Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Speech

Richter and I notched our first victory as high school coaches in the season opener - barely. 13-12 us. As the game came down to the wire, our innate fire for competition started smoldering and we found ourselves feeling much as we do during the club season, with a game on the line and nothing going through our heads other than the desire to win. And, sometimes, looking for an opponent to toss around.

We're far from the calm, collected, preternaturally machinal coaching robots embodied in my roommate Whit or Ben Wiggins or Billy Rodriguez, three excellent coaches. We invite the emotion, the rage, the desire, and let it course through us. So now, being handed the reigns to a fun high school team and faced with the task of breaking them down and reshaping them in our image, I wonder, how can I best motivate them mid-game, as the opponent goes on a run and their young minds struggle to grasp what is happening? How can I fire them up to play their hardest? More importantly, how can I get them to care about their effort as much as I do?

The whole episode, watching the other team come back before the intensity picked up and we finally won, reminded me of a moment in Club nationals '04. It is, still, what I consider a defining moment in leadership under duress for me, and it came courtesy of our captain, Forrest Collins. I remember it as if I were now in the huddle.

The time out was called because we were panicked. Having lost our final pool play game to Furious, we knew our first game on Friday against Pike was a must-win to stave off a pre-quarters match-up. Pike had arrived as an upstart, much improved from the prior year, and had beaten Sockeye in the first round of the tourney. Losing to Pike would force a victory over Sockeye to escape the extra game, a win would give us breathing room in case of a three-way tie.

But here we were, after a night of psyching ourselves up and a morning warming up the body and brain, playing our flattest game of the tourney and down deep into the second half 11-7. Even the last score had been hurried, a gurgitation of random cuts that had somehow become our seventh point. We now faced pulling to a team we'd not broken yet and down by four with only a few points left. In some eyes confidence wavered and a defeated complacency took hold, resigning to prequarters. This is what I felt and what I saw in the eyes of my teammates as we placed our arms around each other in a circle and waited for Forrest to speak.

He began. There was confusion at first. Something about visualizing himself writing an email post-nationals. About a come-from-behind win against Jam he had envisioned in his head. Hypothetical sick plays by Jolian. And his realization now that there was no Jam game, there was no hypothetical - this was the game he'd portended, the game we were meant to come back from and win. This was the moment that would define our tournament.

In truth, I remember everything he said almost verbatim. But why reproduce a speech? Heard, or worst yet - read, outside of its context it feels empty and trivial. Besides, it's not the words I remember best.

I looked up as Forrest's voice cracked and wavered through his words - he was losing it, he was on the verge of crying. Our captain was so emotional in that moment that he wasn't sure he'd be able to hold back his tears. This was our friend, teammate, and leader asking that we try to feel the desire as deeply as he did. A man exposing his feelings in a place where he knew he would meet no ridicule - we wanted everything he wanted as bad as he did, and until then had been in a torpor unable to express it.

Maybe a tear or two fell. It was enough. We awoke.

I remember walking to the line that point, after Forrest exhorted that the seven players that wanted it most step to the line. A casual statement that the Alamo's William Travis would have smiled at. My heart was pounding, I was shaking some. My head was spinning remembering how only moments ago Forrest had pulled me in. I would not forgive myself were I to let him down. And, as we chose match-ups and called our defense, I knew everyone was as shocked and intense as I was.

By the time the pull went up the game's outcome had already been decided by everyone wearing the Rocketship. We scored the next five straight to take the lead before Pike had a chance to catch a collective breath, and went on to win 16-14, a 9-3 run.
Perhaps, sometimes you just have to show them, your teammates or players, that you care about the outcome more than anyone. You have to shock them with your will to be better, to demand more from yourself. A leader to me isn't the person with the biggest mouth and most platitudes, it's the quiet one whose play leaves no question unanswered. Being that example to our high schoolers this year will undoubtedly be our biggest challenge.

4 comments:

skizip said...

Cuz i've got no where else to talk brag...

The high school team I coach, beat the high school team Cara coaches at double game point 2 weeks ago. I'd like to credit beating Coach Callahan to my superior sideline skills, but all the credit goes to my boys because that weekend I was away running the Stockton Invite.

Billy said...

Excellent prose.
Enjoyed the method of expressing the intangible moment. Brought back a few dramatic memories of my own history.

Keep up the good stuff.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting question, one I've often thought about as a coach and, previously, as a captain.

It might be a bit off-target to think that you can, as a coach, get your players to care about the game as much as you do simply by giving the right type of speech or saying the magic configuration of words.

People often talk about players who "want to win" so badly, but that's always struck me as strange: everyone wants to win. What is really going on inside those players - and I suspect inside you, HH - is a deep love of your teammates. You don't just want to win the game, you want to win it for the people on your team, who you love. Forrest's speech fired you up because it reminded you of how much you cared about your team - about how you wanted to be able to laud their accomplishments and victories once nationals was said and done.

So the question is, how do you get the team you coach to care about one another - and in turn care about winning and in turn prime them for that awe-inspiring half-time speech? That's done in practice, in the car on the way to the fields, during BBQs. In other words, it's done well before the moment at which the "will to win" is actualized. Build a true team, a family, and you'll be able to fire them up quite easily.

And I would argue that there's only so much you can do to that effect. The team has to do it almost entirely on their own. Yes, you can provide suggestions and a model of desire, you can choose good captains and get them to work on team-building, but again - it's within that group of players. If it's not there, nothing you say during a huddle will get through to them; instead, you'll just be the crazy frothing coach who everyone sorta tunes out...

But it sounds like you got a good crew, and hopefully the requisite patience.

Teacher said...

Who were you playing, hh?