A Memo to Coach K
By Sean Miller
The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio have arrived, and with them, my excitement for the three-weeks that will capture the hearts and minds of sports fans all over the world.
As someone who loves both watching and participating in team sports, the Olympic Games offers a variety of compelling options, none more glamourous than Men’s Basketball. Highly-paid superstars from the National Basketball Association (NBA) spend their off-season time competing for their countries in hopes of winning something the even a seven figure contract cannot buy – an Olympic Gold Medal.
While most countries populate their rosters with a mix of NBA and international professionals, the United States team is comprised solely of NBA talent. To put this in perspective, the United States has 12 NBA players and the other 11 competing teams have 38 NBA player combined. In the past 14 of 18 Olympic games, Team USA has won the gold medal in basketball. With such a talent advantage and past performance, Team USA is considered a massive favorite to win the gold medal. In addition, Coach K has an impressive coaching resume and is a major reason why Team USA functions at such a high level. He has been the head coach of the last two Gold Medal winning US Olympic Basketball Teams, he is a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, five-time NCAA Champion as the Head Coach of Duke University, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball coaches of all-time.
The combination of talent and historical success has led both experts and fans like believing that Team USA is without a doubt a “high-performing team.” You may ask, “how can I label Team USA as high-performing when they have yet to play a game?” Allow me to answer this question in the form of a memo to the Team USA Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) using the Evans High Performing Team (HPT) model as framing for the conversation.
Knowing that I have zero direct links to Team USA, I ask you to bear with my positive presumptions about the team which are rooted in years of research and experience as a self-proclaimed “sports junkie.” However, my recommendations are rooted in best practice research and continuous examples of success we have had building and sustaining high-performing teams here at Evans. The memo recommendations are not specific only to coaches, they can be used by team leaders in any field.
To: United States Men’s Olympic Basketball Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K)
From: Sean Miller, Evans Incorporated
Re: Building Resilience within your Team
Congratulations! You have constructed a team poised to win the Gold Medal. Historical context combined with the strong roster you’ve assembled shows me that your team has all the elements to be high-performing! Using the graphic below I see Team USA firing on all cylinders in 3 of the 4 quadrants. I believe that with my help and your coaching expertise, Team USA can take the final step in becoming a truly high-performing team through building your leadership capacity for creating and sustaining resilience.
I know your team has the most talent and is favored to win every game they play. But what if the unthinkable happens? Several players are injured or ill and are unable to play. A bad shooting night plagues the team. Your opponent is seemingly making every shot. I know it sounds cliché, but in sports, anything can happen. Upsets happen. Olympic upsets happen. Do you remember the 1980 “Miracle on Ice?” My point is to stress the need for building resilience within your team. Your players have only been practicing together for a month and they have never collectively faced major adversity. How they will react is an unknown. If you follow my advice I believe you will be able to guide Team USA to a victory even if the team was trailing by 30 points to France at halftime and the team was sick with the flu.
Before we begin to discuss building resilience, I think it’s very important to celebrate the success you’ve had in building your team to this point. Team USA is aligned in its work, the players feel empowered when making decisions, and has developed a strong culture of continuous collaboration!
Alignment: Despite being a team of multi-millionaires who are used to being the #1 option, the players have completely bought into a brand of basketball that centers on sharing the success and focusing only on winning. The values you have instilled in the team continuously shine through in the form of: unselfishness, team-play, and a willingness to give up playing time for the good of the team. The mission and vision of the team has been clear from the start. You’ve created a culture where the goal is to win the gold for the United States and do it with professionalism and class. Anything less would be considered a failure. The players realize they are part of something bigger than themselves. They are choosing to be on the team because they believe in the values, mission and vision.
Empowerment: You have a constructed a team where the players have a very clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. Everyone knows their role will be reduced due to the talent on the team and they have embraced it. These players are on your team by choice, there is no contractual or financial obligation for them to be there. You have provided the opportunity for your leadership to be distributed amongst your most experienced Olympic players. Carmelo Anthony (2008,2012) and Kevin Durant (2012) have embraced their roles as team captains, reinforcing and strengthening your standards for accountability.
Collaboration: To me, the model of talented individuals choosing to sacrifice money, health (an Olympic injury could end a players’ NBA season), playing time, and fame illustrates the highly collaborative culture you have created. The players and coaches want to be around each other, want to learn from each other, and most of all want to win with each other. They are putting their NBA rivalries aside to share information on their respective playing styles for the betterment of the team.
Coach, knowing that your first official game is in five days, here are some easy to implement strategies to help you build the resilience needed to overcome any obstacle that comes Team USA’s way!
- Learn about your team on a deeper level
Have one on one conversations with each player and ask them to reflect on how they hope to grow from their Olympic experience. Ask them what they want to learn more about regarding their role and “fit” on the team. Ask them what their personal goals are for the Olympics. Learn about their interests and goals and help them develop a plan to achieve them!
- Model your “Personal Resilience”
You haven’t been successful Head Coach for 40 years without building and sustaining personal resilience. Reflect on what has worked for you over the years and model it for your team. Show them how you recognize stressful situations and the actions you take for overcoming them. Continue to coach them on how to mentally ensure they are ready to handle any stressful situation.
- Set a standard for how you manage conflict
There is no “one size fits all” for managing conflict. Knowing your players in-depth (#1) will help you to determine the best way to manage conflict when it arises. When deciding on how to handle a situation, it is important that you connect to the values you have embedded in your team. Because you team is so aligned, the values should guide your course of action. It is also important to solicit input from your players when it comes to settling disputes or administering discipline. Allow the player captains to work with their teammates on crafting rules for conduct and managing conflict. These actions will increase player buy-in, putting you in a favorable position to settle a conflict swiftly and fairly.
- Build a team of “problem-solvers” through autonomy and flexibility
Encourage individual and team problem-solving. Empower your team captains to work with team members to find solutions to problems and challenges. Enable the team to solve problems without you. Provide opportunities for independent decision-making. Be sure your team has the information and resources they need to make and implement decisions. Continuously ask yourself, “do I need to make this decision or could someone else on my team make it?” Remember that flexibility and resilience go hand in hand. This means that sometimes you have to relinquish control and give your players the freedom to plan their own training, set their own pace, and have some control over their schedules.
- Enable your team to be ready to manage sudden changes
The ability to improvise and adapt to change are fundamental characteristics found in championship teams. These abilities are needed both in practice and competition. When a sudden change occurs, be sure to meet with your team immediately. Players need to hear from their coaches during times of change. Help them understand what the changes will mean for them. Try to put yourself in your players’ shoes to see things from their point of view. How you communicate is extremely important during times of change. Be a conscientious listener and clear communicator. Be honest and timely with your answers and feedback. Help your players take control of the situation. Clarify their roles and enable them to take control of the situation using their valuable talents and skills.
- Provide opportunities for ongoing growth
Learning makes teams more resilient. They learn from their success as well as their failures and mistakes. Present this Olympic opportunity as something that can not only offer the gratification of a gold medal, but also as an opportunity to grow as a player. Help your players make connections between your coaching and how it can translate to their game in the NBA. Offer your players “stretch assignments” or provide them with opportunities to work on a part of their game that shows promising potential but has yet to be explored.
I sincerely hope these strategies will help you lead Team USA to a third consecutive gold medal. With the growth of basketball talent around the world you can never be too careful. A resilient team is a high-performing team that can handle anything the world throws at it. If you need assistance, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I am available. Like the players on your team, I am ready and willing to be part of something bigger than myself…