“We gotta get Spez to do the chant,” Gerry said to me.
“Totally,” I agreed. “Do you think he’ll do it?”
“I’m gonna ask him,” Gerry, a dad of Tyler’s teammate, said.
A little while later Gerry came back over. “He’s gonna do it!” he said.
“Awesome!” I yelled, excited as a schoolboy.
In actuality, I was surrounded by schoolboys — namely the players and their families of my son’s Pee Wee Football team. We were at an Elk’s club celebrating their win in the Super Bowl after completing a 10-0 season. The final win, which had taken place the day before, wasn’t easy — not like the other 9 games which were won in blowout fashion. This one, to borrow one of my favorite quotes, had “been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life” — until they ultimately eked out a 7-0 victory. But because it wasn’t easy, this one showed that their coaches had prepared them on how to fight through when things weren’t going their way.
In truth, I was amazed at what the coaches and kids had accomplished in this season, and as I thought about what gave them the edge, I realized how many takeaways there were on solid leadership.
First off, this team had the talent — in football, this is often referred to as “having the horses.” Now, you don’t go out and recruit in third and fourth grades (though there are kids in seventh and eighth being scouted by high schools), but the parallel is illustrative. Any leader who hopes to win or succeed must have the horses, must have the requisite talent in-house to have a chance. If not, the leader must get new folks on the bus or, at the very least, change some seats.
The second thing about this team is they practiced — and practiced and practiced. I know because I brought my son to these practices and almost always hung around the outer environs of the field during them. I saw and heard just about everything. These practices were frequent, long, and intense. They were also incredibly well organized. There was no standing around while coaches figured out what to do next, no wasted time figuring out who was going to work with which kids. They move along at a rapid pace, had elements of conditioning and running plays, and brooked no nonsense. You could see the head coach Jeff Spezial was a man in charge, and that left everyone else confident the ship had direction.
Then there was Spez’s chant which, to me, epitomized the feeling of tribe almost all sports coaches want to cultivate. In fact, I learned quite a bit about this dynamic when reading “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success” — a book by legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson about his championship dynasties with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. In it, Jackson talks about his methods for developing an “us versus the world” mentality. One thing he did, for example, was kick the press, the players’ families and their friends out of practices — that time was reserved for the tribe. With Spez, it was his famous chant which got the kids all fired up. You can almost imagine a warlord doing something like this thousands of years ago around a fire on the open plains. It probably worked then, and it definitely works now.
Speaking of tribe, one of the main things I love about youth sports is it instantly makes a child part of a group. Immediately a parent’s natural fears of their child being all lone or ostracized or bullied are diminished. Good coaches simply don’t tolerate one of their tribe being treated as less than any other.
Let me give you a little example about the inclusivity of tribe. I took my boys to the cheerleaders showcase to support those girls who support our football players. When we got there, one of Tyler’s coaches, Mike, asked me if he could bring Tyler to where his teammates were sitting in the stands.
“Of course,” I said.
And so Tyler was brought over to his tribe, which welcomed him with open arms. By the way, they also let little brother Parker sit with them. (Siblings become honorary members of any given tribe.)
And finally, this season taught my son a lot about resiliency. To cope with his occasional balking, I developed a standard answer to statements like: “I don’t feel good,” or “I feel nauseous,” or “I am too tired to go to practice.”
To all these, I would say: “No problem. We’ll just go down to practice and you can tell coach. And then we can come back home.”
I can report that after arriving at practice (and this happened two or three times), not once did Tyler utter a word to his coach about not feeling well. He simply ran over to his teammates, forgot about his purported ailment and got on with it.
I believe there are primarily two kinds of parents in this world — those who want to protect and those who want to prepare. Those who want to protect would never put their child into a sport like tackle football, but those who wish to prepare, like me, think there are few better methods for transforming clay into iron than football. This world is tough, and it’s a lot easier to make it through if you’ve got some iron in you.
And the kids got a little more iron in them during that tight 7-0 Super Bowl Battle. After the game, Assistant Coach Bob told me a few of them were so amped up and nervous, they started crying in the huddle when they messed up on a play (and these are kids who NEVER cried).
“Calm down guys,” Coach Bob told them. “You know how to do this. Just relax and play the game.” And so they did, and so they won. As Evander Holyfield said of his thoughts when walking into the ring to fight Mike Tyson, “I can’t forget that I did the work already. Now I just have to go out and perform.”
So as you look at your teams and lead them into the future, remember the ideas of having the right folks on the bus, preparing them rigorously (better than your competitors) and calming them when the storm hits. It won us the Pee Wee Super Bowl, and it may also be a winning formula for you.
Enjoy some pictures here.