The Team, The Team, The… Coach?

As Michigan students, we all know coach Bo Schembechler’s legendary speech about ‘the team’ from 1983. “No man is more important than the team. No coach is more important than the team. The Team, The Team, The Team…” In fact, this quote is one of the most famous lines in sports history. But is the team actually more important than the coach, the catalyst and leader of that very team? In many instances yes, the team as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but what if I told you there are several circumstances in which the coach is in fact more important than the team?

Anyone who has played sports in his/her life knows that there are many distinctions between each level of competition. As we begin to move from youth sports to high school sports and then to college sports for the very talented, the intensity of the competition increases along with the importance of winning. As described by Eric Dunning in his chapter “The Dynamics of Modern Sport,” sport tends to become more serious and less fun as the competitiveness increases. While I do not necessarily agree with his idea that sports become less fun as the competition increases, I do believe that as the competition increases(moving to a higher level of sports), the seriousness and importance of winning is stressed much more. This idea is extremely important as it relates to how a coach at every level interacts with his players.

The role of the coach at the youth level varies greatly from the role of the coach at the professional level, but at the same time there are often several similarities. In youth sports, the coach acts almost as a mentor or father-figure for the young athletes looking to learn the game as well as acquire important life skills. As shown by Tarkington Newman during his lecture on “Sports and Youth Development” on November 14, 2014, the coach is the driving force behind the growth of young children in sports.  In fact, the best coaches at the youth level aren’t the ones that teach their athletes to throw the ball the farthest, or kick the ball the hardest; rather the best coaches are the ones who act as leaders and are able to supply beneficial emotional support. The actual basketball, football, and soccer skills will come in due time, but between the ages of 6-12 is when many boys and girls need to have positive influence in their lives, and the coach can be that very influence. However, many youth coaches fail to understand this central concept when coaching as they often use the same strategies that coaches at higher levels use. Physical punishment and verbal criticism have proven to be completely ineffective at the youth level, but have been used time and time again at the highest level of sports, and very notably by Herb Brooks.

In case you don’t know, Herb Brooks was the head coach for the U.S. hockey team that defeated the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics, which became dubbed as the “Miracle On Ice.” Although I was not alive for arguably the biggest upset of all time, I have seen the movie “Miracle,” which is a true story based on the U.S. team, countless times and I had the opportunity of seeing it again as part of a themed semester event. In my opinion, and one that many people will agree with, Herb Brooks was the catalyst behind the U.S. ultimately winning the gold medal. He was able to get 20-year-old college players to beat the Soviet Union, a team that had already beaten the NHL All Stars and had not lost in over two years. He was able to do this because of his coaching style, although it was questioned by many people around him, including his assistants. When picking his players, Brooks didn’t pick the “best” players; he selected the “right” players. He knew that his team would be nowhere near as talented as the Soviets, but his goal was to have the best team. He wanted to beat the Soviets at their own game by using team chemistry and conditioning. But what made Brooks’s coaching strategy so effective is that he knew how to get to his players so that they would respond to him in a positive way, even if that meant his players despising him as a person. When introducing himself to his players, he said “I’m your coach, not your friend.” This line set the tone to his players as to what his coaching style would be like. Brooks’s most notable coaching technique was the time he made his players do suicides for hours after an exhibition game because they were not focused during the game. Many people would argue that Brooks went too far, but it was his way of getting the most out of his players. And he knew they were capable of more, which is why he was so hard on them. Brooks often told his assistants that, “If they hate me they won’t have time to hate each other.” Brooks’s fire and passion led his players to becoming a family, allowing them to play freely on the ice, and eventually go on to win the gold medal at the olympics.

Different situations call for different coaching strategies. As a coach it is important to understand the players and their limitations. Great coaches get the most out of their players without going too far. Great coaches often use unconventional techniques that lead to greatness both on and even more importantly off the field. Coaches like Bo Schembechler and Herb Brooks are a few guys who were able to get the most out of their teams. Their leadership abilities drove their teams to being greater than all the others because to them nothing was more important than the team.

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3 thoughts on “The Team, The Team, The… Coach?

  1. Nice post! I really enjoyed reading about your analysis of the relationship between player and coach. You used amazing examples to show the correlation between competitive sports and seriousness. Similar to Bo and Herb, I had a high school soccer coach who took things to the extreme. I fondly remember hours of suicides, puking my guts out, and contemplating quitting almost every practice. The only reason I kept playing is because we were talented. Although his techniques were ethnically questionable, that soccer team became one of the best in the state of Michigan, making it to the state semi-finals in 2011. There is something to be said for what Bo and Herb were able to accomplish with their respective teams. As a University of Michigan student, I know how much Bo is adored by the athletic department. Upon reading an autobiography of Bo, written with the help of John U. Bacon, I discovered the method behind Bo’s madness. Bo really liked kids and wanted to teach them. However, there are many lessons that people need to learn from a role model. Thus, Bo beat discipline, integrity, and hard work into every one of his player’s until they were blue in the face. Through grueling training camps, off season workouts, and practices, the team became great. A physical and emotional bond held the players together as they battled on the field for one another. They all wanted to make something of their suffering and pain. Winning was their reward. Winning became everything. At the same time, his players were held accountable for their actions. Players had curfews, drug tests, and mandatory tutoring hours. Under Bo, players became appreciative of the opportunity they had been given to receive a great education and play football for a historic powerhouse.

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  2. I really enjoyed this post as it is something I can connect to very well. Growing up playing sports at every level from pee-wee to varsity, I understand the importance of a good coach. I agree with your contention that coaches at the youth levels are really there to help the kids understand the basics of the game rather than get the greatest possible performances. Coaches like Herb Brooks and Bo really understood both of these ideals. I think both of these coaches were so effective because they were able to not only bring players closer together, but also help them reach their maximum potential as a player. As an athlete, watching Miracle gives me an appreciation for all the great coaches I have had throughout my life. No player may be more important than the team, but a good coach can definitely make each player more effective for the team. Good post!

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  3. I greatly enjoyed your post. One think I would like to note is a commonality among the best coaches, as discerned from your post and seen in other great examples, such as Phil Jackson. Both Schembechler and Brooks were known for their stern empathy. Like you observed, they knew when to be demanding and when to be kind/friendly. This was also a significant characteristic of Phil Jackson, one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time. From this, it can be concluded that a large part of these coaches’ success came from that skill of knowing when to lend a helping hand versus an iron fist. How do you think this theory applies to other great coaches in other sports? Are there contrary methods that can be just as successful? These questions are important to consider while analyzing this post.

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