Growing up, I played a lot of ice hockey. Practice started at 5am which meant that one of my parents had to wake up at 4:30am everyday we had practice and bring me and all of my smelly hockey equipment to the rink.
I recommend it. Playing a sport in high school and college, I mean, not the 4:30am wake ups. As a young person, it teaches you to take direction from people who aren’t your teachers or parents. Coaches are the unsung heroes of every sport and perhaps, every high school in America.
And now, upon reflection, I notice that my coaches fell into three distinct categories:
Dr. C: the high-school chemistry teacher who had a love for the sport. He stood in the box and on the ice shouting out drills that, based on the theory of the thing, would work to make us better athletes and strengthen our overall muscle memories for the game. I don’t believe I ever saw him put on a pair of skates but man, he was tough.
The Dads: the gray-haired, supportive, either former-athletes or wannabe-athletes who loved their kids so much, they skated with us and encouraged us. Occasionally one of the Dads would be critical to our success...I remember in particular, a great defensive line coach. He could tell us where to be when. But mostly, they were there for moral and emotional support...and to be the people we respected on a rink full of teenage, hormonal girls.
Coach B: the older-brother of one of our best players, Coach B was both a player and a coach. It helped that he was on the hockey team at his nearby college. He skated every drill with us - faster than we did, harder than we did, and with more grace and ease than we did. He set the pace. He cheered us on, sure, but he was also at the rink before we were at 4:30am. He was prepared with the strategy for the game against Lawrenceville (a much better team than we) and also with the strategy for the game against Blair (a team we would easily beat). He was gracious with our wins and losses and taught us all to be. He took the first line out when we were up 8 goals: he taught us it wasn’t good sportsmanship to run the puck. He also took the first line out when we were down by a lot. We were already losing: let’s get everyone some ice time. Afterall, it’s a game...it’s play...none of it is real. He taught us the tricks of the game, like pulling the goalie or running the clock by doing them. And we took great joy in learning by doing.
Now as an adult, I haven’t spent much time thinking about high school hockey. Just a thing to keep your kids active, I guess.
Until recently, when I realized -- my preferred management style, my preferred way of being managed….it’s always been the player-coach style.
Coach B....Call me a millennial, call me a product of the changing ways of work, call me a neophyte who learns by watching -- but it’s true: the people who have managed me the best in my life have been better students of the game than me. They’ve been at the rink before and after me. They’ve been skating longer and showed me by doing.
Likewise, I’ve found that my teams have always risen to the challenge of keeping up. It’s hard to coach from a top-down vantage point. (And frankly, it’s not my strength...I always fall flat when I think I know it all). But people appreciate it when you teach by doing. And, if you hire well, you’ll hire naturally curious inquisitive people who will learn by watching, by keeping up, and by following your playbook.
Notice, too, that I’m not suggesting that Coach B made us learn from one another. It’s not about putting the first line against the third line and asking them to duke it out. That is self-defeating for the people coming up and ego-building for the best players. But perhaps more importantly, it leaves no room for innovation or growth. Each player has their own unique contribution to the game.
He asked us to learn from him and with him...and he put himself through every possible situation. Every possible drill. Every outcome. 1,000 times more often than we did.