Learning from the 2011 Boston Red Sox

In Sports by Brock Bourgase

Good coaches promote ownership of the program by all of the stakeholders. Everyone – players, coaches, trainers, support staff and sometimes parents – is responsible for the team’s success. Some may contribute more than others but everyone needs to know that what they provide to the process matters to the outcome. Every action, from individual workouts to practices to meetings, enables the team to progress towards its goals.

When a program experiences success over a long period of time, generating this feeling of ownership becomes easier; people want to be involved in success and become willing to take initiative and lead with there is little risk. A coach does not need to devote as much energy to inspiring this first step but they must still dedicate time ensure the team remains on the right path.

When Terry Francona became manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2004, he changed the culture in the clubhouse and contributed to a winning squad. As he tenure concluded with an embarrassing collapse in September 2011, he may have lost some of his control, a fact that he admitted in his final press conference after his contract option was not exercised.

Ultimately, the coach is responsible for the fate which befalls the team and Francona now serves as an analyst for the Fox network. He may have seen the cracks in the foundation early but he was unable to prevent the destruction of the team’s structure and its hope for postseason glory. Still, there are others to blame for this failure and it is unfair to single out the manager.

Veteran players who had bought into Francona’s message and won multiple World Series sacrificed their long-term goals and gave into short-term temptations. Apparently, starting pitchers would drink beer in the clubhouse, eat fried chicken and play video games when they were not scheduled to work. These players had won multiple championships and had previously demonstrated professionalism.

I’ve seen basketball coaches allow a player to send text messages from the bench during a game. While I would politely ask the athlete to leave the bench so that it could be occupied by those who want to play, improve and win, the issue often goes unaddressed. To defend the coach: if they are engaged in the game, is it fair to expect them to become distracted and deal with something that should have never occurred in the first place?

The Red Sox pitchers who escaped to the clubhouse during games were not inspired by the extrinsic motivation of high salaries, pennants or public adulation nor the intrinsic motivation of setting an example or reaching personal bests. Some starters many have brought cups of beer into the dugout during games. What could Francona have realistically done when these athletes chose to lose focus?

When Jack McKeown coached a talented but impetuous rotation of young starters, he issued bathroom passes on the bench. Eventually, during the Florida Marlins’ 2003 World Series season, he would lock the clubhouse during games. McKeown later said: “What I wanted them to do is teach them how to focus. If they wanted to be good they’re going to have to focus by watching the opposition and learning something instead of running up to the clubhouse and getting a drink and kibitzing and stuff like that.”

(It’s good advice, especially for young players who want more burn. Complaining will neither encourage the coach to reconsider their evaluation nor trigger personal improvement. Concentrate on what you can control, learn every day and get better. It’s never too early to contribute to the team’s culture.)

Players are shareholders whether they want to be or not. They can sit back and reap the dividends but they may not receive exactly what they want if they don’t add value to the group. Successful teams demand that everyone pull together and take responsibility for themselves and their teammates. The coach can guide and inspire but it is the athletes who must make the commitment, in good times and bad. Over the years, the best teams (Boston Celtics, Montreal Canadiens, New York Yankees and Green Bay Packers) have created cultures supported by players and coaches.

The dominant Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s were a partnership between Red Auerbach and the players, like the union Vince Lombardi formed with the Packers during that same time. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and the Boston lockerroom were a redundancy in case Auerbach ever missed something. During the championship years, the team never had a curfew because Auerbach trusted them to remain true to the team’s goals.

Sometimes the players addressed an issue before it came to the coach’s attention and the team was stronger as a result. Today, anyone drinking in the Celtics lockerroom would have to deal with Kevin Garnett; after that, they’d look forward to facing Doc Rivers

Positive contributions include speaking up when someone is engaging in unproductive behaviour, such as failing to push themselves, giving up on the team and taking their eyes off the prize. Modeling the way comes first but the next step is taking initiative when needed. If something was on fire, you would try to put it out rather than hope the fire department arrives. It’s always appropriate to deliver non-judgmental objective feedback or remind someone of the steps needed to reach the goals that the team agreed to at the beginning of the season.

A coach cannot police everything; in fact a team forced into compliance by fear of an external consequence like punishment or shame is not as motivated as one that buys in by choice and the pain of an internal consequence like regret. Francona was not at his best during the 2011 season but the Red Sox exemplified some of the worst sport has to offer.