“Where the ball is going to be.”

Posted by jlubans on November 25, 2014

Caption: Marquette's coach, Carolyn Kieger, in her first year, encourages the team.

I make frequent use of basketball movies and articles to teach teamwork. (Indeed, “Leading from the Middle” has a chapter – “More than a Game” - on what I learned from a season with a women’s basketball team.) The two films I use are “Hoosiers” and “Sapņu komanda 1935" (Dream Team 1935). They share a similar storyline: a dysfunctional team that has a long way to go to achieve its potential. Each coach makes passing or sharing the ball of paramount importance in the team’s development. Of course, the ball hog players refuse to share and the storyline develops around how the coach and team work out their differences. The teams eventually learn that by sharing the ball their team will become better able to score and to win.
A coach’s instruction, “I want every player to touch the ball before anyone shoots,” is not a silly team building exercise. Passing really is about improving the probability of scoring. Rather than a player’s going it alone, passing the ball can set up players for the rebound or to gain a fraction of a second for an open “look” at the basket prior to shooting. Several head-snapping passes on the outside perimeter can confuse and freeze defenders and get the ball to the most open player.
Caption: Program featuring freshmen players.
I went to a game this weekend and it reminded me, once again, of the many good lessons about leading, following, sharing, and support one can find in a well played game.
Azura Stevens, a first year player, had an outstanding game. When asked to compare her play to an earlier game in which she was less effective she said: “The main difference was just thinking of the team before myself,” Stevens said. “I had a semi-decent game (a week ago), and I’ll admit I was a little bit prideful. So going into this game, I was really trying to focus on the team goals and what we were going to get done as a team, and the rest just came.”
When a player steals the ball and runs the court, usually there’s a team mate trailing; often that player is in a better position to score. If the player decides to keep the ball and shoots at full speed, it may rim out, a lost score. Indeed the other team may get the ball back. Similarly, I see a coach shaking her head when a player surrounded by defenders keeps the ball and puts up a wobbly shot.
So what does this have to do with work?
Passing the ball is like sharing ideas at work. The more touches an idea has the better the idea (the notion of an idea “scoring” or “winning” is not a complicated concept). A willingness to talk frankly and honestly and to have the patience to wait for an idea to develop is akin to a basketball team’s communicating and patiently passing and setting up shots. Also, passing represents players knowing their inter-dependencies. To pass without losing the ball means being aware of one’s colleagues, of being in the right place at the right time. Wayne Gretzky, the hockey player, said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” (BTW, when repeated by hidebound bosses, the ending of this quote – Gretzky’s excoriation of tradition - is always dropped!)
Some of that mind set and skill is what a good team gains through practice. The player charging up the court knows – without seeing – that there’s a trailing player ready to catch a behind-the-back pass for an easy lay-up. Or, when one player, screened by a defender and out of view of the passer, steps to the right and catches the pass. And it means talking, making yourself heard to all the players, letting the other players know where you are, literally and figuratively. Look at any good team (on the court or at work) and you’ll see “hands up” and other gestures of being open and you’ll hear the players talking to each other, letting everyone know where one is to help, to offer support.
You do not have to be prescient, like Mr. Gretzky suggests; rather you have to be familiar with your team and its procedures to know where to move the ball; you need to be where the ball is going to be.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
University of South Carolina, System Library Service
University Libraries, Columbia, SC 29208 United States

@Copyright John Lubans 2014
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