One of my favorite movies is Coach Carter. It’s based on the true story of a high school basketball star who comes back to coach at his old school. The team was on a losing streak with few prospects for improvement.
Coach Carter steps in and makes some radical changes to help the players become successful both on the court and in their personal lives. While the movie focuses heavily on the coach and his unusual methods, it also offers lessons for any organization wanting to improve. The story line includes powerful themes of teamwork, leadership, hope, hard work, change and the importance of having a vision. My favorite scene is the “Push-ups” scene.
One of the players, with a serious attitude problem, had bailed on the team rather than comply with the coach’s new rules. But after the team started winning, he wanted back in. The coach offered him that opportunity for a price: 1000 push-ups and 2500 suicides. Not a small task, even for a high school athlete. The player comes close but doesn’t get all the work done by his deadline. So the coach sends him on his way. But before he leaves, a teammate steps forward and says to the coach:
“I‘ll do push-ups for him.
You said we’re a team.
One person struggles, we all struggle.
One person triumphs, we all triumph.
Then he drops and starts doing push-ups. Soon, the rest of the squad is on the floor also doing push-ups or suicides. (You can see a video clip of the scene here)
When the scene ends, you see the tiniest of smiles on the coach’s face as he turns to leave. It’s a powerful scene because you know this is something new for these kids. It’s a dramatic sign of how much they have changed. They’ve become a team in every sense of the word.
As I watch that scene, I ask myself, what happened to create this change? What made these athletes become a team rather than just a group of kids who wanted to play basketball?
Here are some things that come to mind:
1. Coach Carter created a vision for them
Prior to Coach Carter taking over, this was a losing team. Carter came in and made it clear, he could help them win basketball games. He also helped them see how they could get a good education and create opportunities for themselves after high school. He gave them something to strive for as individuals and as a team.
Teams and their people need a clear vision to move toward. It needs to be something every team member can understand and get behind.
2. He gave them a reason to believe they could win
Coach Carter entered the world of these basketball players with all kinds of credibility. It was hanging on the gym wall. As a high school athlete there decades earlier, he had set basketball records that were still unbroken. Also, everything he did as a coach, he did with confidence. He never showed any doubt in his methods or in his players. He modeled the kind of behavior these kids needed to believe they could succeed.
When team members believe in the capabilities of their leader, they are more likely to work as a team and follow that person. And when that leader shows confidence in the team members, they are more likely to believe in themselves too.
3. He provided enough structure to help them move toward their goal
While the coach couldn’t win for them he could provide enough structure and guidance to help them do what it takes to win. So he provided a road-map for them with enough detail so they could follow it. But it didn’t provide every detail carved in stone. As the “push-ups” scene demonstrated, the kids found their own way to accomplish success, within the structure provided by Coach Carter.
Change is hard and can be scary. When the leader provides a certain amount of structure, it can help team members get on board. People need to know there is a plan in place. It doesn’t have to cover every possibility but there does need to be a road-map to follow. This helps them begin working together as a team so they can start accruing wins that keep the team improving and moving forward.
4. He was there to help them
Coach Carter was not a teacher at this school. He had his own successful business. In fact, he put his business in jeopardy at one point in the movie by doing what he did as coach. I think the players realized he was there to help them, not to collect a paycheck. When team members believe their leader’s goal is to help them, they’re more likely to work as a team. They need to know their leader has got their backs. Coach Carter delivered that message well.
When team members know their leader is there to help them succeed, they’ll work harder and do more for the team. And the team will be more likely to succeed no matter what challenges they face.