Monday, March 25, 2013

"Let Him Conquer the World" - Lessons From Coaching Athletes With Learning Disabilities (2nd in a Two-Part Series)

.  In keeping with the basketball theme of this two-part series, one example is the emergence of unheralded Jeremy Lin with the New York Knicks during the 2012 basketball season.  Another more current example is the Gulf Coast University basketball team who just

"We just took the attitude of 'Let him conquer the world if he can.'  We'll expose him to whatever we feel is appropriate and if he succeeds, awesome. If not, then we'll be there to catch him."

What an awesome statement!  It reflects the aspirations and challenges that parents have in caring for their children.  It also reflects the talent development ethos (the guiding beliefs or ideals) that managers and leaders should have.

You don't learn anything from ... sameness."

If you want to see the value and joy of diverse abilities in action, you don't need to travel to Rochester Hills, Michigan.  Find out where there are Special Olympics events in your local area and go watch these athletes in action.  Better yet, volunteer to coach or help officiate any number of Special Olympics sports in your area.  You'll be richer for it and may even learn something that you can apply to your workplace.

set them up for success (recognizing that they "[they] can't do epic by [themselves]") and give them their shots - yes, shots. Plural.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Power of Reinforcing Strategic Choices With Symbolic Repetitive Acts - Lessons From Coaching Athletes with Learning Disabilities (1st in a Two-Part Series)

This is the story of how a group of athletes evolved from a group of players into a cohesive team; a team that just won the 2013 Special Olympics Virginia Division III basketball championship, and how symbolic acts and strategic choices , e.g. emphasizing the pass over the dribble, helped them be excellent.  It is the first of two posts that present lessons businesses and other organizations, such as nonprofits, should consider as they seek to be excellent.

I've been honored and privileged to have coached Special Olympics basketball for five years.  While our athletes have varying degrees of learning disabilities, the one thing they all have is heart.  They yearn to challenge themselves.  They don't just compete for the love of sport, they also compete to win against competitive opponents; just like other athletes, they compete to be excellent.  Winning represents a triumph over the challenges that our athletes face on a daily basis.  Eunice Shriver Kennedy (one of my heroes) recognized the importance of providing opportunities for those with learning disabilities not just to participate in competitive sports, but to also win, to be excellent.  Per the Special Olympics athlete's oath:

"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
Being excellent in a team sport like basketball, especially with athletes who have learning disabilities, involves understanding and channeling a different set of dynamics than those dynamics involved in an individual sport like track and field.  Excellence at the team level is represented by being able to successfully  respond to dynamic challenges, not as individuals, but as a unified body.

In November 2012, we held our first practice.  Just like the beginning of any team's sport season, our aspirations were high.  Our end-of-season goal was to be selected to compete in and win the state championship in our division.  Our team name is the Eagles.  In previous years, for team huddles, we would form a small circle, put our hands on top of each other, and yell "Eagles!"  This year we made some slight but symbolic changes to that routine.  In the team circle, our players each raised one arm above their head and stretched that arm towards the middle of the team circle with their forefingers extended so that our  fingers all touched.  Our shout out became "One Eagle!"  This was meant to remind each of us that, to get to our goal, we'd have to stretch ourselves to a greater height and that we'd get there by playing as one connected team, one Eagle.

We also strongly emphasized passing over dribbling the basketball.  It was clear that dribbling was not going to be one of our team strengths so we worked on rapidly moving the ball down the court by passing it to each other.  That was a strategic decision.  We chose to focus our limited practice time on the pass and not so much on dribbling the ball.  Strategy is about making choices; what you're going to do and what you're not going to do.  We made a choice and committed to that action.  Our objective was not to be excellent at everything but to be excellent in some very specific fundamentals.

While we had a couple of players who were fast on their feet, as a team, we were not especially fast.  So we developed a scheme of play that accentuated our strengths.  As I stated before, our players have heart, lots of heart.  This was ably demonstrated by a tenacious defense.  When another team had the ball, they went after it, swatting the ball away from an opponent and if presented with the opportunity, stealing the ball from an opponent's hands.

In reflecting on our season, the strategic decision we made to commit to a game that emphasized the pass over the dribble enabled our players to become a unified team.  Just as "One Eagle!" symbolically connected us, every pass had the effect of reinforcing that symbolic act and connecting our players via virtual lines across a 94' x 50' court.  They learned to not only accurately pass the ball to each other but also to proactively move to get open for a teammate's pass to them.  In effect, they began to sense and respond to each other based on what was happening on the court; they became linked to each other by their passes.  When you're watching athletes at the high school, college, and professional levels to this, it's a great sight.  When you're watching athletes with learning disabilities fluidly do this, it's poetry in motion - almost magical.  I'd love to be able to state that every pass was accurate and resulted in two or three points but we also had our share of errant passes.  Those failed passes served as teaching points to steel our players' resolve to become better, to become an excellent team.

Prior to our gold medal game, one of our players came up to me on the court.  "We've got this, coach," he said.  Without any prompting from my assistant coach or myself, the players formed a huddle, arms extended high, fingers touching.  After a couple of moments, "One Eagle!" reverberated across the court.  Our evolution continued to gather steam.

That momentum culminated in what was, for me, the best moment of this year's championship season.  With just under two minutes left to play in the game, one of our players, whom I'll call "B" and had not scored in the championship tournament, told me that he wanted to make a basket.  I called a timeout and told our players to get the ball to B.  With about 30 seconds left, B broke free from his defender and positioned himself under the basket.  One of his teammates saw him moving to get open and expertly bounce passed him the ball.  Looking like a scene lifted straight from the McDonald's Larry Bird - Michael Jordan commercial, B made a perfect off the backboard, through the net basket.  B pumped his first in exultation and his teammates jumped up and down in celebration.  The game clock hadn't yet expired and the gold medals were to come later, but they knew what they had accomplished together - they had become an excellent team.