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Book Recap Series: You Win In The Locker Room First

In my experience, most coaches fall into one of two camps. You either love to read, or you hate it. One thing that I have found true of almost every coach I know, however, is that they love to learn. The desire to continually get better is one of the many reasons why I love the coaching profession and the individuals who choose to devote their time to it.

Since I am the author of this recap, it is safe to assume which camp I fall into. My purpose in this recap (and the rest of the series) is to provide coaches the opportunity to glean valuable information from coaching leaders in a short amount of time. It’s my hope that these bring you valuable truths that you can apply with your team.

I chose Jon Gordon and Mike Smith’s You Win In The Locker Room First largely due to my high regard for their other work and the universality of their subject. Jon Gordon is no stranger to success. He has numerous bestselling books, and his leadership principles have been put to practice by Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and nonprofits across the country. Mike Smith earned multiple NFL Coach of the Year awards on his way to becoming the Atlanta Falcons’ all-time winningest coach in 2014. His experience and insight into what it takes to lead an NFL franchise speaks volumes to what it takes to lead at the highest level. Let’s dive into the 7 C’s to build a winning team.


Culture

Mike Smith took over a Falcons organization that had not had back-to-back winning seasons in their 42-year history. His first priority was to establish the culture top to bottom. He made it a point to introduce himself and give a book to every single member of the organization. This included all support staff and off-field departments. In order to be successful, Coach Smith knew that there could not be one culture in the locker room, and a different one outside it.

Coach Smith is passionate about having a daily evaluation process to measure how you are meeting your standards. He also laid out milestones along the process towards success for his organization. A few of these included showing respect for every member of the organization, putting the team first, and using positive language (both verbal and body). Coach implores the reader to focus on the root, not the fruit of the process.

Contagious

While COVID-19 may be grabbing headlines, there is another dangerous disease that is ravaging its way through programs across the country. Every single individual in your organization is sending messages about their energy as soon as they walk in the door. Negative energy is contagious, and people need to be trained out of the habit of pessimism. Coach Dabo Swinney has famously referred to himself as an “over-believer”, and it’s no surprise that he has seen tremendous success because of this passionate belief in his team.

“The world trains people to be pessimistic…one of the most important things I must do here is to make sure my players and staff believe that tomorrow will be better than today.” – Pete Carroll

Coach Smith discovered early on in his tenure with the Falcons that his outlook radically changed how his team responded. His resolve to approach the day with a positive spirit of service set the tone for the entire organization. This positive approach led him to have “never a bad day, only bad moments.” Coaching staffs who consistently communicate a positive outlook have greater success in building a unified team and weeding out the energy vampires. As Gordon puts it, “One person can’t make a team but one person can break a team.” Words are powerful, and our body language is always being evaluated.

Consistency

Perhaps no words hit harder than Coach Smith’s statement on consistency; “The character you possess during the drought is what your team will remember during the harvest.” That is if you are fortunate enough to get to a harvest. Coach Pete Carroll has admitted to struggling with keeping himself consistent. He is dedicated to always becoming more consistent, however, because he knows this crucial fundamental aspect of leadership: when you are moody, no one around you knows what to expect from you. Uncertainty breeds mistrust.

Jon Gordon highlights this section by adding a few habits of humble and hungry (and as a result, successful) teams:

  • See everyone as teachers (Learn from them!).
  • Remember that today’s headlines are tomorrow’s fish wrap.
  • Be willing to pay the price that greatness requires.
  • Don’t rest on past laurels. Make your next work your best work.

Communicate

Anyone who has ever been in any type of relationship knows that oftentimes the source of many problems is a lack of communication. Smith and Gordon share several practical applications towards becoming a more effective communicator:

  1. Understand that communication is about listening, not about talking.
  2. Take the temperature of the building: Frequently talk to support staff about the players’ moods. Knowing the pulse of the team regardless of how well they are playing is crucial (It also provides opportunities to have valuable conversations with support staff).
  3. “The most effective leaders are the ones who are mobile and visible throughout the building”. The more positive interactions you have around the building, the more footprints you leave behind to lift the spirits of the organization.
  4. Look for ways to reinforce your message using outside voices.

“Research says that you can’t be stressed and thankful at the same time.” – Jon Gordon

Connect

The Baltimore Ravens, in 2000, had one of the best defenses of all time, giving up only 165 points throughout the regular season. Their tenacity carried them through a 5-game stretch where their offense didn’t score a single touchdown (they won 2 of the 5). How did the two sides of the ball keep from tearing each other apart? Connection. Head Coach Brian Billick and his staff did an incredible job communicating with the leaders of the team, making sure the entire staff supported both sides vocally and made sure each side controlled only what they could control. The outcome? A 34-7 Super Bowl win.

A few exercises Jon Gordon shares to help build a more connected locker room are as follows:

  1. “Hero, Hardship, and Highlight” – every team member shares each one of the three in front of the team.
  2. “Defining Moment” – Each member shares a defining moment in their life that helped make them who they are.
  3. “If you really knew me, you would know this about me” – Encourage team members to be open and honest.

I highly encourage you to use these with not only your players but your coaches as well. Giving time for the staff to share with the team creates unity and trust between the players and coaches.

“The connection you create today will be the bond that strengthens your team tomorrow” – Mike Smith

Commitment

Jon Gordon is a firm believer that commitment begins with service. How do you show your team that you are committed to them? By serving we over me. Think of a great leader in your life. Chances are they were great servants. There are a few questions you should ask yourself every day. “What am I doing to serve my team and the people I lead, how can I serve them to help them be the best versions of themselves, and how can I demonstrate my commitment to them?” Coach Smith offers a sobering quote that is one of my favorites from the entire book. He says, “It doesn’t matter how much success you have in your career; if you fail at home you are a failure.” Look to serve in every facet of your life.

“You have to decide whether you are going to serve we or me” – Jon Gordon

One major aspect of service for a coach is dropping their own ego. As C.S. Lewis would agree, thinking of yourself less and others more is the starting point of every successful coach. Everyone wants to claim the ‘humble and hungry’ mantra, but how many coaches are living out humility in their daily lives? One major key to losing your ego is caring more about what your team thinks of you than what those outside the program think of you. A leader who takes the blame for mistakes and passes on praise to others is a leader who makes an everlasting impact.

Care       

How do you show the members of your organization that you care? Everyone has specific ways that they express care for others. Coach Smith argues that the number one way to show people you care is to have one-on-one personal contact. Of course, leaders can’t do this every day, but over time these interactions add up (and so does their trust in you). If you were honest with yourself, would your followers be able to easily answer the ways they know you care for them?

“Find ways to extend yourself to others and serve them. Write a note. Make a call. Go out of your way to serve someone. Go beyond the expected.” – Jon Gordon

Transformational coaches see their role as one who helps every member of their organization become the best possible version of themselves. If you follow each of these five simple principles, you will be well on your way to becoming a transformational leader:

  1. Care about the work you do.
  2. Surround yourself with people who care.
  3. Show your team you care about them.
  4. Build a team that cares about one another.
  5. Together show your fans/students that you care about them.

Will your legacy remember you as a leader who brought the best out of their followers?

Conclusion

I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of ‘You Win In The Locker Room First: The 7 C’s to Build a Winning Team in Business, Sports, and Life’. The teaching shared above is just a small sample of how much this book has to offer. Jon Gordon and Mike Smith’s teachings will undoubtedly leave you encouraged to become a better leader and give you the tools to do so.

For questions, or if you would like to see a specific book reviewed, please email me at kkempton@afca.com.


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