As the National Hockey League prepares for the 2014-15 season, teams are filling gaps in positions and skill sets, so that in six months (and 82 games) of player trades, injuries, fatigue, drama of contracts, personality clashes, media and fan pressure, etc., they will have the complete team that will finish at the top of the standings. But, what if the Montreal Canadiens, for example, who are unable to decide on a leader for the role of captain and are going with four alternates, could avoid these kinds of manpower issues, no matter what the makeup of their roster, with a simple system for brilliant leadership?
We hear of struggling teams such as the Edmonton Oilers looking to land the next Sidney Crosby in the draft, but rarely do we hear them looking to acquire the next brilliant Scotty Bowman. That is because leadership is often perceived as an inexact and uncontrollable science, similar to predicting the weather. Except at trade deadline. Then teams like the Boston Bruins look to trade up for that one player such as Jerome Iginla who’ll take a significant leadership role in the playoffs. This goal to find leaders should be the norm, especially when searching for coaches.
The potential benefit of brilliant coaching is reinforced by three undeniable truths:
1) As much as teams look for skills, attributes and size, professional hockey players are at the NHL level because they are all very good. They have their “10,000 hours” of experience in, and are (can be) very committed and passionate. The main difference is usually in consistency and leadership, something that can improve with experience.
2) All coaches have access to the same types of systems for running practices and running games, so not much is new or can be kept secret.
3) Players have access to the best foods, additives and training methods. The legal stuff that athletes put into their bodies and the kinds of training they do is pretty much equal and well-known.
So, if gaining a huge advantage for your team is now wasted on looking for the next superstar athlete, coaching technique or training system, what is left? Brilliant coaching, that’s what. Leadership is an exact science with the right system, and my findings indicate that any coach can learn the tools to build a very successful team out of any talented pool of NHL players.
Stumbling into brilliant coaching
As an instructor and coach, I was anything but brilliant when I taught my very first karate classes. But I worked through the many, many headaches, looked to some of my own senseis (teachers) as role models and experimented to make my classes exciting, interesting and empowering.
I developed, sometimes by accident, a dynamic and energized leadership style where I tested various strategies to create a wildly energizing experience for my students. My classes became a buzz of adrenalized, skill development that ultimately created focused athletes who won consistently! And out of this experiment some basic “Bob’s Rules” evolved that are enabling the coaches, pros, Olympians and CEOs with whom I work with to win as well.
Bob’s Five Rules of Brilliant Coaching (and winning)
1. Brilliant coaches such as Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers set an electric atmosphere that fires up players to perform well over their heads. While other coaches tell you what they want in terms of passion, brilliant coaches demonstrate what is needed. No matter what the situation, dire or not, the brilliant coach demonstrates the posture and power of winning. In other words, their personal Zone is the model for the athletes, in practice and competition. And it is very contagious and empowering.
Bob’s Rule #1: When the coach is in the Zone, his or her athletes are as well.
My responsibility is leadership, and the minute I get negative, that is going to have an influence on my team.
— Don Shula, Former coach of the Miami Dolphins
2. Brilliant coaches such as Mike Babcock of the Detroit Redwings use the Zone as a strategy and a choice. They are not only in the Zone, but they are wired to get their players in the Zone as well. Imagine going to a party and in the midst of all the happy revelers you try to sulk. This is probably doable for a highly depressed person, but most of you would be caught up in the revelry and smiling within seconds. Now imagine a team where the coach knows how to push his player’s buttons in the same manner. Try to sulk and, ZAP, the coach has your number. Try to fade or give up in the latter part of the game and ZAP, the coach has your number there too. These are the kinds of buttons brilliant coaches push on a regular, on-going, unrelenting basis. And they are very good at it.
Bob’s Rule #2: When you are skillful, everyone and anyone can be ignited to the level of the Zone.
“It is a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover ability in others is the true test.”
— Lou Holtz, Retired American football player, coach
3. Brilliant coaches like the Ottawa Senator’s Paul MacLean teach brilliant leadership. Brilliant coaches make high performance tangible and players buy into it. It is very empowering to be coached in this way, and the players learn in turn to push each others’ buttons. This team synergy is contagious and results in a snowball effect. No one player carries the team and the loss of a player to injury always has a replacement who knows the system, knows the Zone and knows how to use it. Great organizations even take the Zone to farm teams.
Bob’s Rule #3: Brilliant coaches teach brilliant leadership to players.
“The strength of the group is the strength of the leaders.”
— Vince Lombardi, Football Coach
4. Brilliant coaches like Colorado Avalanche’s Patrick Roy treat all players alike and differently at the same time. Players feel as if the coach knows them individually because the coach develops a relationship (mostly unspoken, as we are not talking being touchy feely here) with their athletes over time and finds out what works and what doesn’t. Coaches are more than just strategist and gatekeeper; they know what makes their players tick.
Bob’s Rule #4: A coach’s power is built on trust.
“A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are.”
— Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame Football coach
5. Brilliant coaches like Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper are part of a team. They win as a team; they lose as a team. It makes for a boring post-game scrum for the members of the media from TSN, SPORTSNET or ESPN as they fail to get the drama they usually get from other coaches who blame everyone but themselves.
Bob’s Rule #5: There is nothing more powerful than the synergy of a passionate team. And that synergy typically starts with the coach.
“If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”
— Paul “Bear” Bryan, Football Coach
Brilliant Coaching in Action
Some time ago, I jumped at the opportunity to push a few buttons in a pregame “Rah Rah” session with a young hockey team I was training. I arrived at the arena early and, since they were suiting up, I took in a game that was currently being played. Sad to say, my home side was in deep, behind by three goals with about 10 minutes left in the third. And I immediately understood why. The goaltender mishandled the puck nearly every time it came within his reach.
So, the light went on in my head and, being me, and understanding the buttons that can be pushed by brilliant coaching strategies, I moved to the boards where the goaltender could see me. As goaltenders only play half of the game (when the puck in their end zone), I distinguished myself from the covey of distraught parents around me and got into my best Zone posture, to see if I could influence him (push his Zone buttons). It was quite interesting, as each time he looked in my direction (as he did his snow-removal housekeeping), I could sense a shift in his physiology. Never having done this before (a lie), and further reinforcing his shifts with my own Zone, I noticed that his puck handling was growing more confident as his nerves were being displaced by his Zone.
Now, a most surprising thing happened. I looked at the goaltender’s bench and the assistant coach was now in Zone. Well, if you know anything about minor sports, many coaches get so caught up in the game that they even forget to breathe, let alone get in the Zone. I figured that the only reason this assistant coach shifted so quickly to the Zone was that he was the goaltender’s father and was highly connected to him. But then I noticed that the coach soon shifted to the Zone as well, which made sense as the Zone is highly contagious and he and the assistant were probably friends as well as colleagues.
But then the unthinkable (which I of all people should have expected) happened. The home team scored three successive goals and tied up the game. Wow, I remember thinking. I created the Butterfly Effect! In excited disbelief/belief of an experiment gone right, I got called into my training session with the other team and only later heard that they won in overtime, all because some guy figured he knew something about pushing players’ buttons.
So, as NHL teams try to put the right ingredients together to build the perfect team of specialists, they might be encouraged instead to find the next Scotty Bowman. Or, barring that, someone like me who knows how to train coaches to push Zone buttons brilliantly, unrelentingly and successfully.