Are you counting down the days to the start of the NHL season? I am! I think my favorite team, the Washington Capitals, are going to have an outstanding season. No, really! Well, I always think that, but from what I have seen and heard so far, this year they seem to have one extra special item in their toolbox. Not any particular super player, although they did make several significant acquisitions in the off-season that should really make a difference. No, it is their new coach. Barry Trotz, a veteran coach who is an undeniable leader. There are coaches who coach, and there are coaches who lead. The noticeable difference goes far beyond skills and drills. When players are inspired by their coach's philosophy, when they internalize and make his vision their own, that is the result of quality transformational leadership. The team is empowered and can take their collective skills to a higher level. Here is how he is doing it so far:
1. Coach Trotz is meticulous, detailed and highly organized. His every move is calculated and deliberate. From start whistle to finish, everything is done according to plan. When this is communicated to the players, there is trust. No surprises. He tells them what they will be doing and when, and that is what happens.
2. He has assembled a team of coaches and staff who he trusts to work at a high level, who buy in to his vision and own it. These individuals are at the top of their respective areas. Mitch Korn, for example, is a guru of goalies. His style and original training props (mini-pucks, white pucks, a curtain of hanging strips and more) simultaneously raise eyebrows and inspire motivation to perform among the players. The consistency among the coaching staff in their approaches to training and play is necessary to maintain credibility and trust of the players within this system.
3. Coach Trotz has a clear vision and philosophy. He communicates this to his players verbally and by example. He communicates his expectations for the team and expresses confidence that the players can meet and exceed these expectations. His belief becomes their belief.
4. Coach Trotz nurtures the team atmosphere, the "we're in this together" feeling. He personally invited select players to form a leadership group. The group members are players who can lead by example on and off the ice, who can help teammates manage their emotions so they don't get in the way. They can ensure everyone plays as a team. If there are issues, players are encouraged to speak to the leadership group, which acts as a middleman between players and coaches. Leaders were paired as mentors with rookies at training camp, even assigned locker stalls next to one another to further drive the point home that they are all one, all part of a greater whole. Everyone matters.
What these things have done is to break down barriers common in teams--veteran vs. rookie, superstar vs. fourth-liner, management vs. player. It has produced an atmosphere in which they have not just a team, but a band of brothers. The players want to play with and for each other. They have each others' backs and support each other. They fight for each other. Now out on the ice, whether they're a first- or fourth-liner, it's personal. And they're all in.
You will probably notice players reiterating these points in their interviews with the media. That shows how deeply Coach Trotz's message runs. Through repetition, example and trust, he encourages the players to make his vision their own. The players will exude more confidence, feel respected and feel like they belong to something great. They will make decisions based on the greater good of the team. This is the mark of true leadership. And it is what is going to make this season unlike any other the Capitals have had. I like what I've seen so far of Coach Trotz. I can't wait to see how it plays out!
As soon as I reveal my occupation here in the DC area, I am inevitably asked, "Can you save the Redskins?" I wish it were that simple. I could just go to Redskins Park, meet with the team in their super-cool practice "bubble," flash a smile, say something magical and that would be the difference. But unfortunately, sport psychology is not magic. There is no one thing that anyone can do or say to completely transform a team in an instant. Working with a team is a process, and involves many facets. Could I ultimately save them? The good news is, I know in time I could make a difference, absolutely. How would I go about it?
I have been reluctant to comment on the Redskins this season. It just seems there is so much going on beneath the surface, so much that is not being revealed, that it would be folly to attempt to say definitively what is needed and how to solve all of the issues. Having said that, here is how I see it.
I see a team in turmoil, from both the top-down and the bottom-up. There is a lack of trust, a lack of team cohesion. There are egos involved; the almighty dollar and the business of it all are factors. There is a genuine and pervasive lack of respect between players and coaches, but also between players themselves. Many comments by players to the media appear laced with passive-aggression, daring us to read between the lines.
It has been questioned whether there is even any talent on the team. Whether the play-calling has been sufficient. Whether players are playing to their strengths, their potential.
The functioning of the team as a whole can only be considered as the sum of its parts. Each part must be in working order for the whole to achieve success. Individual efforts can be recognized and celebrated, but for a team sport, must be integrated appropriately into a team effort.
Here is my plan of action:
If I were able to attend practices at Redskins Park, I would look for several things. I would look for the existence of an effective practice and talent development environment. I would look for practice drills that are purposeful. The coaches would know why certain drills are useful, and this information would be relayed to the players. There would be learning, not just doing. The players would be encouraged to make decisions on the field.
I would observe the feedback coaches give. Is it well-timed, productive, effective? How do the players react to being coached? Do they encourage each other? Is there tension, or are there some light moments as well? What happens when mistakes are made?
I would go to the training room, often where we find the heart of the support staff, the caregivers. Mental skills can help injured athletes rehabilitate more efficiently, and prepare them mentally to return to the field. This is vitally important to keeping them confident, motivated, and to avoid re-injury. Healthy athletes are key to consistent high-level production on the field.
I would observe strength and conditioning training. Mental skills such as imagery, can produce huge increases in the training effect over physical training alone. Stronger players perform better. They are more resilient, confident. They can perform beyond their comfort zone.
Much of what I do involves a lot of observation, listening, asking questions that help define issues and subsequent interventions. In talking with coaches, staff, players, yes, even Dan Snyder himself, I could formulate intentions for impact and appropriate interventions. With everyone's cooperation, commitment and dedication, we could, together, make a huge difference. So...Super Bowl win? While there can never be guarantees, the newly transformed Redskins would have one heck of a shot.
"Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there."
Personal Best Sports
The sports world is filled with stories of perseverance, failure and success, personal struggles and public triumph. Each story provides insight into the mental side of sport and activity.