil, they called “The Zen Master” because he prepared his players but at game time sat back, didn’t yell or scream and trusted that his players would work through the tough stretches. Bill Parcells on the other hand was a screamer and made sure everyone on the team knew he was in charge. What both coaches had in common is that they knew how to adjust their style. Bill would go easy on Terrell Owens because he was a superstar that usually delivered and Phil knew if he didn’t occasionally bark at Kobe Bryant, he (Phil) would get walked on. They knew that each player needed to be motivated in a different way because motivation is personal.
I often talk about design teams like sports teams. There are home run hitters who also strike out, workhorse running backs, pinch hitters, and every other cliché position of which you can think. Everyone needs to be motivated differently. Some creatives need to be told how brilliant they are. “This is the perfect project for you! You’re so good at that stuff, you’ll nail this!”
Some creatives need to see that you doubt them. “Hey, this is a tough one. Tough client and I need to know you can handle this on your own.”
Some even need to be reprimanded. “Guys, I’m disappointed. What the hell? This is a big opportunity.”
Understanding which person needs what motivation is the key. It’s not always easy to figure out and it takes commitment to getting to know your creative team beyond skillset.
2. Know When to Talk
When you are in a huddle with ten 6-year-olds, you can have 100% control or 0% control. I’ve found that there is really not a lot of middle ground.
I’ve always considered myself a bit socially awkward. I’m not a Type A personality and will never be the first or loudest one talking at a party or dinner table. In what I am proficient, though, and at which I think I am better than anyone, is knowing when I should be the one talking, or when I need to be the one talking. For example, when I’m in the huddle with the ten 6-year-olds, I need to be the one talking. No hesitation and with complete confidence, strength of voice, and assurance. I will have the game plan and the answers, 110% of the time because, if I don’t, I’ll lose them.
Think of that situation at work – in a war room with a creative team that needs guidance, people who need a game plan, and a confident voice. Maybe the project isn’t going well or there are conflicting opinions in the room. You may be the most senior person or just the one with the most expertise. If no one is speaking or knows what to do next, everyone is looking at you for resolution, the entire group is off track, and there is conflict, then you should be the one talking. You need to be the one talking. You need to be the one motivating.
3. Sometimes, There is No “Why?”
Kids are inquisitive. There’s always one player who has his hand up the entire time I’m talking. Kids also like to get you into talking traps where they respond to every answer with another question:
Kid: “Why does it rain?”
Adult: “Because the clouds are full.”
Kid: “Why are the clouds full?”
Adult: “Because water evaporates.”
Kid: “Why does water evaporate?” … And on and on and on.
What I learned from my neighbor, Bill, a Division 1 football player in his younger days, was that sometimes, there is no “why.” Sometimes, time is of the essence and the whole team just needs to listen, follow directions, and trust that I have a plan. There are also times in the workplace when the talking, theory, and brainstorming need to end and people need marching orders and to follow the plan to get work out the door:
Coach: “When you cross midfield, pass the ball to Jack.”
Player: “Why do I have to pass the ball?”
Coach: “Because Jack is always open.”
Player: “Why is Jack open?”
Coach: “There is no Why. Pass the ball.”
The same applies in creative assignments:
Manager: “It’s late and this needs to go out the door. Make it blue. Change the order and get rid of that one.”
Manager: “There is no ‘why.’”
Sports teams, management teams, creative teams … they’re all so similar: A group of talents coming together, each with their own personality, agenda, and skillset. Understanding what makes people tick and how to motivate them is the most important thing I’ve discovered about coaching. Not all people realize that managing and coaching isn’t about them, but about the players, the doers, and the creative-types.
“If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book, we’re going to be winners.” – Coach Norman Dale