Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Role Models in Sports

I think most people would agree that athletes, in addition to being entertainers of a sort, also can be held up as role models for young people.

When I was growing up, I had sports heroes, too. And, as I grew older and entered the workforce, I began to develop an appreciation for the people BEHIND the bench – the coaches and managers. This is what I’ll be focusing on in this posting.

In school, and the early days of my career, we learned about legendary coaches like Vince Lombardi and Red Auerbach. Maybe it’s a reflection of my growing up in Canada, but my managerial idols have Canadian ties.

Felipe Alou became manager of the Montreal Expos baseball team in 1992. The Expos were perennial cellar-dwellers, though they had a great farm system that spawned some excellent players. The Expos never garnered the attention or respect of teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers, so the “stars” on the Expos were relatively obscure compared to players on other major league clubs.

Alou's goal as manager was to develop younger, less well-paid players into outstanding ballplayers, since, throughout the 1990s, the Expos cut costs by trading higher-paid players to other teams. His strategy paid off.

He transformed a weak club into what became the best team in the major leagues in 1994 and was named Manager of the Year, winning more games than any other manager in franchise history. (He also was the first Dominican-born manager in MLB history.)

The Expos had an excellent shot of winning the World Series that year. But the players’ strike came in the way of achieving this.

This was especially remarkable considering that the Expos had the second-lowest payroll in the National League at the time of Alou's recognition as Manager of the Year, with only two players over the age of 30.

He stressed the fundamentals of baseball – conditioning, pitching, base running and assembled a collection of talented youngsters and journeymen veterans into a cohesive unit.

Under his guidance, he had stars such as Larry Walker, Dennis Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Marquis Grissom and John Wetteland. These players went on to even greater fame when the Expos traded them away to fund rebuilding efforts. Ultimately, the Expos folded because they were unable to field a winning team and baseball was not the first love of Montrealers, who lived and breathed hockey.
How did he accomplish this?

Marquis Grissom described the Alou era as follows, “Felipe came in, and the first thing he told us was that he would take the blame for all losses. He said if we lost 10 in a row, he might be fired, but none of us would lose our jobs. He stopped all of that military stuff. It never bothered me, the military stuff, but it bothered some guys. It's much nicer now. You make a mistake, you know it's a mistake. No one has to tell you. That's what Felipe knows. That's how he treats us."

To me, it sounded like Felipe Alou nurtured talent by not resorting to locker room histrionics and blaming. Focusing on fundamentals also meant everyone had to participate in the turnaround, not just the stars. And the stars were not spared the drills because of their talent, so everyone was treated equally.

What I found profoundly inspiring was his ability to take players who were considered damaged goods by other teams and discover their potential – even later in their careers. Dennis Martinez had had problems with alcoholism, but Alou and his coaches made Martinez one of the most respected pitchers in the game.

It seemed he had a talent for looking inside people and seeing what others could not see.

Another role model for me has been Claude Julien, coach of the Boston Bruins hockey team.

After the Bobby Orr era, Boston floundered. Often they were in contention for the playoffs, but somehow could not make it far past the first round.

When Claude Julien came to the club in 2007, the Bruins weren’t expected to make the playoffs – just another mediocre team.

I think there was some expectation in Boston that Julien would bring some of the magic of the legendary Montreal Canadiens franchise to the Bruins. In fact, Julien was coaching Montreal when the Canadiens eliminated – upset, even – the first-place Boston club in the first round of the playoffs in 2004, coming back from a 1-3 deficit to win the series.

A key watershed occurred in March, 2007, when the Bruins general manager, Peter Chiarelli, kept his team together at the trading deadline, producing zero trades in the Hub of Hockey. And then he told the players why.

"He said he believed in this team," said Bruins forward David Krejci, "He said we have good chemistry on the ice, and that's why he didn't make any trades."

What a vote of confidence from the management! They basically told the players they had great potential and it was important to keep them together to realize that potential.

The players rewarded the management’s confidence by taking the high-flying Montreal Canadiens to 7 games in the first round of a playoff series Montreal was expected to take 4-0 because the Bruins had not beaten Montreal the entire season. (In fact, Montreal had an 11-game win steak against Boston) At one point, Montreal was up 3-1, but the Bruins came back to tie the series and force the 7th game.

They may have lost the series, but the comeback they mounted probably inspired the team, who have been leading the Eastern Conference of the NHL this season.

The Bruins’ success did not come about from just inspiration. Julien focused the players on the fundamentals. They achieved the second-biggest defensive turnaround in the league in the 2007-2008 season, and mostly with a roster of relative unknowns and no real marquee players.

So, what can we learn from these examples.

· In both cases, we see teams that did not have to rely on highly paid star players to be successful. The team was greater than the sum of its parts.

· The making of a team is founded on discipline (process) and fundamentals that allow the younger players to thrive and contribute and develop as players.

· The managers both had the ability to connect with something in the players’ makeup that allowed them to come closer to achieving their potential.

· In the case of the Bruins, no trades meant they all felt valued as players, a huge boost to self-confidence.

· Success breeds success. As the players learned to play effectively as a team and began to win games, each win boosted team confidence and made the team, overall, more resilient. So, when they might find themselves behind, they also could find something in themselves that allowed them to come back.