When ‘Coach Speak’ Crosses the Dangerous Line of Delusion

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Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey (left) and K-State Coach Bruce Weber. Photos by Rod Aydelotte, Associated Press & Ken Corbitt, cjonline.com

This weekend, two basketball coaches made two statements after two significant games. Both instances happened in the Big 12 Conference. The first with Kansas State men’s head coach Bruce Weber and the second with Baylor women’s head coach Kim Mulkey.

Weber’s team, facing a critical game to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive, turned in perhaps their worst performance of the season, losing by 30 points to the last-place team in the conference. Weber’s seat was already warm from speculation this would be his last year with the team. It just became a blazing inferno. However, in his ongoing effort to stay positive, Weber said this in his post-game comments about the mountain of criticism that is now being shown his way (here’s the full statement):

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Yes, apparently it is only the media who is criticizing the coach. Maybe Weber truly hasn’t read any message boards, the “KState Bruce Weber” search results on Twitter, or the pining for an opposing coach in the school’s newspaper.

Just further south of Norman, Okla. where Weber uttered those words, Mulkey’s Lady Bears in Waco, Texas had just finished winning their seventh consecutive league title and the coach’s 500th win. An otherwise momentous occasion turned into a personal platform for Mulkey. She chose to voice her opinion on the backlash the school has been receiving for allowing a culture of gross misconduct to take place during several years and the epic fallout (more on that in just a second.)

After an on-court celebration, Mulkey took the microphone and said that people should commit an act of violence against those who are critical of Baylor University’s dismal failure of having prohibited acts of violence against others. (Ironic these comments also come from a representative of a private, Christian university.)

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She then doubled-down and compounded her as-of-Sunday’s backtracking “poor choice of words” by saying the problems at Baylor are no different than at any other school in America.” You can have a full listen here.

Except no other school in America is currently facing a federal  lawsuit alleging 52 sexual assaults by 31 football players in a four-year period which led to the removal of its head football coach, school president, athletic director, and other athletic staffers, with a visit by federal Title IX investigators on their way. Oh, and like Weber, Mulkey also stated she hadn’t heard any of the criticism on Sunday, despite feeling the need to “clarify her comments” a day later.

Coaches are paid to do a lot of things. One of those things is to motivate their players, their fan bases, their employers, and to help sell their program to recruits. So, perhaps it’s natural for coaches to lean on the optimistic and at times defensive side of the fence when their jobs are on the line or their school is being called into question.

But when “coach speak” crosses over from positive pep talks to outright denial and delusion, then not only they, but their program and their employer, have a problem. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, that problem can spread quickly.

For Weber, his comments were further evidence for a now unified fan base that his time in Manhattan should be nearing an end. The comments that show he’s out of touch with the immediate world around him and a blind allegiance to a strategy that is apparently sliding down hill fast.

For Mulkey, her tone-deaf tirade on a far more serious issue is an alarming matter … essentially telling everyone (including the victims) to move on from a still very unresolved situation.

So what communications lessons can be learned from these two? You don’t have to be a college basketball coach to get it. Here are three starter tips:

  • Be Self Aware: When a situation has been building, or you create it yourself, today there is no excuse not to realize when criticism is mounting or has quickly escalated against you or your company. Ignoring it makes you ill-prepared and denying it makes you seem aloof and even worse, ignorant. Not traits you want to have perceived to gain public consensus on your side.
  • Know Your (Broader) Audience: Weber may have been speaking one-on-one with the reporter and Mulkey may have been speaking inside the friendly confines of her home arena, but these remarks were being recorded, hence both speaking into microphones when making their remarks. While you may be playing to your immediate audience, remember that your comments can now be carried anywhere … and thus quickly condemned.
  • Stay in the Moment: Sure, it’s easy to get carried away, but it’s better to stay on track. Weber could have still focused on being positive by staying on his original message when asked about criticism. Instead of saying he doesn’t notice any criticism except for the media, he could have led right into how he focuses on staying positive. Removing one line could have made all the difference.For Mulkey, focus on the celebration. Their seventh straight conference title. Her 500th career win. So many other people to thank, players to honor, and celebration to enjoy. Instead, she brought up – unprompted – the very issue she’s preaching to everyone else from which to move on.

While it’s tempting for anyone to default to a motivational tone, a measured response can further your cause in the long run. After all, just ask Howard Dean what going off the rails can do for you.

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Why Kevin Durant’s Decision Was a No-Brainer

Photo: Sporting News

Photo: Sporting News

Imagine if you received national condemnation for leaving the company you were with since college because you found a better opportunity for personal and career growth. You put your heart and soul into your first job, strived to do as much for the company as you could, and almost reached the pinnacle of your profession at that company.

But then, an opportunity arose at another company; one which may have even been a competitor. They offered you a chance to grow in your profession and perhaps a greater chance of reaching that career milestone that seemingly all great professionals in your industry are measured against. Why wouldn’t you take it?

That’s what NBA superstar Kevin Durant did. On Monday, July 4, he decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder (previously Seattle Supersonics); a team without a title in 37 years and just one conference championship since, in 2012. He opted to join the Golden State Warriors; a team that is a year removed from an NBA title and just a month removed from achieving the most wins in NBA regular season history. But people are upset.

People like ESPN sports personality Stephen A. Smith, who is paid to flamboyantly criticize others. Grown men in Oklahoma City are taking to burning their Kevin Durant basketball jerseys (sounds like bigger issues may be at play there). Other teams and fans are complaining that the “rich are getting richer.”

But how can you blame Kevin Durant?

Inevitably, all arguments about sports’ greatest players come down to “How many rings (aka championships) do they have?” It’s never, “Well they are the greatest because they never left their first team and they almost won it all one year.” Sometimes you give it all you got and it’s not enough in some situations. Just ask the Buffalo Bills teams from the early 1990s.

An athlete’s career is much shorter than us office warriors; their time to reach this type of opportunity far more limited. In any work environment, one should do the best they can and do all they can, not just from a personal development standpoint, but for the benefit of the organization. Sometimes there’s only so much an individual can do in that position as well. When you’ve maxed out the opportunity, it may benefit both employee and employer to look for a new fit.

So what communications lesson can be learned from this announcement? Maybe just one: It’s a shame on a day when the country is celebrating its independence – noted by leaving its original situation and moving to a newer and better opportunity – that many also took the chance to denounce someone for doing just that.

Lead Like LeBron

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More than two years ago, LeBron James returned to Cleveland. With it, the entire state of Ohio was placed on the broad shoulders of his 6’8”, 260-pound frame, more than 50 years of championship baggage from every local team dragging behind him, and one goal looming overhead: bring a championship back to Cleveland.

On the night of Sunday, June 19, 2016, weight was lifted, curses reversed, and the goal reached, with more than 30 million people watching. He led his team as the first to come back from a three-games-to-one deficit and win the title. He led his team to defeat an opponent that won more games in the regular season than any team in history. And he led his team – and the other team – in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks in the seven-game finals, on his way to MVP honors.

This was James’ sixth straight appearance in the NBA Finals and seventh overall. He won twice with Miami, lost twice with Miami, and lost twice with Cleveland. It is common for pundits to wonder which road – through which team – another team must beat to win the title. Perhaps the answer has been there all along…the road to the Finals has been running through James.

And he has been running toward his ultimate goal: returning a trophy to his hometown. James did it in spectacular fashion with efforts like this, which will simply be known as “The Block:”

James has gone through a maturation process before our eyes from a high-profile high schooler, to making a misstep in announcing his departure for Miami,* to an older, more humble, and perhaps wiser man returning to Cleveland. While neither you nor I can run, jump, shoot, or defy gravity like LeBron James, we can do one thing like him: learn to lead. Here are three lessons he’s provided:

  1. Believe in Yourself and Those Assembled around You. While everyone may not be as talented as the main player or the CEO, each person brings something different to the team, while all work toward the same goal. Historically, it was easy to doubt the Cavaliers as no other team had come back from such a deficit. James helped his team, and city, believe the seemingly impossible. And now they do…with a new trophy in hand.
  1. Focus on Today before Worrying about Tomorrow. Do you know how you climb a mountain? Easy: one step at a time. The Cavaliers couldn’t win three games in one night. Not even two. To achieve such a comeback, they needed to only win Game 5. And then Game 6. And then Game 7. A monumental task may not be accomplished in one day, but breaking it up and achieving small goals toward your overall victory makes it not only manageable, but achievable.
  1. Let the Haters Hate. When you’re anointed “The Chosen One” and do yourself no favors by referring to yourself as “The King,” as James has done, criticism and scrutiny are sure to follow. Even when you try your best or do your best, others will compare you to others, not acknowledge your achievements, or even simply refuse to like you.One of the toughest parts of leading is realizing not everyone is going to like or agree with you. But leading isn’t about being liked. It’s about staying true to what you believe is right; the plan you have put in place, the people on your team, and the small victories on your way to your overall goal. Like James, block out the noise and focus on the vision. In the end, you’ll be the one smiling – or crying with tears of joy – at what you’ve accomplished.

 

*Many chastised LeBron (including me) for announcing that he was “taking his talents to Miami” in a televised spectacle that riled many, especially those in Cleveland. However, what many sometimes forget (including me) is that this “horrible PR move” still raised $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls club of Greenwich, Conn. If only all of our worst PR moves were still so charitable.

5 Lessons You Can Learn from Upsets

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Photo by Chris Lee, STL Post-Dispatch

 

 

March brings us warmer temperatures, a change in our clocks, and the NCAA basketball tournaments. Each year we see lower-seeded teams upset higher-seeded teams in what can be described as March Mania (that other, more commonly known named is copyrighted, believe it or not).

As most of us watch in amazement at some of the team’s performances, such as a last-ditch three pointer by Wisconsin, there are also some great communications lessons that these teams share that can be used on both the basketball court and in the boardroom. Here are 5 lessons your team can learn from those teams that pull off the classic upsets in the month of March:

  1. Embrace the Moment: Sure, it might be a big stage or much riding on the moment, but instead of cowering at the fear of failure, look at it as a tremendous opportunity. After all, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Especially if you are the underdog, you have nothing to lose other than not giving your best effort.
  2. Remember What Got You There: Now that you’re “at the table,” don’t try to greatly alter your plan or way of doing things. After all, it’s the way you’ve done them which has got you to this point. Plus, this prevents you from having to learn or do something that may be foreign to you when the pressure is at its greatest.
  3. Focus on the Current Task at Hand: A team in the tournament typically needs to win six games in a row to become national champion. But, the task of a six-game winning streak may seem daunting by itself. Instead, focus on the current game or presentation you’re in, then worry about the next one hopefully when it comes. Breaking it down into manageable chunks helps you not only focus on the opportunity, but block out any doubt of the larger, overall goal. Just ask Texas A&M who somehow overcame a 12-point deficit in less than one minute to eventually win in double overtime.
  4. Control What You Can Control: You cannot predict how many turnovers the other team may have or what type of presentations your competition is giving to the prospect. But, you can control your team and what’s included in your offerings. Concentrate on what you do and do it well and let the other guys falter by worrying about you. If you simply just “do your job,” everything else will fall into place.
  5. Believe: If you don’t believe in yourself or your team, then you’ve already lost. Your team as this opportunity or has come this far because they are a great team. If teams didn’t believe, then there wouldn’t be any upsets in the tournament. But the fact that they do, means even a half-court Hail Mary shot has a chance to go in.

The Hoarding Issue at KU and Why It’s Not a Problem

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(Photo by Orlin Wagner, Salina Journal)

There is a hoarding issue in Lawrence, Kan., and specifically within the confines of Allen Fieldhouse. The University of Kansas (KU) men’s basketball team has just clinched a share of their 12th straight Big XII Conference title and a 12th consecutive trophy. Let’s put that into perspective. When KU won the first title in this streak:

  • It began three consecutive, four-year classes to attend KU who would never know life without their men’s team taking home the conference title
  • KU has won consecutive titles four more years than anyone can currently be President of the United States
  • Twitter had yet to be invented
  • Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” was the most downloaded song of the year
  • George W. Bush was sworn in for his second term as US President
  • Gas was around $1.94 per gallon … so I guess some things have stayed the same

This feat trails only UCLA by one year for most all time, in an era where parody in college athletics may be at an all-time high. They also did it this year with arguably the best job done by their future Hall-of-Fame coach, Bill Self. As a blue-blood program, they’ve had All-Americans, staunch rim protectors, and dynamic playmakers. While this year’s team was good, it seemed to lack some of those standout performers in prior years.

But that didn’t matter.

What resulted was the continuation of KU’s hoarding problem in the form of conference trophies.

So what’s the secret? A multitude of things: a combination of KU’s dominance at home (it’s won nearly 40 straight), a raucous home crowd, and hell, maybe even the ghost of Phog Allen himself. But it boils down to an Oklahoma State graduate who was passed over by Missouri … Bill Self.

Each year, the master motivator finds a way to orchestrate the best from each of his players, while executing a delicate balance of tough love tactics. Perhaps the best part is any coach or midday manager can practice some of the same principles Self has seemed to master:

  • Play to Your Team’s Strengths: KU doesn’t have a dominant player this year, so instead, KU focused on its point guards pushing the pace and ball movement throughout the team. In the workplace, solid work by the entire team helps lift the burden of work on any one individual while helping the team accomplish its goals.
  • Expect Greatness: Despite replacing his entire lineup several times during the streak, Self never expected any less from his players than continuing to challenge for the title. Inside office walls, while much may be given to employees (flexible schedules, jeans on Fridays, team outings), much should also be expected … and then their performance should be recognized and rewarded.
  • Press the Right Buttons: Self likes to publicly question his team’s toughness in interviews when the team may have lost one or two games or he feels they’re not playing to their potential. After a shaky three-game stretch a month ago, Self again wondered if his team was “too soft” and they promptly found their form on their way to a 12th straight title. While calling employees soft in the workplace isn’t appropriate for many reasons, tuning it to what motivates each of your employees – regular compliments, tough love, subtle suggestions – is the perfect balance to have your team running on all cylinders.

5 Lessons from the Championship-Winning Teams of 2014

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As 2014 comes to a close, here’s a look back at the champions of the major American sporting leagues and what communication lessons could be learned from each of these title-clinching teams.

(NFL) Seattle Seahawks – Proving that defense really does win championships, the ‘hawks beat up the Denver Broncos, 43-8, while paying the Super Bowl in New York…in January…outside. Riding a wave of momentum all season, the team was backed by its “12th Man” of fans while using the slogan “Why Not Us?” on their way to the big game blowout.

  • Lesson – Mutual Engagement Drives a Successful Shared Experience: Engaging your brand “fans” and involving them in your success helps to drive not only their engagement, but a feeling of inclusion. Plus, the team’s internal slogan gave everyone in the organization a common rallying cry, uniting them in their goal.

(NHL) L.A. Kings – Honestly, I don’t watch much hockey…maybe it’s my adverse reaction to a championship on ice being played in the middle of summer. But, the Kings did win their second title in three years in 2014, in a commanding 4-games-to-1 performance. They also did so while playing in 26 playoff games, the longest of any Stanley Cup-winning team in history.

  • Lesson – Enduring the Long Road Can Lead to Dominance: Playing 26 playoff games in any sport seems like a daunting task. However, focusing on each series and not looking too far down the road, helped the Kings keep their focus during their impressive journey. While it may seem impossible on the outset, persevering during the long, challenging times can lead to a momentous accomplishment.

(NBA) San Antonio Spurs – The franchise won its fifth title in five games over the Miami Heat and put itself into the debate of being the most recent NBA dynasty.

  • Lesson – The Big Team is Better than the Big Three: San Antonio is known for not being flashy, but always having the right team members step up when it counts. In 2014, it was young forward Kawhi Leonard that helped propel the Spurs to beat the Heat. Eventually Miami’s big three of Bosh, Wade, and James broke up, proving it’s not always good to be “king.” More importantly, it illustrated that multiple teammates fulfilling their specific roles can be better than a few members trying to do everything.

(MLB) San Francisco Giants – Earning their third title in just five years, the Giants won the World Series in seven games over my hometown and beloved Kansas City Royals. So just how did this team by the Bay stop a Royals team from the city of fountains?

  • Lesson – Sometimes All You Need is One: Despite the Royals’ incredible run in the postseason (they won the most playoff games possible without winning the title), the Giants possessed a pitcher in Madison Bumgarner that simply shut them down every time he took the mound. En route to becoming arguably the best World Series pitcher of all time, he proved that while one may be the loneliest number, sometimes, one great solution can overcome several good obstacles.

(MLS) L.A. Galaxy – The soccer franchise became the first in Major League Soccer win five titles (2002, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2014), with a 2-1 victory over the New England Revolution.

  • Lesson – Keep Evolving to Maintain Greatness: Perhaps just as impressive as the five titles are that the franchise has appeared in half of MLS’ championship games since its inception in 1996. The nine appearances over the league’s 18 years have occurred with different players and coaches, each tweaking lineups, rotations, and strategy, but all equaling amazing results. Even if it’s not broken, you may still want to try and fix it.

So overall, what was the general theme from all of these winning teams? That is, besides the Pacific time zone apparently being the one to play in?

Simple: The teams used what worked for them. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, when a team – of players or employees – relies on its own innovation, that’s when championship performances are made.

 

Thank you for following Lessons from Left Field as it began in 2014. I look forward to sharing more communication takes with you from what the sporting world brings us in 2015.

A Champion Comes Home

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By now, or unless you’ve gone on a fasting diet of all things media since last Friday, July 11, you’ve heard that LeBron James (@KingJames), arguably the best basketball player (currently) on the planet, announced that he was “coming home;” going back to where his career began with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He brilliantly passed PR 101 with his announcement, where he miserably and memorably failed it with “The Decision” just four years ago.

So in a society that loves the rise, the fall, and the rebirth of athletes and celebrities, what made the difference? It’s often the personal willingness to get to the rebirth phase. It’s the difference between a Roger Clemens and an Andy Pettitte or a Jason Giambi and an A-Rod.

In his letter, LeBron, whether knowingly or unknowingly…but probably knowingly, hit some of the key points when facing a crisis communications situation after an event has occurred:

  • Acknowledge the Issue: “If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently.”
  • Empathy (For any victims, including a possible apology; which will be debated in legal circles until the end of time): “Northeast Ohio…I sometimes feel like I’m their son…it drives me…I want to give them hope when I can… I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
  • Has it Happened Before or Why Did it Happen: “These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise…without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.”
  • What Will Be Done Differently: “I’d obviously do things differently…I’m not promising a championship…I’m not having a press conference or a party…it’s time to get to work.”

With that, LeBron has not only come home, but he’s also shown how to “turn the corner.”