There is a really popular series of commercials promoting some of the best features of the AT&T Cellular Network where a man is sitting in an elementary school library asking young children if it is better to be Bigger or Smaller? Fast or Slow? More or Less?  Better or Worse? Out of the mouths of babes comes some really funny answers which are intended to back up the companies claims in that area.

I found myself after a recent game asking my players who were sitting in a circle if it was better for things to be Easy or Hard?  Some looked at me as if it were a trick question? Competitors want a challenge, and we talk about the importance to “Embrace the Struggle”, and to quote Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hanks) from "A League of Their Own".

"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great".

...but within that concept let's at least try to make it as easy on yourself as you can.

Individually, we look at some great players and describe their play as “Effortless” when we know it probably required great effort. Sometimes we see a play where the player may be diving or scrambling and think it was a great effort, but the reality may be if things were more efficient they wouldn’t have needed to dive or scramble.  I would love my athletes to be so smooth and fundamentally sound that their great efforts look effortless. So maybe it should look “easy”.

Hard Work is great and we want each and every player to work as hard as they need to – and maybe even a little harder. However Working SMARTER not HARDER may be more efficient. So we are talking about efficiency. It is smarter to be as efficient as possible, and in doing so you are actually making it easier on yourself.

So now I would pose the question again, Hard or Easy? We would like to work in such a way that we can make it easier on us to achieve the goal we are striving for. In team sports this is often manifested in how well a team works together.

In baseball, players have to have proper positioning relative to their teammates to cover the field, they have to cover the appropriate bases for teammates to throw to and be in proper backup positioning to be ready for the next play.

In basketball, players need to work together to get each other open by proper spacing, a series of cuts, screens, or dribble penetration. It is easier to get an open shot if the ball moves and players move in a manner to help each other. When this doesn’t happen, the ball stops and now it’s easier for the defense to stop them – assuming the defense is playing together and working efficiently too.

So is it better to make things Hard…or Easy?

I’ve heard Nick Saban, the Head Football Coach at the University of Alabama, describe why his defense is so effective by saying ,

"Players need to trust and respect the fact that if I do my job we have the best chance of being successful. I don’t have to make every play I just need to make the plays I’m supposed to make in the gap I’m supposed to make them, and trust the guy next to me will do the same.”

Then it looks easy – even though they’re working hard. You see working Smarter AND Harder makes good teams championship material.

The key to his statement is TRUST. In team sports it is imperative to Trust. Trust Yourself, Trust Your Teammates, and Trust the System. It often takes tremendous time and effort invested to develop that trust. Most times it is not just between the lines, but trust can develop outside of competition in a variety of team-building ways. Trust is usually reciprocal. It is hard for a player to trust a teammate when that teammate does not trust him.

Players need to let their teammates help. And not always is a player with this tendency "selfish" - although many observers may think so given the circumstances. Often times they just want to try so hard to get it done for the team they attempt to do too much by themselves, when in reality they'd be much better off with a little help from their friends.

They need to trust they are going to cover the right base for me to throw to, be effective if I pass them the ball and trust they’ll make the right play, or fill the right gap so I can fill mine. They need to trust the coach and let the System help make things easier. Trust that the System will create an opportunity for a good shot and if you have to create a shot - maybe you shouldn’t shoot it. You just might get a better one in another pass or two.

There is a drastic difference in the percentage of made Open Shots vs those that are Contested. Typically, the most open shots are those when teammates helped each other get open and contested shots are those when a player may have tried to create one on their own. A player just has to work too hard to get a good shot by themselves when the other team has five defenders, but when you work together it seems so much easier. Teams need to play Together. The quote goes, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far - go together.”

T.E.A.M. Together Everyone Achieves More

Playing together creates a certain amount of Synergy, which is one of my favorite words. Teams with Synergy are greater than the sum of the individual parts. Teams with Synergy overachieve. Teams with Synergy approach their potential and becoming as good as they can be.

However, some players have what I have come to call “The Henry Vega Syndrome”. There is no reason any of you should know Henry, and if he reads this I’d love to reconnect. When I began coaching, I was coaching lower level football and our team was inside our own 5 yard line with about fifteen seconds to go and holding on to a 6 point lead. On fourth and long I instructed Henry, our punter who may have also been the fastest players on the team, to take the snap, scramble in the end zone while the precious seconds were ticking and run out of bounds to take a safety. Then we could safely free kick the ball away and run out the clock.

The punter took the snap and began to scramble as instructed, then for some reason bolted up the sidelines and was knocked out of bounds at about the twenty yard line. This put us in a position to need to defend a potential winning play in the red zone, rather than a hail mary from the opponents’ territory. Fortunately, we stopped one play and came away with the win.

After the game I asked Henry why he didn’t do as instructed and what he could possibly have been thinking. Henry replied, “Coach, I saw the sidelines open and thought I could score!” You see, Henry trusted himself.  Probably too much. I’m not so sure he trusted me or his teammates.

Maybe Trust Yourself, Trust Your Teammates, and Trust the System EQUALLY!!!

Even talented players who view themselves as “leaders” can’t put themselves ahead of the team. Leaders need to trust.  They also need to know when to Lead AND when to Follow. Players must TRUST in order to follow. Trust is something earned, usually not just granted. As coaches, we also need to remember we are constantly earning, or losing, our players trust. Trust is fluid and can be lost a lot quicker than it was earned. Then it is much more difficult to earn back.

Trust is just a bit below belief. It’s great when kids know someone believes in them. It starts when players believe in themselves, then they need to believe in each other. One of the best things a Coach could say, “I Believe in YOU”.

If Trust in each other leads to belief, then belief breeds faith, which is really trusting or believing in something that is yet unseen or unproven. But because I trust and believe in you, I have faith it will get done. Players then develop faith in an entire system that gives them the confidence to play with what they call “swag". So is it really Trust in each other that leads to a team playing with “swag”? And if so, isn’t that kind of swag a good thing?

When players and coaches start to trust each other and believing in what their potential could be is when you really see teams develop the kind of confidence needed to play with what they call the “swag” needed to be really good. Matt Grahn, an Assistant Basketball Coach at University of Dallas, has his players say “swag” as they brush off mistakes. They are convinced they have so much “swag” a simple mistake won’t let them affect their game.

Often a little Belief is a like some Pixie Dust. I’ve found that a great “mistake ritual” during a game is to give a player a reminder of something they fundamentally believe in, and have them focus on that the next shot, next pitch, or next play. I’m often amazed at the frequency in an improved performance after a little “pixie dust”. We need to remember, as in the movie, “pixie dust” doesn’t work unless you believe. But sometimes, that’s all it takes.

In the words of Peter Pan,

“All it takes is faith, trust, and a little pixie dust.”

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