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Rules vs. Standards and the Latitude to Lead

December 11, 2013    4664 Views

TJ Buchanan

Rules vs. Standard and the Latitude to Lead

Consider the following questions:

  • How do you get your athletes to do what you want?
  • Do you create a set of hard and fast rules with consequences?
  • How do you get “buy in” from the team on something they might view as a mandate?
  • What do you do if they break these rules?

I recently watched a documentary featuring Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, in which he raised some strong points about these questions.

First, rules make athletes feel like they are trapped in a system of “gotcha’s.” This can cause unnecessary pressure on them to focus on not breaking rules, and detract from their focus on playing.

Second, rules are not always a “one size fits all” solution to getting players to conform to expectations.

Instead of rules, Krzyzewski works with his team to create 4-5 standards such as:

  • “We are always on time.”
  • “We have excellent practices.”
  • “We are honest with ourselves and one another.”
  • “We value everyone on our team.”

And my personal favorite:

  • “We do not do anything that embarrasses ourselves, our family, our team or our institution.”

The vocabulary chosen to describe the standard is the most important part.

“Do not be late” sends a much different message than “We are always on time.” The point is still the same, but the feeling conveyed is more positive and develops a culture of “This is how we do things here.” Being on time becomes the norm rather than a rule.

The use of “we” is also very powerful. It holds everyone that is connected to the program accountable, including the head coach.

Now the tricky part: What does Coach K do when someone doesn’t live up to a standard?

Well, according to his book “Leading with the Heart,” it depends on who the player is.

Wait a minute, what? There are different consequences for different players?

Yes. If a player has built up trust with Coach K by living up to the standards they created, then it may be something as simple as apologizing to the team or even nothing, whereas a player who regularly or egregiously doesn’t meet the standards may see a reduction in playing time, suspension, or dismissal from the team. The consequence is not necessarily related to the athlete, but rather to the person. Coincidentally or maybe not, the star players tend to also be those that live up to the standards and, therefore, require the least amount of consequences.

Recognizing that Coach K works with elite athletes at Duke or with Team USA, his message remains clear—involve the team in building your expectations and treat them as individuals.

By avoiding a system of rules and consequences, Krzyzewski maintains what he calls “the latitude to lead” while instituting a framework that allows he and his staff to “be fair but not equal.” It takes tremendous courage to coach this way, but ultimately, this methodology allows Coach K to set up the team for success.

Have the courage to lead. Be confident in your ability to make the right decisions, not only for the team but also the individual, and you’ll breed a culture of success in your program.

TJ Buchanan is the coaching education content manager at US Lacrosse. Suggest topics for future coaching blog posts in the comments section.

Photo Credit: Flickr

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