In the spring of 2002 I left Spooner to take the head hockey coaching position at Wausau East High School. It was a monumentally difficult decision that in turn had a significant influence on my coaching path. East had won a total of eleven games in the previous four years. The magnitude of the job at hand became clear when the players pitched their idea for a team poster. It included all of them stuffed into a penalty box, with black eyes, knocked out teeth and broken sticks.
A serious culture change was my first order of business.
There was nobody beating down my door to become an assistant coach. There was however, one East staff member that was interested. On the surface a female basketball coach did not seem to be an ideal fit. That was until we sat down and talked and discovered we had very similar coaching philosophies. With perhaps more than a little doubt in my mind Dina Rasmussen became one of my assistant coaches.
She coached differently than any coach I had been around before. By the end of the first week of practice she knew more about each player than embarrassingly I would know by the end of the season. I knew about them as a hockey player, their strengths and weaknesses on the ice, she knew about, well, their feelings. She famously would ask, “Does anyone want to talk about their feelings?” And while publicly the boys would decline, I could see her mining the information at practice, in school and on the bus. Every junior varsity player would take a turn on the famous bus ritual known as “the hot seat”.
In coaching there is a saying, “players don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” It wasn’t until I had spent a few seasons with “Raz” that I finally believed that. They knew how much she cared and they played their hearts out for her. And while the signs of her influence were impossible to miss, it wasn’t until the end of the year banquet that it really hit home with me. Players effortlessly and sincerely talked about what a great person and coach she was and how she had influenced them in a positive way. I have attended and orchestrated many season ending banquets, but seldom have I heard a coach acclaimed like “Raz” was every year.
Quite honestly, I was jealous.
She simply believed in building relationships. It seemed a stark contrast from the coaching role models I grew up watching. The coach was an authoritarian, as Gene Hackman proclaimed in Hoosiers, “What I say when it comes to this basketball team is the law, absolutely and without discussion.” After all, Herb Brooks purposely aggravated his players so they would bond together in their hate for him. There was no talk and seemingly little care about players “feelings.” When the players asked to speak with Brooks about Gopher Tim Harrer joining the team, he quipped, “this better take about two minutes.”
I can remember speaking at our end of the season banquet and proudly proclaiming about one of my favorite players that I hadn’t had a conversation with him longer than two minutes in his four year career. Sadly I now see that as a missed opportunity to have learned how to get even more out him and most importantly build a relationship that might still be going today.
Thankfully those days have passed and most coaches now understand the importance of building relationships with their players. Sadly the strict authoritarian style remains a formula that can produce winning teams. It is called being a Level One coach, one that is only interested in the player’s physical and mental skills as they relate to the game. One that coaches up those that can help them win and generally ignores the rest. Fear and intimidation is most often their go to motivational strategy.
Players will not blindly run through a wall for you anymore, but they will give you their absolute best if they trust you, respect you and believe in the portrait of the mission you have enthusiastically painted.
It seems backward that we train coaches to be tough, demanding and even unreasonable to start a season, because they can always back off later. Conventional wisdom would tell us that building relationships first would be more important. Then once that trust and bond has been established you can demand more from people and they will respond. In fact it is proven that when a positive relationship exists people will go the extra mile willingly and without provocation. Don’t misunderstand; I am not talking about being their best friend, that is a role for their peers and teammates.
Today learning about my players outside of what they can do as a player is a priority. My emphasis on building relationships has been essential in my transition to the female side of the game. Anyone who believes you can coach girls exactly as you would boys is in my opinion in for an emotional and frustrating experience. I have discovered a mountain of evidence that would support the claim that “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” is more fact than science fiction and any coach that believes relationship building won’t improve their team and their personal enjoyment should be coaching on Mars or Venus. That Lombardi reflex inside me that wants to scream, “What the hell is going on out here?” has been silenced.
Most young coaches get the opportunity to learn as an assistant coach, from a veteran head coach. I never really got that experience, learning most of my lessons first hand. What Dina Rasmussen taught me about building proper relationships with players changed the course of my coaching career. And none of it had anything to do with X’s and O’s. I am a better coach and one that now truly enjoys the whole journey and not just the wins.
It has been said that, “People may not remember exactly what you did or said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” Coach “Raz” made everyone feel important. She cared about her player’s feelings—and now, despite that faint Bobby Knight voice in my head, so do I.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @HockeybyBauer.