It is the rare revolution that asks those who rush to the ramparts to clock in and clock out each day. Rare, too, is the revolutionary who brings a lunch pail to the proceedings.
Particularly a lunch box stocked with things like Jolly Rancher hard candies, Life Savers mints, rubber balls, super glue, photos and what at first glance might appear to be flash cards for a quiz on clichés, words like “resiliency” and “confidence” written on them.
Yet along with her catcher’s mask, chest protector and shin guards, such a lunch box is part of the gear awaiting University of Florida junior Aubree Munro when she arrives at the team’s softball facility and clocks in for a shift. Just as much as Munro’s gear, glove and cleats, the container and its curious contents, as well as the time card, are part of Florida’s success. The latter are the tools of the player, the former those of the person.
Coaching only one is not just a job left incomplete, but a resource squandered.
Coming off a national championship a season ago, one long-anticipated from a program that became a Women’s College World Series regular during his decade in Gainesville but never a champion, Florida coach Tim Walton spent a good solid day, maybe even two, enjoying the payoff for years of work before he turned his attention to what came next. One of the most pressing questions was how to sustain the success.
[bctt tweet=”At the end of the day, I keep coming back to the people, the people, the people – Tim Walton”]
That much, at least, is impetus familiar to most revolutions through the ages.
Revolution, in this case, is the term Becky Burleigh favors to describe the desired outcome of the philosophical conversation she feels are now taking place in Gainesville. Head coach of a the school’s women’s soccer team, which she led to the SEC’s first and only national championship in the sport, she is hardly a wide-eyed neophyte. Nor does she lack for competitiveness. Especially at the professional and college levels and increasingly through even youth teams, she notes, sports are a results-oriented enterprise.
In the same way real estate in “Glengarry Glen Ross” was a results-oriented enterprise.
It’s how she sees people pursue those results that has her envisioning change. Too many young coaches place ever greater emphasis on the player, on finding the perfect Xs and Os scheme or skill development routine, without ever learning how to coach the person.
“People think the fastest way to get those results is by having a culture of fear,” Burleigh said.
[bctt tweet=”What we’re trying to prove is by creating better people you’re going to create better results”]
“It’s more sustainable in the long term and also doesn’t have the fallout that a fear-based culture has.”
Burleigh and Brett Ledbetter, a performance coach and founder of the educational resource thefilmroomproject.org for coaches, players and parents, are the minds behind the “What Drives Winning” conference that will take place in St. Louis on June 11. The conference bills itself as one-day “gathering of top minds on high achievement, team performance and the development of character” and will feature speakers like North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance and Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan, late of the University of Florida, among others.
As Ledbetter put it, the conversation is an opportunity “to show people how to repurpose the forces of sport to build stronger people and get better results in the process.”
Walton will be among the speakers in St. Louis, too, but a more extended demonstration of how he has in recent years incorporated the ideas involved will play out on diamonds during the NCAA tournament, which begins for his team this weekend in the Gainesville regional.
“Honestly, I’ve always been more about kind of the player than I have so much maybe the person,” Walton said. “As I’m around this longer and longer and longer, I start to be more in tune to the person. I’ve always had good relationships with my players, but I feel like this has been something that I’ve really, really enjoyed working with Brett and gaining kind of a different perspective on what makes athletes tick.”
It’s worth noting at this point that none of this is everyone-gets-a-trophy warmth and fuzziness. They still keep score. And woe to the Gators softball player who calls down Walton’s wrath by throwing to the wrong base or expanding her strike zone.
The No. 1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA tournament as they seek to become the first team other than softball dynasties Arizona and UCLA to repeat as national champions, the Gators win softball games because their hitters have better plate discipline than their opponents, their pitchers minimize walks and their fielders don’t give away free outs. They win, too, because Walton and his staff recruit and sign some of the most talented players in the country. It isn’t philosophy that allows Kelsey Stewart to slap-hit a ball over the fence; it’s athletic ability that few peers possess.
Winning championships starts with talent and tangibles. It just doesn’t end there.
“We spend so much time mastering all of these things,” Walton said. “But there is a component that I don’t feel like I was as good at that I needed to be good at in coaching my athletes. … I go out there [as a player] and I can look to the right and the left of me, and it doesn’t matter who they are, I’m going to go run through a wall. But the girls seem to respond a little bit different if they feel like somebody is on their own agenda.”
The lunch box and the time card are in some ways just physical representations of a shared agenda. The time card signifies the idea of coming to work every day at the field. The super glue represents the bond necessary between players. The hard candies represent the idea that the team, which leads the nation by a commanding margin in batters hit by pitches, can’t be soft. The rubber ball represents the ability to bounce back from hitting bottom.
Every coach talks to his or her players about words like resiliency, positivity and trust, some of the cliches that appear on the cards, but the idea is that when a Florida player holds one up in the dugout after a teammate exhibits one of those character traits in a game, it creates a different connection with the concept. It isn’t just heard, but internalized.
“If I can trust Lauren Haeger to have my back off the field, I can trust her to have my back on the field,” Munro said, the catcher using the SEC pitcher of the year as an example. “We’ve also worked a lot this year [on] sometimes taking the results out of it and not letting softball necessarily define you as a person. I think that’s helped us relate to each other better, and the more we can relate to each other, the more supportive we’re going to be for each other. And the more supportive we are, the more we’re going to mesh and just have really good chemistry.”
It was only a few seasons ago that the softball program, much to Walton’s chagrin, became a cautionary tale of talent without relationships or chemistry, key players dismissed from the team on the eve of an NCAA tournament that ended for the Gators in early elimination and embarrassment. That moment of low ebb wasn’t indicative of the program as a whole, but it did suggest a variable left unattended, that as good as the program was at making players better, there was almost an assumption that the person would naturally follow.
A baseball player who won a college national championship at Oklahoma, Walton said his identity as an athlete was completely tied up in what he did. Whether he judged himself a winner or a loser depended on the numbers on the scoreboard and in the box score. His message now is that the two are not one and the same, that you are not what you do.
It isn’t an attempt to absolve players of responsibility or spare them the harsh realities of failure and loss. To the contrary, it is an attempt to fully harness the resource at his disposal.
People. They drive winning.
“As female athletes, I think it’s important that we take the skills that we gain in sports into our real lives,” Munro said, noting that while National Pro Fastpitch and potential Olympic reinstatement offer some possibilities for playing beyond graduation, college remains the finish line for most. “College sports has always been more of a way to get your degree. You can compete, and obviously for us, it’s huge. I came to Florida from California to win a national championship. … But I’m also using softball to get a degree and use that.
“I think sports in general, for girls, plays so much more of a role in being a well-rounded person.”
It is difficult to find a successful program in any sport, certainly a program with any consistent success, that doesn’t incorporate the basic premise of coaching the person and the player, whether specifically stated as such or not. Even lunch boxes as a physical representation and reminder of philosophical ideals are not new in college athletics.
But perhaps the point of any revolution is rarely to do what has never been done before but to do something that isn’t being done enough in that space and a particular moment in time.
[bctt tweet=”The most important thing on our chase toward excellence is the person we become on that chase.”]
“It’s reframing it,” Ledbetter said. “To where the most important thing on our chase toward excellence is the person we become on that chase.”