04 August 2015

Coaching sports is a particularly challenging endeavor.  It is difficult because there are many moving pieces that factor into the success or failure of any given undertaking for any given coach with any given team.  Obviously, not all teams and not all players were created equal.  When coaching men’s basketball at Marquette University, Tom Crean had the distinct advantage of having a team including a player named Dwayne Wade.  I don’t watch sports or television as much as I used to and even if I did, there’s nothing as interesting to watch as when Dwayne Wade played at Marquette.  He was an electric player that changed everything every time he stepped on the court.  I remember checking television schedules to plan to watch every bit of Marquette basketball I could because that one player was astounding and his activity was poetry in motion.  It was something that just had to witnessed.  He could do things no one else could and looked so smooth doing it.  When there is one player on the court that is just an unstoppable force, coaching that team is a different matter than coaching other teams.  Coaching the team opposing such a team also takes on a completely different character.  Coaching a team with a player like Dwayne Wade (not that there are other players like Dwayne Wade) is like playing chess and having a queen that moves not only like either a rook or a bishop, but also like a knight and can incorporate combinations of those types of movement in a single move.  I coach 3 teams of 6-9-year-old boys and girls playing soccer (yes, I mean football to many of you, dear readers).  One of these teams has a player with an impact similar to that of Dwayne Wade in the games in which she participates.  Because of this, the team wins games.

It’s not fair that some teams have players with capabilities unmatched by any of their opponents.  It’s not fair that some of us are bigger than others or that learning comes more easily.  It’s not fair that some of us have parents who care and others don’t.  It’s not fair that kids get cancer.  In his novel, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, William Goldman yields an insightful look at the concept of fairness.  In addition to some more explicit statements about the unfairness of life, Goldman introduces us to an enormous Turk named Fezzik, so physically strong and powerful as to be seemingly invincible, capable of successfully fighting dozens of men at the same time.  To fighting, Fezzik is what Dwayne Wade is to basketball.  When confronting another character in the story with the intent of having a fight without weapons to the death, the difference in size and strength of the giant and the advantage it yields is addressed.

“… I accept it,” said the man in black, and he began to take off his sword and scabbard. “Although, frankly, I think the odds are slightly in your favor at hand fighting.”
“I tell you what I tell everybody,” Fezzik explained. “I cannot help being the biggest and strongest; it’s not my fault.”
“I’m not blaming you,” said the man in black.

Goldman, William (2007-10-08). The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (p. 155). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

What Fezzik said about his makeup is simple and doesn’t require a great deal of thought or effort.  Yet, it is insightful.  There is a perception in the world that things should be fair and that a person with exceptional ability makes for an unfair competition.  In truth, a mismatch of abilities makes a fight unfair only in the sense that it makes the resulting outcome predictable (thought perhaps the fight between Fezzik and the man in black is a bad example given that the outcome was something you might not expect given only the abilities of Fezzik).  Really, though.  If Fezzik fights another man, isn’t that just a man against a man?  At heart, isn’t that the very definition of fair.  That one man is an exceptional fighter because of some combination of training, experience, and the accident of genetics means only that he’s an exceptional fighter.  If I played chess against Gary Kasparov or Deep Blue, the outcome would be easily predictable – it would not be a question of who would win, only one of how long it would take and how many pieces I could take in my feeble attempt at resistance.  It would not be unfair, though.  Some people are just really good at what they do. SONY DSC

Consider also what it means to be successful as a sports coach.  Typically, a win-loss record is the measure of success.  Is this really the best we can do?  Given that the differences between players does not make a game unfair, as we have seen with Fezzik, what does it tell us about comparing one coach to another?  Sports are not like chess.  Every player is a unique snowflake, unlike any other.  Even in chess, the game is not completely fair and it is arguably an advantage to be white.

I was listening to the Tim Ferriss Show podcast, which has a lot of really awesome content with some excellent people addressing many aspects of excellence.  In his interview with General Stanley McChrystal, one line of questioning and the associated answers really stood out to me as being important and applicable to teams – any sort of teams.  The context of the question was about citizens practicing military strategy, which I don’t think is a particularly interesting question.  The answer, though, was remarkable.  The relevant block of the interview runs from 01:36:18 - 01:40:14.  I don’t think there was a lot in that interview you can’t miss, but those 4 minutes of audio are worth a listen.  The question talked about using games, like chess, to simulate military strategy.  The answer contains many lessons about life, fairness, and managing teams.  Chess is really a game simulating a military conflict and planning strategy and testing foresight and execution.  It’s really very much the same as American football, with the remarkable difference cited by General McChrystal.  The follow-up question is fascinating.  Comparing chess and backgammon and noting the differences between games that are purely deterministic and depend only on the decisions of the players and games with an element of chance is a fantastic.  I’ve often expressed a preference for games where chance is not a factor.  General McChrystal, without doubt, taking the opposite position has convinced me.  Not because of his position, but because of the content of what he said.  Skill in a game in which one deals with matters not in their own control is a much better proxy for success in life and in dealing with teams in the real world.

This is that segment of audio from the Tim Ferriss show:

Real teams are not composed of eight interchangeable pawns, two identical rooks, two indistinguishable knights, two exchangeable bishops, a queen and a king.  Real teams do not have these components competing against another team with component pieces with identical capabilities.  This is as true of teams creating software as it is in 7-year-olds playing soccer.  Fortunately, there’s not always a direct competition between different teams creating products or serving businesses.  The success of a team does not depend on beating another team in competition (though business competition is real and delivering a product in a first-to-market state matters).  Teams are successful that do the best they can to understand the needs of the business and deliver something of value to make life and business better for those they serve.

So how do you measure the success of a coach in athletics?

My answer is that it is the same as how you measure the success of the manager of a product team or of the team itself in teams using agile methodologies where there’s not a designated manager.  Successful teams deliver value.  This means a coach of a team is successful if the players on the team are able to exercise their skills in ways that are rewarding and enjoyable and in ways that help them grow.  The coach is successful if the spectators of the game (if there are spectators) saw a drama unfold in the way the game progressed and there was something useful, entertaining, and potentially inspiring in the actions of players, coaches, and officials.  If winning is what drives the members of the team, that’s a piece of the composition of success as well.  I’d argue it’s a piece that should be much smaller than it is often perceived.  Ultimately, the value provided by a software team is in the eye of the beholder.  If the software product automates difficult, cumbersome, and/or error-prone tasks, using it is a win for users.  If it enables some action or makes it more accessible, using it is a win for users.  If building the product gives edification and maturity to the members of the team, value has been achieved.  There are typically not easy ways of measuring many of these impacts, but they are the most important in our lives.  Many people cite some teacher and/or high school athletics coach as being a key influencer in their lives.  This is the true measure of value and success – does reflection on your interaction with someone yield fond memories of how their presence made your life better?  If the answer to that is yes, this is a successful interaction.

Am I a successful coach with the teams of my children?  I know that in at least one respect I am – I have grown because of my participation and I have learned and I have taken joy in the act of being involved.  I have benefitted greatly.  I’d like to think the players and the parents of the players have benefitted in the same way.  I’m confident this is the case for a majority of them, but only they can judge for sure.  Are my software efforts successful?  I know that in at least one respect, they are – I have grown because of my participation and I have learned and I have taken joy in the act of being involved.  I have benefitted greatly.  I’d like to think the users, team members, stakeholders, business experts, and other participants with whom I have interacted and for whom I have provided software have benefitted in the same way.  I’m confident this is the case for a majority of them, but only they can judge for sure.

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