Excerpt from my book Calling Up

Embarrassed as ever, Daniel visited John after the game. John answered the door, and Daniel walked right into his living room and fell into the oversized armchair. “What a complete disaster! My team is so bad, and I was so blind to how bad we were. What a fool I am to think I could have turned it around.”

With a stern look that Daniel had never seen before, John said, “There are no bad teams, just bad leaders. Now, are you here to mope or are you here to get better?”

Daniel was taken aback by the tone in John’s voice. “Sorry, please tell me what you think.”

“Well, let’s listen to it,” John instructed. He had Daniel record his voice throughout the game, from start to finish, so they could listen to it.

After only twenty minutes of Daniel’s pre-game talk, John laughed and said, “Stop it there; no wonder your guys were asleep on the court. You put them to sleep before the game, droning on and on. As a player, did you enjoy listening to a coach talk for that long?”

Daniel, a little embarrassed, said, “No, not really. Actually, it was horrible, now that I think of it.”

“Exactly! So be kind and keep it short. I said the same thing every game, no matter what: ‘When it’s over, I want your heads up. And there’s only one way your heads can be up—that’s to give it your best out there, everything you have.’* Daniel, I didn’t diagram plays, scout opponents, or talk about our emphasis. If they hadn’t learned it yet, they wouldn’t learn it then.”

As they kept listening, Daniel became red in the cheeks, embarrassed by the amount of yelling and how hard he was breathing. He could practically hear his heart beating through his chest on the audio recording. After listening to the first half, half-time, and a few minutes into the second half, John hadn’t said a word. Finally, Daniel turned it off and said quietly, “I can’t listen to it anymore. I’m so embarrassed.”

John put his arm on Daniel’s shoulder. “Peaks and valleys belong in the Alps, not in the temperament or the emotions of a leader. What if we had put a camera on you and recorded your body language? Would that have said anything different?”**

“No, not at all. Probably just would have shown a crazy idiot. I know I lost it. I don’t know what came over me.” Daniel’s shoulders sagged as he continued, “I was so annoyed by my players’ body language when things weren’t going well. The referees missed calls because they were focused on the wrong things, and the parents in the stands wouldn’t stop shouting at the team instead of just cheering them on. But I guess I did the same thing. My body language was out of control, my focus shifted completely to the uncontrollables, and I tried to control every player in the game from the sideline!”

“Can you be a process coach if you react emotionally to the result? How about your time- outs and half-time talks? Great leaders are good at listening. It’s difficult to listen when you’re talking the entire time, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I definitely have to retrain my default mode of operation this season when it comes to the games and applying my coaching principles to our performance. I messed this up at the first smell of conflict. I’m totally ashamed that I was so fragile and unable to hold it together.”

John smiled, acknowledging Daniel’s thoughts. “Well don’t tell me that . . . tell that to your team.”

Reflect and write: What message does your behavior send to your team members, colleagues, and the world around you about your values and focus?

*Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden