The Dangers of Prioritizing Victory Over Growth
During one of my first experiences as an assistant basketball coach, our staff was forced to manage a behavioral incident during a game involving our most talented player and someone seated behind our bench. It happened in plain view of our team and a gym full of spectators, so an immediate response was required. Our head coach had no reservation about holding the player accountable and suspending him from games. After a lengthy process involving parents, administration, and the head coach, it was determined that instead of handing down a consequence, the player would sign a behavioral contract and promise not to exhibit such behavior in the future. Basically, a slap on the wrist and a cursory, passive warning never to do it again.
When the news was shared with the coaching staff, I was livid. Surprisingly, I was the only one. I couldn’t wrap my head around the decision, given the values of the basketball program which we all taught day in and day out over the course of the season. I shared with one of the other assistant coaches, “Is this what we really stand for?” And then he dropped this reality check on me:
The more talent you have, the more rope you get
I couldn’t help thinking that this approach to team and player management goes against everything that I’ve been taught or mentored on regarding ethics and teaching. How could we let a player escape accountability, regardless of who they are or who they know? Are we just teaching that utility and production trump bad and inappropriate behavior? My coaching colleague made his point, and proceeded to list numerous examples of this approach to discipline being used over the history of team sports. All I could do was shake my head and walk away from the conversation.
I’ve never forgotten that statement, and it comes up quite a bit in my mind every basketball season when we have to use poor player behavior as opportunities to teach better critical thinking skills. As I’ve reflected on this incident over the years, I have tried to understand how we as a team and coaching staff got into this situation in the first place. Coaching for twenty years, I have witnessed this scenario play out time and time again — most times in the interest of winning games or championships, always over my strong and often solo objection.
I have come to realize that it becomes so easy for those in authority to be flippant about expectations and consequences because the decision makers have shifted the coach-player relationship from mentorship and teaching to utility-analysis and risk management. Leaders making these types of decisions have opted to make their relationships with their greatest asset, their personnel, a transactional one based only on what each party can do for each other. The only problem is that players or employees don’t realize that there is a power imbalance in transactional relationships and Leaders almost always have the upper hand.
What are the dangers of basing our choices purely on a cost-benefit analysis? There are several potential, life-impacting implications for our players and colleagues:
- Dehumanizing Players and Coaches: When Leaders use utility as the sole barometer of decision-making, they reduce people to a percentage, a factor impacting success, one that has to be manipulated or modulated to get a particular result. This paradigm negates the possibility that people can grow and improve, choosing to accept the fallacy that players are a fixed and unchangeable variable in the wins-producing formula. Leaders will hide issues or concerns in favor of winning. Once the player or coach has stopped producing, there is no longer any reason to keep them around. In this situation, what have we as Leaders taught those in our care?
- Creating Inequity and Eroding Team Trust & Morale: Trading in bad and morally questionable behavior from our players for wins also creates a double standard on our teams, one that will become untenable at some point when the pressure on the team inevitably becomes too much to manage. Our players are quick to recognize when a Leader’s words do not match with their actions and decisions. When one player or a group within the team are treated with different rules than the rest of the players, coach-player trust is broken and the team will fracture in pressure moments that require team unity.
- Trading Dignity & Integrity for the Easy Fix: Leaders structure the environment and expectations for their teams, whether intentional or without forethought. Our decisions indicate whether or not we value and care about people or if we are more concerned about the bottom line. It becomes impossible to establish the mutual respect that is required for strong coach-player relationships when Leaders are willing to trade a player’s dignity and their own integrity for an easy fix that leads to wins.The mental and ethical calculus of dealing with people only works in one direction, away from players and towards the needs and wants of the coach. Players are expendable
How do we guard against utility-based decision-making as coaches? Consider these questions:
- Who does this decision serve? It’s a simple question. Will the decision I make serve me and my needs or the needs of my team? Coaches are asked to make decisions that are ethical and serve the needs of our players — that teach and reinforce pro-social and pro-team values which can translate outside of the gym or pitch. If a coach is thinking only of victory, the championship, or their own legacy and reputation when they make a decision, it leads to a missed opportunity to be a true leader who builds up people. Our mission as coaches is to serve the greater good of our players, not our own selfish ego.
- Short-Term Win vs. Long-Term Success: Another concept to which we should measure our decisions is whether or not our words, actions, and choices lead to the long-term success and health of our players. Leaders should opt for the 30,000 ft view of our teams and players when we act, not the myopic and narrowly focused view of what’s immediately in front of your faces. That perspective can be deceiving and does not provide Leaders all the information necessary to make sound decisions. Accountability and teaching now, even if it results in a defeat, have better chances of leaving a positive impact in a player’s personal and professional life. Dismissing accountability and allowing poor player behavior in favor of a win now, only postpones the harsh lessons our players will learn about life and how to treat people when they move on from our programs. We will not have acted in our players’ and team’s best interest, only our own.
- How do I want my values reflected? Social and traditional media are rife with example after example of leaders trying to dismiss their questionable decisions by deflecting and assigning blame to others or justifying their choices by the results they have earned. No matter what we decide as Coaches and Leaders, our words and actions take place in the public forum and are subject to debate and discussion for the community at large. In as much as our players take their cue from what we say and what we do, the public looks with a critical eye on Leaders who are chosen or assigned to protect, teach, and mentor young people. If you had to face a parent in a private meeting or stand behind a podium in front of a room full of reporters, could you reasonably explain yourself? Does your actions match the values you want reflected and claim you teach?
As coaches, we should be demanding all our players, especially the most talented and recognizable, to lead and serve others as well as produce towards the bottom line. They are not mutually exclusive. It just depends on whether you as a coach have the patience, fortitude, and clarity of purpose to make decisions in the best interest of your players, no matter how hard they are, even if they mean your job. This should be the expectation for anyone on our teams:
The more talent you have, the more responsibility you get, the greater your impact must be.