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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The K-State Way: Improve A Little Bit Every Day

K-State's 'family' ties propelled the team to a 2016 Texas Bowl championship. Photo by Bo Rader, Wichita Eagle

K-State’s ‘family’ ties propelled the team to a 2016 Texas Bowl championship. Photo by Bo Rader, Wichita Eagle

Kansas State (K-State) Coach Bill Snyder did it again. He took a team with little to no expectations – picked 8th in the 10-team Big 12 – along with having the youngest squad in his 25 years with the school and finished fourth in the league, capping the season with a win in the 2016 Texas Bowl. Their 9-4 season marked the 14th time in his 25-year tenure with K-State in which his football team has won 9 or more games. That’s 56 percent of the time; not bad for regular winning percentage, but almost unbelievable for a percentage of winning nearly double-digit games for a quarter of a century.

Fans may also point out that the 2016 team is also the unofficial Texas State Champs, defeating all five Power 5 conference teams they played from the state: Baylor, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech and Texas A&M.

So how does he (and K-State) do it, and what can any company or organization learn from it? The secret is not one at all, but rather very public: 16 Goals for Success:

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16 goals. In our daily world, it may be a lot to remember. But I believe if you focus on one in particular, the rest will follow: Goal No. 4: Improve Every Day. Or as Coach Snyder often says, “Improve just a little bit every day.”

This helps large tasks seem manageable and puts you on a path of continued improvement, constant focus, and relentless determination.

Not sure how you’ll achieve a 365-pecent increase in sales for the year? “Improve just a little bit every day” and aim for only 1 percent per day. By the end of the year, you’ll have met your goal.

How do I even start putting together a strategic plan for 2017? “Improve just a little bit every day” and start with only three objectives you want to accomplish; it will build momentum and likely spur more ideas for a well-developed plan.

How do I keep up with the trends in my industry when new items are developing seemingly every day? “Improve just a little bit every day” and pick one to focus on; you’ll become a specialist on that item, carving out a niche for yourself and your newfound expertise.

While we embark on a new year many will inevitably attempt resolutions to stop something, start something, or try something else. However, focusing on measurable ways of “improving just a little bit every day” will truly show you how far you’ve come and 2017 will be marked as a year of growth and accomplishment instead of possible regret and underachievement.

And while you may not make 16 goals for yourself in the new year, or lead a team to a bowl win, by “improving just a little bit every day” you will accomplish one thing: become a resounding success.

Universities Miss the Mark Trying to Protect their Brand

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(Photo by Ann Williamson/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

 

Universities have the challenge of constantly being in the risk management business, while trying to promote the education and advancement of its students. In the past week we saw two universities with communication missteps. Kansas State University (K-State) tried to further remind its students how it thinks they should behave at sporting events. The University of Tennessee (UT) attempted to showcase its positive athletic department culture despite being in the midst of a federal lawsuit charging them with a hostile sexual environment.

Both instances involve collegiate athletics; something that inherently stirs passion from fans, students, alumni, and those from opposing schools.

UT(Photo by Randy Sartin/USAToday Sports)

Quick Backgrounds:
K-State:
Required students to sign a sportsmanship pledge at the start of the current school year. They followed this up by banning* the fan-favorite song, Sandstorm at basketball games, due to profane chants that had been heard when playing their in-state rival. Prior to their most recent home-game against the same in-state rival, K-State issued a video, again reminding its students how to act.

UT: All 16 of its varsity coaches held a press-conference without the athletic director (who was out of town) or school president to reassure player (and more directly current and future recruits) that despite current federal lawsuit accusing the school of a hostile sexual environment, that everything is fine.

Why these were missteps:
K-State: There is certainly merit in K-State trying to establish what they deem as good sportsmanship behavior. But:

  • A “sponsorship pledge” and then repeated reminders of “you better be good” is incredibly juvenile. The additional “taking your song away if some of you can’t play nice” and a reminder video before the game were repeated reminders of “we don’t trust you.”
  • If you want a target audience to change their behavior, treat them as adults, instead of cranky 5-year-olds. Or else, they’ll act just like those cranky 5-year-olds and do the opposite of what you want them to do.
  • As it relates to your in-state rival, realize that not everyone is going to extend open and welcoming arms to them at their home games. Just imagine if they tried this at Auburn and Alabama. There are always a few bad apples…when that happens, don’t pretend it’s the whole bunch.

UT: The coaches may have had the right idea of trying to get in front of the story and insert their own narrative into the current message. But:

  • It wasn’t until later in the news conference when the head football coach –whose players were at the center of some of these allegations – finally addressed who matters most by saying, “Our hearts, our thoughts and our prayers go to out to the alleged victims.”
  • These comments should have been at the start of the news conference to express empathy. Your target audience doesn’t care what you know until they know that you care. All 16 coaches should have focused less on how great their culture is and how they have a renewed focus on protecting their student athletes and all students at the University.
  • They lauded the “culture” of the university and departments as the best it’s been, cohesive and united, despite charges that the university “enabled a culture that led to sexual assaults and then administrators influenced the handling of discipline by accused athletes.”
  • While not addressing the lawsuit may have been expected, saying everything is fine when it clearly isn’t causes your audience to roll their eyes in disbelief instead of nodding their heads in agreement with your message.

What they should have done:
K-State: Crafted an open letter to fans at the start of the year by the athletic director welcoming them to the school year, while including these “sportsmanship” parameters about what makes the students and its fans great.

UT: Never held the press conference. Now we’re talking about their misguided message which is the exact opposite of what the coaches hoped to accomplish with their “press conference.”

With these improvements, the schools’ brands can hit the mark instead of seeming misguided.

 

*The school has since reinstated the song and the athletic director thanked students for adhering to the new sponsorship pledge (even as some still did the profane chant, perhaps out of frustration and/or rebellion).