You Get What You Emphasize. Or Do You?

Anytime you enter into a new leadership position, whether it is in business, for an organization, or as a head coach at a different school, the first and primary task at hand is to begin to establish the kind of culture you are looking for. Jim Thompson, founder and Executive Director of Positive Coaching Alliance calls it being a “Single-Goal Leader” in his new book “Developing Better Athletes, Better People”.

For years coaches (myself included) have lived by the mantra, “you get what you emphasize”. We figure if we say something often, work on it a lot, and make it a priority then players will start to give us what we want.

Unfortunately and all too often, talk is cheap. We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face, put it on a t-shirt or say it every time you break a huddle, but the reality is somewhere way deep inside, even your most committed players are thinking what’s in it for me?”

We have to do more than just emphasize it, and maybe even more than making it a practice priority. Plenty of times coaches start practice with certain things. For example, I’ve started every first practice of every year on every basketball team I’ve coached for at least the past 30 years with a drill to work on team defense.

My hope was that whatever we worked on first will be viewed by players as the most important thing. But there have also been years when I’ve allowed too much slippage in those drills that no matter where I placed it in the practice plan, how much I emphasized it or how often we worked on it we were not going to get better. Why? Because it is more likely you get what you allow.

In almost any setting, if you say one thing, yet allow something else - that is going to be the outcome. It doesn’t matter what the speed limit sign is if there is never anyone there to enforce it and people are allowed to go as fast as they’d like. You may think you are emphasizing something by talking about it, but you better back it up with action too.

So the key is to find a way to ensure that those negative behaviors are addressed. The first instinct may be to find a way to have certain consequences to discourage the negative action. This will often coerce players into doing the right thing. But I think that motivation is fleeting.

Sports and society is becoming more and more data-driven as this information becomes readily available. The popularity of Pro Fantasy Leagues is making even the casual fan aware of statistics. It seems the more stats are available, the more stats that are available, if you get my drift. The more that things are measured the more things that are measured.

This has been evidenced for some time in baseball with the onset of Sabermetrics and the popularity of Money Ball, and more recently the use of analytics in basketball and football. The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is being held even as this is written and this month’s ESPN The Magazine is “The Analytics Issue”.

What we are really looking for is what are the appropriate measurable metrics needed to accomplish the desired result. Understanding, what results we are looking for and then finding what the proper steps or actions we need to follow during the process to attain that result is what is really important. So what can we measure?

If we focus our attention on  smaller effort goals there is a much better chance we’ll achieve the larger goal we are looking for. Rather than only looking at the typical result-oriented statistics, I’ve come to realize that those much smaller “micro-goals” in the process might be even more important to track. I think players pay attention to the things you measure. So when you are striving to improve and make some change in behavior it is important to take steps to ensure that you get what you measure. And measure the things that are important to you.

There may not be a better example of this than the legendary soccer coach at North Carolina, Anson Dorrance, and his Competitive Caulderon.  Dorrance has taken this to a whole new level by charting his practices and using natural competitive human nature to motivate players to make the desired effort at all times. He wants his players to strive to win each drill and perform statistically as well as they can in every practice. He would post the results and these highly motivated college soccer players would want those charts to reflect their positive contributions.

Many years ago basketball coach Rick Pitino instituted something similar called "Bricks and Saves". When players did something negative they'd record a "brick", and a positive action would earn a "save". At the end of practice each players total would determine how much the players would run.

Rather than just “threaten” players into a desired behavior with consequences I’m more inclined to try to also find some more positive way to motivate. Of course, we’d like everyone to simply do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do…but we may just have to find a way to get them there first. Finding some carrot to dangle or some other “targeted symbolic reward” may move them along that path.

The reward may only need to be something very minor to make a big difference. It shouldn’t have much monetary value, or approach some sort of “bribe”. We want motivation to become intrinsic, or internal, rather than needing some extrinsic, or external motivation. These rewards are more symbolic and serve as somewhat of a reminder on what we desire. Eventually, when players see the results of their efforts they may see their value and develop the intrinsic motivation necessary to really put in the effort to improve.

Again, Dorrance has shown his genius by not only charting performance, but also began to Grade Character. The North Carolina Soccer Program has 12 Core Values. Each player must memorize the values, present them to their teammates, and then grade themselves plus their teammates on what extent they live those values. Dorrance has created an award to the player that gets the highest score from her teammates, and it is the most coveted award on the most successful women’s’ soccer program in the nation.

So really, it looks like you might get a little of what you emphasize, you’re more likely to get what you allow and players will pay more attention to what you measure. It's my belief that actually players tend to really buy in to your program when you set up a system designed so you get what you reward.

In Part II we’ll present the recognition and reward program that we are developing at Fairmont Prep Academy in an attempt to get players to evolve their thinking and replace some bad habit with better ones.


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