On Managing, Winter 2001

A reason for rain : Hoop Lessons for Library Leaders


John Lubans

I've been known to find leadership and team building in odd places: during a self-organizing Holy Week procession in Guatemala and in a conductorless orchestra that plays extraordinarily well (1).

Most recently, a women's basketball team gave me new insights into leadership, coaching and team work (2).

I know, I know, some of you are thinking that team dynamics in sports are not "real" enough to offer more than superficial insights for the workplace. True, the hoopla around basketball games is surreal: a flying plastic cow "bombing" fans with stuffed toys, somersaulting cheerleaders, blaring bands, mega size televised replays. All these distractions can combine to trivialize the main event for the casual observer. But, if you look closely, the contest is just as intense (and the lessons as profound) as it must have been centuries ago on the Mayan ball courts where a similar game (pok-ta-tok) was played for glory.

I am not suggesting that slipping on a uniform, lacing up a pair of hightops and dribbling a ball will lead to better teamwork in the workplace. That's an all too literal expectation, even for me. I still recall a department head's telling me, somewhat facetiously, after a team building day on the river, "Now I know what to do if a white water raft comes through my department!"

That said, I do encourage you to look for the underlying meanings in what happened and worked well on the court and how these lessons might benefit your leadership style. 

Why a Women's Team?

I was drawn to the Duke Blue Devils because of what I saw during one of the previous year's games - player huddles without the coach. They do join the coach before the time out ends, but for those encircled moments they are self-managing. That caught my eye and interest. Learning that Coach Gail Goestenkors peers regard her as an innovative leader further buoyed my interest. The TV sports analyst, Debbie Antonelli, told me "Coach G's program is the best model in the (conference)".

Turnover was another reason to look at this team. Five new players (out of a total roster of 13) were to join the team. That promised to make this an extraordinary season. These five freshmen would need to learn the "system" (there are over 30 plays in the playbook) and to develop relationships with returning players and coaches. The sports pundits were eager to hand the Blue Devils a ready-made excuse for losing - they pronounced this a "re-building" year. Coach G told me in our first interview, "Some are counting us out right now".

And, since this is a women's team, what I observed likely would be breaking new ground in organizational research about women. Sports metaphors are largely masculine in orientation even for guys who have never hiked a football or slam-dunked a basketball. Since this study is about a women's team it offers a sports model for professions in which women are the majority. The transferable insights and metaphors from how these young women became a team and overcame obstacles ought to resonate for women leaders. For that matter, do women's teams have their own metaphors to apply in the workplace?

I was told by some women coaches and players that coaching women is different from coaching men: "Women hold in their anger," and "There are more emotional issues". A popular view among sports psychologists is that when things go wrong, "Men blame others, women blame themselves". Illustrative of these beliefs is soccer star Mia Hamm's cryptic advice to her male coach: "Coach us like men, treat us like women". I hoped to find out if these were genuine gender differences or if they were simply differing perspectives on problems that confront all teams, on and off the court.

Key learning 1: "A reason for rain".

Injuries, games lost, scholastic woes, can undermine an entire team or an individual player. But, I re-discovered that when adversity is dealt with in a realistic and open way, the outcomes of encountering a hardship can be highly positive.

At season's end I asked the team, "What's been the difference-maker in this team's growth? What's caused the greatest improvement among the players?" "Losing games" and "team unity", they said. You see, it's not just having an adverse situation; more important is how you respond to it.
One player eloquently added: 

"…there is a reason for rain. Sunny days are always desirable, but if there were no rain I would have no basis for comparing sunny days. Sunny days are so much brighter after it has rained. I have begun to love the rain". 

Great teams, I discovered, anticipate, prepare for and deal with adversity. The ability to prevail appears to separate the great from the near great. When a winning team in the conference lost its star player for several games, that team collapsed. They were soundly beaten in all the games played without their star.

A season-ending injury to one of the Blue Devil starters was potentially as devastating. Indeed, they struggled through the next several games, but then charged back, winning the conference tournament in a see-saw scoring contest between a cohesive Duke team and an opponent dependant on its two star players for points and momentum.

Key learning 2: "Your defense sucks! It's soft!"

Feedback develops and sustains the relationship between players and coaches. I discovered that players expect and welcome feedback when it is given fairly and meant to improve what they do. It's best when immediate, frequent, and explicit.

The Coach's criticism of players during video reviews of games and at practices was rarely blistering and vulgar, occasionally colloquial but always frank and specific, and consistently balanced. For every criticism of a bad play, three or four positive (and sincere) comments were made by the coach and other players about that player.

Players told me they expect to be held accountable by the coaches. They are scholar/athletes who share high expectations and demand intensity of each other in practice and in games. A freshmen said: "If the coach is doing her job she has to yell at you"!

The coaching staff frequently prompts players to give each other feedback on the court - in practice and in games. More than once, the coach pointed out to the team: "When you get tired, you stop talking". Calling out player names, making eye contact, talking through stressful parts of a drill are required in each practice. Just going through the motions is never good enough - whatever you do, do it with attitude and style!

At the same time, the Coach was frank with the team about her own shortcomings. She accepted much of the responsibility for losing one of the first games: She said in a team meeting, "I should have called time (near end of game), a mistake I made. I will call more time outs". 

A freshmen player told me the coach phoned her at night, after an arduous practice, to apologize for being hard on her. That apology counted for more in that player's development than would a dozen exhortations to do better.

Players understand they have to be proactive in seeking counsel about how they are doing, how they can get better and how they can help the team.

Players who are non-confrontational (and over half the team said that was their inclination) understand they must work toward a more open and collaborative style. A player told me: "We … need to make sure that everyone feels like they can approach anyone on the team so the two of them can deal with whatever problem that may arise."

And there's the rub between the sports field and the office. In this team's case, four coaches and other staff carry out a single purpose: to help a team of 13 achieve its maximum potential. Even the most extensive workplace T&D initiatives pale when compared to the effort expended on team building for this basketball team. Library team building efforts are downright puny by comparison.

Key Learning 3: Shooting and scoring can be wrong.

What was the difference maker this season for the Coach? She told me: Clarity about roles. 
"It is not easy (to tell half the team they will not be starting), but in the long run it is best to be clear."
How is clarity achieved and maintained? 
For one thing, the coach meets individually with players and then with the team to clarify the player's role and to help players understand the rationale for all roles.

How clear? One player told me: "It would be hard to get out of the one-on-one meetings (with the coach) not knowing what she is thinking".

A player's shooting the ball and missing can be "right" if her role is to shoot whenever she sees an opening. Shooting and scoring can be "wrong" if the player's role is to pass the ball to the shooters and to otherwise open up opportunities for scoring. Setting screens, cutting into the defense, "kicking out" the ball, all require patience (and trust and confidence) to get the best opportunity for a clear shot. Scoring points is not the only way to help the team!

Team goals are set by players. Players write out personal and team goals for discussion one-on-one with the coach; then the team decides the team goal for the season. A few years ago, the Coach set the team goals; these were her goals. Since relinquishing that responsibility, she's found that players raise the bar rather than lower it.

Key Learning 4: "You don't know when your minutes will run out".

In sports, time is a finite resource. You go with what you have or forfeit the game. Game schedules, the 30 second shot clock, the 40 minutes of official play, even the dates and length of practices promote the value of time.

Practice is tightly programmed, down to 30 second timeouts. One of the drills is to make 50 shots from 5 spots on the floor in two and a half minutes - a shot every three seconds. (Indicative of their athleticism, players hit 25 to 30 or more). Near the end of the season, the team began to practice for the "what ifs": Two minutes left on the clock and you're down by four points. What do you do?

Players learn to make decisions within time limits. They do so without procrastination or delaying for more information. Discussion is brief and quick with hardly any back and forth.

Team meetings are conducted in admirably efficient ways. Clearly a choice has been made between doing versus talking. Agendas that in my experience could take an hour or more to cover, are expedited in less than half that time.

Several players mentioned to me their acquiring time management skills. They do so because they have to combine school work and playing ball, and also because these players cherish time. A player's observation says it best: "Value every single day. Like Coach G said before every practice while we huddled: 'Let's get better today'!".

Key Learning 5: "These are my sisters…".

What's the alchemy for a high performing team? What was the Blue Devil's secret ingredient for successful team chemistry? What contributed the most to this team's development? The answers may be surprising.

Fun preceded and followed every practice. According to the Coach, there was "more laughter than ever this year".

Players and coaches could laugh at themselves and still believe in one another. That esprit de corps helped get the team through the downs of the season.

Everyone gets to practice early - often fifteen minutes or more, with light hearted banter and playfulness. The welcoming warmth is palpable. I became addicted to being there, engulfed in the camaraderie!

The actual practice is more like work. The players focus intently on the coach and each other in running drills from the play book - with its 30 plus plays. There's still plenty of mutual support, but practice is a simulation of game conditions - it approximates an all out effort. 
Following practice, most players linger, talking with coaches and among themselves. No one is ever in a hurry to get away.

Most of the team development happens off the court, at group meals, on the road to away games, between roommates when on the road, in informal gatherings of players.

Players, when not in class, spend a majority of their time with each other. They hang out together. The resulting friendships, the coaches say, will last long after the end of their college careers. A senior said her "take away" at season's end was "… the bond of the team. These are my sisters and I love them dearly!"

This type of intense relationship building is not easily done in a 9-5 workplace; but there is a lesson here. An invariable plus in team development is getting to know your colleagues beyond their one dimensional work role.

Key Learning 6 : "You cannot control everything".

I found no magic leadership or coaching techniques that work for everyone, all the time. 
What does stand out is the multitude of approaches used to help players develop game, team, and personal skills. These include:

*Male practice players. (Play against someone stronger, faster to get better)
*Player (and coach) locker room speeches on an assigned word, like courage, family. (Team empathy for the public speaker).
*Coaches and players teaming up to scout and report on the competition. (Investment in winning, understanding, communicating)
*Videotaped practices for daily review by the team. (Accountability and feedback)
*A "buddy system", matching veteran players with freshmen. (Encouraging relationships on the road and on campus)
*Each player's signing off on the written team "rules". (Accountability and clarity of understanding)
*Immediate consequences: In practice, missing a foul shot results in wind sprints for the team. (Every move matters)

Finally, one of the players offers this philosophical insight that should resonate for the perfectionists among us: "There are some things in life you cannot control no matter how much effort you put in".

My most important take away? Frankly, it was something that I could have used to good effect for the past twenty or more years. The best leader and team member is singularly frank in communication, clear about goals and roles and believes that it is more than OK to have fun.

The Blue Devils' collaborative model of leadership was resilient and permitted the team to achieve its potential. The team's intense relationship building with genuinely open communication offers much to reflect upon by teams on and off the court. 

- END -

John Lubans writes about organizations. His one day personal development workshop, Learning to Lead, is tailored for public and academic librarians.
Web page:


1. See my web site for the essay on "Sacred Teams" in Guatemala and the article, "Lessons for Libraries from a Self-Managing Team: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Experience", Library Administration and Management 1998 12:142-46

2. These observations come from the 1999/2000 Duke University Women's Team basketball season.
The Blue Devils finished the season with a 28-6 overall record, achieving their potential - they won the conference championship surprising the "experts" who picked them to finish far out of first place.
I thank Head Coach Gail Goestenkors, the other coaches and support staff, and, the Blue Devil players for a thrilling season of games and team development.

Some of the raw research results appear on my web site.

3. One of the earliest applications of sports to business was Frederick W. Taylor's allusion to the management of a "first class American baseball team" as the model for industry; akin to a "management in which harmony is the rule rather than discord". This was in early 1912 when Mr. Taylor testified before the US House of Representatives about his theory of scientific management.