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Leadership Lessons from the Court
by John Pfaffl

“March Madness” is an apt time to apply lessons from the basketball court, or any team environment, to business and organizational leadership. Cardinal Stritch University head women’s basketball coach John Pfaffl shares lessons he uses and has learned from his mentors during his 29 seasons as a collegiate coach.

Catch Them Being Good

Many coaches and team leaders think their sole purpose is to point out mistakes. Imagine hearing nothing from your teammates or the coaching staff but criticism every day. Creating an environment where the only feedback is negative is not conducive to fostering individual and group growth. Few things offer a greater return on less investment than praise – offering credit to someone in your organization who has stepped up and done the job at hand. A “catch them being good” approach is a more enjoyable way to teach and to learn.

Teach the “Why” Along with the “What”

If you only teach WHAT to do and not WHY it is important, you cannot fully achieve “buy in” from those whom you wish to lead and serve. Successful coaches spend the majority of their time helping develop players who can make decisions for themselves and are not always relying on a coach to tell them what to. Ironically, great coaches are aiming at making themselves not needed.  

Set High and Achievable Expectations and Hold Everyone Accountable

One of our team’s core values for all team members is to “be responsible for your job and accountable to your teammates.” To receive buy in from the group, this core value needs to be reinforced daily. Team members need to be reminded that their actions – or inactions – have an impact on others. The “WE is greater than ME” mantra may be an overused tagline, but it is important because consistent success is obtained when individuals can sacrifice individual goals for the greater good of the group.

Failure is an Integral Part of Success

Coaches need to create an atmosphere in which the team is not afraid of making mistakes, and utilize failures as learning opportunities. There are many coaches who have a reputation of having a “quick trigger” and pull their players out of the game every time they make a mistake. There is no doubt that sitting on the bench for not competing at an expected level can be a great teaching tactic, but if players are always looking over their shoulder to see if they are going to be pulled, they will not become the players (or employees) that they can ultimately become. Former Marquette coaching great Rick Majerus said, “If you want to have a lot of successes, you have to have a lot of failures.” and he is correct. Team members need an environment where they can try new things and not be afraid of the consequences.

The Mental Quicksand of Obsessing At Your Losses

It is “mental quicksand” to keep your mind on your losses. Assess quickly why the loss happened and work to make improvements.  Many coaches and teams cannot “get over” a loss; we want to use the loss as a teaching opportunity but not waste time on the loss that should be spent focused on the next opponent.
 
Leaders Should Not be Adverse to Picking Up a Broom

Coaches and leaders spend a lot of their time telling those they serve what to do. It is their job.  But a more impactful teaching tool is to demonstrate for their team members what they expect from everyone. The importance of setting an example cannot be over emphasized.  How leaders treat and show respect for everyone in an organization from the president to the cleaning staff will be noticed. Set the example. Don’t be averse to picking up a broom, no matter what position you hold in an organization.

Control What You Can control and Let the Result Take Care of Itself

A basketball game can be a stressful and chaotic experience and the result often is decided by players having to make split second decisions on a big stage in front of big crowds and the cameras. Those who succeed generally are the ones who can compete while maintaining composure and poise. Coaches need to help their players keep their focus on what they can control, such as their effort and attitude and working together. The job for coaches is to help eliminate distractions and keep their teams keep focused on what is ultimately important for team success.

The best advice I can give is the same advice I give to my daughter who is a multi-sport youth athlete. I do not talk about scoring or playing time with her, but I focus on these three things - (1) be a great teammate; (2)  listen to the coach; and (3) be the hardest worker on the court. This is what she can control regardless of how she performs. And finally I always reaffirm and praise her for those three things no matter the outcome. Control the controllable and let the results take care of itself.

John Pfaffl recently completed his ninth season as Stritch’s head women’s basketball coach and 29th season at the University. He has led the Wolves to nine straight NAIA Division II National Tournaments. 
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