My Favorite Coach

What kind of coach do you aspire to be? For me, there’s one coach who stands out above the crowd: coach Greg Popovich of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. In the post-Michael Jordan era, the Spurs are basketball’s best team, winning 5 championships since 1998 and doing so with a dedication to substance over style, fundamentals over flash.

It certainly helped that these teams had Tim Duncan, popularly regarded as the best power forward in NBA history, whom another player sarcastically gave the nickname “The Big Fundamental.” Having a superstar of Duncan’s skill level who has a selfless attitude has to be a blessing for a coach. But now that Duncan has retired and Popovich coaches on–and the Spurs keep on winning–it’s become clear just how important the coach has been as well.

Because Popovich is my favorite coach, I did some research into his style for The Feedback Loop’s current focus on coaching. I’d like to share two of his approaches to coaching that are relevant to Magic judging.

1. Identify hallmark skills.

Spurs guard Bruce Bowen was known for two things: playing great defense and shooting three-pointers from the corners. He was remarkably good at these two things, and pretty mediocre at everything else (relative to his NBA peers–he would still school any of us). Recently Popovich actually stated, “Bruce Bowen couldn’t dribble and couldn’t pass. He shot 3s in the corner and he played good D, he played great D.”

This is honest, some might say brutally honest. But look at it another way. Popovich provided an honest assessment of Bowen’s skills, and then utilized him in a way that allowed Bowen to maximize those skills and be an integral part of multiple championship teams. Another coach might have focused on Bowen’s deficiencies–”couldn’t dribble and couldn’t pass”–and buried him on the bench, destined to be a traded to another team or to disappear from the league after a few years.

To me, the parallel in the Judge Program is with the constant worry over advancing in level. It’s a natural outcome in a system with such a hierarchical structure that judges want to advance up the ladder. But for some people, the climb is unrealistic, and it’s important to put things into the right perspective. Just as there was no way that Bruce Bowen was going to be a superstar on the level of Kobe Bryant or Lebron James, there are many judges who can’t devote the time and energy to being L3s or L2s. As Dustin de Leeuw recently highlighted, it’s perfectly okay to stay at any particular level. This choice isn’t the failure, just as Bruce Bowen wasn’t a failure as an NBA player.

Recently, I’ve started to focus people on their hallmark skills. In the way that I’m known as “the feedback judge,” there’s room for judges to find their specialties and hone those skills to be the among the best in the Judge Program at them. Even an L2 can find their specialty and be better at that skill than the majority of L3s. The skills of judging are diverse and disparate. Find your Bruce Bowen skill, and you too can be a key member of a championship team without needing to be the star.

As a coach, I aspire for this type of honest discourse with people. Maybe it’s as simple as “you shouldn’t be on the deck checks team because you’re too slow at checks” or it’s a broader evaluation like “you’re not ready for L3 because you haven’t displayed adequate strength in the following qualities.” What’s important here isn’t just the honest evaluation, but the follow up to show the path to finding and honing those skills.

2. Implement a different kind of team discussion.

Icebreakers and discussion topics are a staple of judging in teams, with these discussions facilitated by the team lead. These discussions are often Magic or judge-themed, which has its pros and cons. On the one hand, they do provide educational training and the chance to evaluate team members on rules and policy. On the other hand, they’re BOO-RING! Coach Popovich has another path, illustrated in this article.

Popovich gave his players Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates before the season. The 2015 book was written as a letter to the author’s teenage son about the reality, emotions and symbolism of being an African-American in the United States.

Assigning an entire book as a team-building exercise may not be possible or practical. But I do like this powerful example of expanding a team’s worldview beyond the scope of the game they play and share together. Maybe an entire book is out of the question, but how about a chapter or an article?

In a culture like professional basketball, which prioritizes winning at all costs, it seems unlikely that a coach would take time to create a conversation about race and worldview with his team. Yet on a team that has included international players like Tony Parker from France and Manu Ginobli from Argentina, this broader perspective is exactly what the Spurs needed to bring more cohesion to the roster.

Team-building discussions on judge teams tend to be judge-centric, or at the least Magic-centric. This is a pretty safe route since it provides a common ground that you know everyone on the team can converse on, but recently I’ve thought of elevating the discussion to create new common ground. If you’re on a team of mine in the future, look for some broader discussion topics. There won’t be any assigned reading, but be ready to talk about something that isn’t Magic: the Gathering.

As you prepare to coach others in the judge program, think about your own favorite coach. Identify the reasons you admire them. What strategies are best for individuals? What strategies are best for teams?

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