A Pointed Assist: Dean Smith’s Teamwork Innovations

Posted by jlubans on February 24, 2015

Caption: In a sport crossover, Lionel Messi “soccer’s Michael Jordan” pointing at teammate who gave the assist for his scoring kick.

The justly famous college basketball coach, Dean Smith, died on February 7, 2015. Accolades continue to pour in. A memorial service at the “Dean Dome” (the Dean E. Smith Center) on February 22 drew thousands.
When you played for Dean Smith, many players recalled, it was the start of a friend-for-life relationship. This applied to everyone, stars and bench players. Indeed, one former player said he never made a major life decision without consulting Dean Smith.
I recall his ethical stand against beer sponsors of televised collegiate games. Pretty much a contrarian voice in this big bucks era of college basketball, I admired his courage.
I am most impressed with how Coach Smith influenced teamwork and player relationships; indeed he innovated many of the “scripts” in what has become a highly ritualized game. Below are a few of his – now ubiquitous - innovations. Each was meant to build and maintain team camaraderie; each demanded the player’s commitment to a philosophy of “one for all and all for one”. Seemingly artificial – some might say mechanical – these practices work once they become routine. (It takes repetition to turn these behaviors into habits.) No, none of these alone win games but they contribute to team cohesiveness and cohesive teams win more games than teams of loosely connected individuals.
The reader may be thinking - as many do about sports metaphor - that these sorts of rituals do not transfer to work. But, work does have its customs, its own protocols. A personal bête noire is the annual silliness of performance evaluation – well worthy of a Monty Python sketch. Unproven in its effectiveness, we still invest thousands of hours to get supervisors to talk with subordinates (we hope) at least once a year! Coach Smith offers us some proven and highly effective notions about teamwork.
Along with listing Smith’s innovations, I’ve included a few of my ideas on how these apply in the workplace. By all means, add your own.

Caption: Pinkerton Academy (Maine) Astros bench and fans cheer the team on towards the end of the game. They lost. By Carl Russo (2010).

Standing and cheering teammates: Bench players were expected to stand and to applaud their teammates after every score and when they returned to the bench, coming out of a game.
Workplace app: Praise team members; show that you appreciate their efforts. Recognize everyone’s effort. Sure, have the annual recognition dinner but acknowledge good stuff as it happens. Do this during and at the conclusion of a project. Encouraging teammates is important especially when the team hits a rough patch; continue to recognize people for their efforts. External recognition triggers the most powerful internal motivators. Not to get overly sententious, but do it daily.

Diving for loose balls: when a ball got loose, Smith made clear everyone was expected to dive for it, not just the ball handlers or the guards. Smith’s teams were known for unrelenting hustle and coming up – out of the scrum - with the ball. If you avoided floor burns, you did not play.
Workplace app: No cherry picking of assignments. Everyone does an equal amount of work and shares in the hard stuff as well as in the easy. As the OKC Thunder's Coach, Scott Brooks said:
"The dirty job, garbagepail mentality is not for Perk and Nick Collison (bench players); it's for Kevin and Russell (stars)." If they're not defending and they're not getting on the floor for loose balls and they're not trying to win every free throw block out, and they're not trying to win every jump ball, why is it important for the other guys to do it?”

Tired signal: Players who needed a break were encouraged to hold up one fist – that was the tired signal. When a player gave Smith the tired signal, he would put in a substitute, and, most importantly, the player would decide when he was ready to get back in the fray. When Smith had to “sit” a tired player, it was Smith’s decision as to when he would return, a subtle difference not lost on players who cherish every minute played.
Workplace app: Communicate when you are unable to help the team, when you need a break. Ask for help when you need it. Make clear how you are feeling about a team issue. Take a break from a tense moment, come back to it after sleeping on it.

Huddle before free throws: Tar Heel players were taught to huddle before free throws. This huddle – within the rules of the game - gave players the effect of a 5- to 10-second meeting without sacrificing a time out. “There were no coaches in the huddle setting up offenses or defenses of course, but signals could be relayed from the bench to the point guard or team leader. Above all, these huddles ensured all players would be on the same page.”
Workplace app: So, huddle with your team. You don’t need a group hug, but do stop the action and say what needs to be said. What needs doing, what’s worrying you, what needs to get better? And, as needed, clarify any disagreement. Speak to it when it happens. How much can you possible say in 5-10 seconds? Paradoxically, a whole lot more than you can say in a formal hour-long meeting.

Finally, Smith would recognize his senior players by starting them in the Senior Day game. He wanted to credit publicly the players’ contribution, whether as starters or bench and practice players. Once, legend has it, when his team included six seniors (one over the game limit of 5), “he put all six on the floor at the beginning of the game – drawing a technical foul. He did that rather than leave one of them out.”
Workplace app: Sometimes it's justified and good to break the rules.

NOTE: Chapter 8 in Leading from the Middle is about Gail Goestenkors’ coaching of a women’s basketball team: “More Than a Game: A Season with a Women’s Basketball Team.”

@Copyright 2015 John Lubans
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Posted by frank mcnutt on February 24, 2015  •  15:38:27

kudos to you John.

Posted by John Lubans on February 25, 2015  •  09:17:53

Hey, Mr. Frank. So nice of you, dude! J

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