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Winning Every Day
I’M OFTEN asked two related questions: How did I build the University of Connecticut basketball team into a top national program, and what’s made me a successful coach?
My first response is always that I alone haven’t built Connecticut into a "name" program. It’s been a group effort, to say the least. I haven’t scored a single point or grabbed any rebounds. The players have, and we’ve had some exceptionally talented and dedicated student athletes. In addition, I’ve been very fortunate to have, over the years, a tremendous collection of assistant coaches who’ve spared no effort to help us win. Some are still with me, and others have moved on to coach at other schools where, to a man, each is doing an outstanding job.
As to what makes a coach successful, I confess that I’ve never discovered any mysterious secrets for building great basketball teams. There are no magic formulas that, if found, will lead to market dominance, a corner office, great wealth, or, in my case, an NCAA championship.
Winning lives are not built easily or quickly. Nor are first-rate organizations. Sure, some Internet entrepreneur might hit on an idea that catches on and makes a pile of money. But the vast majority of successful companies are built painstakingly—with blood, sweat, and tears. They are made successful over time by people who are strong, productive, creative. People who burn with a passion for what they are doing and what they want to achieve. In turn, the founders or original leaders hire others who are talented and share the boss’s enthusiasm for the business.
I’VE ALWAYS BEEN a pretty intense man. Ask people who know me, and they’ll say I’m an emotional, two-fisted Irish Catholic guy with the personality of a bulldog. That’s pretty much true. Maybe it comes from my roots in a working-class suburb of Boston. George Blaney, one of my assistants at UConn, says that I wake up intense. Others joke that I get out of bed looking for a fight.
I don’t disagree. No question, I’ve got a lot of inner drive, and I’ve benefited from it. It’s my nature. I can’t wait to get up in the morning. I curse the fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get done all that I want to do. I love spending time with my family, watching movies, reading novels, going to the theatre, and riding my bike. Friends joke that I can get excited about eating lunch. Hey, in the past, I did look forward to eating a meat loaf sandwich for lunch—it was my favorite. I don’t eat meat loaf much any more—too fatty. But I still look forward to just about everything on my schedule. How many other veteran leaders can say that?
It’s trite but it’s true: If you do not have a great passion for your job, or your life, the odds are high that you will not be successful at either of them. It’s my job coaching, and that’s where you can see the intensity. Here’s what I’ve told my players countless times over the years, and a point that I make in almost all my speeches to outside groups: Find your passion.
Nothing Great Is Ever Accomplished Without Enthusiasm
PASSION is another word for enthusiasm, which translates into energy, which in turn produces action. The more passion and energy you have, the more things you’re likely to get done in the course of a day or a week or a year—and the better off you and your organization will be. It’s called being productive—and it means that you’re working harder than your competitors, whether you’re flipping pancakes in a New Mexico diner or trading bonds in Manhattan.
I ask our players all the time: "How did you feel at six this morning?"
My players don’t get up at six in the morning. How many teenagers do you know who do? The question is rhetorical—my way of letting the student athletes know that every day is full of great possibilities, if you have an optimistic attitude. What I’m really suggesting is that they take an aggressive, can-do approach to life.
SUCCESS STARTS WITH WANTING to be successful.
Forget about reaching goals. You can’t even set goals if you don’t have an inner drive to succeed. I do. As long as I can remember, I wanted to be special and make a mark in life. Like most people, when I was young I didn’t have any idea what I might be good at, or how I’d succeed. But I wanted to get ahead in life. As I tell our players and others: Begin with an end in mind.
When you get up in the morning, you should have a pretty good idea of what you want to get accomplished that day. Think about what you want to get done this week, this year. Think about what you want to be doing in three years, or five years. Think ahead. Plan. Set goals, and then start to chase them.
Some people are born with drive. It’s in their genes. Others aren’t natural strivers and never seem motivated to do anything. Getting out of bed is a big deal for them. They don’t care a lot about challenging themselves. They’re lazy or unmotivated. It’s just the way some people are. Whenever my dad thought I was loafing, often when I was raking leaves in our yard, he’d fix his gaze on me and say: "Laziness, dare not I offend thee." It was his way of reminding me not to take shortcuts in life.
A lot of people do, but I also believe that people can develop a desire to achieve.
PEOPLE CAN BE TAUGHT to think big.
For starters, they can be taught good personal habits that will help them realize their potential. They can be taught to set goals and not settle for what they are, but instead set their sights on what they might become—with more work and passion.
Why wouldn’t I think that way? I’m a coach. I’m in the business of motivating kids—and, importantly, trying to teach my student athletes to motivate themselves, so that after a year or two, perhaps, I can stop yelling at them.
In the late summer of 2006, we brought eight freshman players into the Connecticut program. That was the most new players we’d ever had. They came to Storrs from all over—Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mary land, New York, and Connecticut. One was a seven foot, three inch player from Tanzania, who’d moved to America three years earlier, when he was sixteen. Another kid, Ben Eaves, grew up in En gland and represented his country three times in international basketball competitions. Ben spent a year at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, which is where we first saw him play. (He has since transferred to the University of Rhode Island.) Meanwhile, freshman guard Doug Wiggins grew up in East Hartford, about a half hour drive away.
They were a diverse group, each unique in his own way. But in one respect they were no different than every other group of first-year players we’ve had: They all thought, when they arrived, that they were good basketball players. They all thought, when they arrived, that they understood the meaning of hard work. They all thought they knew a lot about basketball, and school.
They were all wrong. They all do have athletic potential. They’re all good kids who certainly energized the coaching staff last year. And many of them have good study habits. But college is a major adjustment for everybody, and most students don’t realize that until their heads are spinning after week one.
That’s especially true for freshman basketball players at UConn. Quite frankly, they don’t have a clue about how challenging their new lives will be. They don’t realize how busy they will be. They don’t understand yet how hard we will work them—and how much we expect them to work on their own.
As I tell the players: To whom much is given, much is expected.
The freshmen don’t know yet how tough it is to become a good player in the Big East Conference. They don’t comprehend how or ganized they’ll need to be to handle the many new demands on their time—academic, athletic, and social. They are starting an entirely new phase in their lives, heading in a new direction, and they need a few people with compasses to point the way.
That’s where the coaches come in. We are teachers, first and foremost, and our first task is to let the new student athletes know immediately that things will change. Life will be different.
COLLEGE LIFE is more demanding than high school life. Before, the players were living at home, maybe coddled by their friends and parents. They were fawned over, given things. If they messed up, Mom or Dad would be there to clean things up. In college, nothing will be given to them. The freshmen are away from home for the first time, and will have to solve problems on their own. They can still talk to Mom or Dad on the phone, but they aren’t around anymore to fix their mistakes.
A lot of freshmen student athletes come to college with a sense of entitlement. That’s a bad thing. My coaches and I try to get rid of that attitude, but you can’t change an eighteen-year-old mind-set in six months. It takes longer than that.
Going to college is all about learning how to become a responsible adult. I tell my players constantly: You are accountable for your actions. Before, schoolwork may not have been really challenging. In college, the academic requirements are more rigorous. Before, athletic success came pretty easily, and everybody adored these players. In college, the competition will be much tougher, and the kids will have to work far harder to earn accolades from me or the other coaches.
The faster the freshmen get the message that being a student athlete will not be a stroll in the park—that they’ve got responsibilities— the better off they and our team will be.
The transition to college can be a jarring experience. Even the most confident or headstrong student athletes can seem a little confused. There is uncertainty, lots of it. The players are suddenly immersed in an entirely new environment: new school, new scenery, new teachers, new coaches, new responsibilities, new and better competition on the basketball court. It can be overwhelming, especially for kids who have had things easy for a while, and it can chip away at the self-esteem of an eigh teen-year-old.
I do not want that to happen.
I tell our young players all the time that they wouldn’t be wearing a Connecticut basketball jersey if they weren’t special players and special people. I tell them they wouldn’t have been offered a scholarship if we didn’t have confidence in them, as students and as athletes.
I want every kid who plays for us to believe in himself—totally— even as we break him down a bit to start the process of making him stronger. My message is this: "I know you want to be special, and you will be. But you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice to reach your goals." As the sign reads in our locker room: Connecticut basketball is a commitment.
The golfer V. J. Singh wasn’t exactly teeming with confidence when he was a poor young man growing up on the Pacific island of Fiji. But he had an absolute passion for golf, and an equally strong desire to be good at it. The locals don’t play much golf in Fiji, and for a long time the people there couldn’t watch the Masters or any other golf tournaments live on TV. Singh would ask friends in other countries to send him videotapes of the Masters and other tournaments, and then watch them.
For years he dreamed of winning on the famed Augusta, Georgia, golf course. He knew that there was only one thing he could do to make it happen—practice. No, more than that: Practice like a man possessed.
When he was in his twenties, Singh spent hours every day hitting golf balls on the practice range. In ninety-five-degree heat, he’d hit hundreds if not thousands of balls. He was fanatical about practice, even after coming to America to play in the mid-1980s. At tournaments, Singh’s competitors would hit balls for an hour after a round and then go out to dinner. Singh hit for two or three hours, until it was too dark to see, and skipped dinner. Commitment.
In 1999, after being on the PGA tour for a few years, Singh decided to get even more serious about winning the Masters. He got in better shape, started eating healthier food. He also watched tapes of himself hitting golf shots in tournaments. He analyzed his game completely—and kept practicing. Commitment.
The following year, he won the tournament that meant the most to him—the Master’s. Asked how he accomplished the feat, Singh replied, "I wanted it badly that year and was prepared to pay the price. That is what made me a champion. It was not luck." He’s been one of the world’s best golfers for the last de cade, and has now won three major tournaments—all because he was willing to sacrifice to fulfill his dream. As he said, it was not luck. It was commitment.
Is It in You?
ENTHUSIASM AND PASSION FOR what you do are the first stage of a pro cess I call "winning every day."
Former U.S. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: "What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you is of very little importance compared to what lies within you. If love, trust, and commitment lie within you, yours will be a happier, more productive life. No matter what obstacles you confront, you will find a way to win every day."
Boiled down, winning every day means trying to accomplish a few positive things every day. As I tell my players: Make every day your minor masterpiece.
They can be little things, minor achievements, that put you in a position to achieve bigger things later on. I’m not talking about making a $100,000 sale every day, or winning a big consulting contract, or getting a promotion at NASA. I’m not talking about marrying the prettiest woman in your college, or winning your first World Series start as a pitcher. Those are once-in-a-lifetime breaks, and they don’t happen at all unless you’ve done some work—put in the time, effort, and planning necessary to reach a goal.
Boeing, for example, doesn’t just sell 777s to Japan Air Lines or Southern Airlines in China. The company spends years laying the groundwork for future sales, by working with current or potential customers on airline designs, by establishing relations with key government figures, by subcontracting work out to Asian manufacturers to establish good will and cement long-term business partnerships.
Before my knees got balky, I used to run a lot. When I coached at Northeastern University in Boston, I used to run along the Charles River with my players. I also ran six marathons, three in Boston and three in New York. Trust me, you don’t just hop out of bed on the day of a marathon and run 26.2 miles. You can do that if you want to flop down at the halfway mark, dehydrated and in pain, and get carted off to the hospital.
Better to train heavily before trying to run a long race. You start out by running relatively short distances—for days or weeks—then gradually stretch out the length and duration of your workouts. You learn to run three miles comfortably, then five miles, then ten miles, and then twenty miles. You expand your lungs, improve your pace, learn to adjust psychologically to the physical demands of running long distances. That’s how you prepare for a major endurance test.
It’s a basic idea: Make incremental progress.
Building a company or career is a bit like a getting over a high-jump bar: You set the bar at one height, preferably one that is reachable, then start working on technique. With luck and determination, you leap over the bar. Then you move the bar a little higher, start training again, and test yourself against the new height. You’re not sure if you can clear it—but you do. And when you do, you feel good about yourself—and move the bar still higher.
You won’t keep clearing new heights. Eventually, you’ll reach your limit—in athletics, in your career. But you don’t know what your limits are unless you test them—unless you keep raising the bar.
Try to make regularly incremental progress in your life—at the office, in your work habits, in your business and personal relationships— and you might surprise yourself. You might go higher and farther than you think.
What is a basketball game? It’s really a long series of little battles played out over forty minutes, hundreds of momentary skirmishes— battles for loose balls and rebounds, one-on-one matchups between a guy who, with the shot clock running down, is going to shoot the ball and a defender who must keep him from putting it in the basket. Win enough of those little fights and you win the game. You’ve got a few more points on the scoreboard than your opponent when the final horn sounds. By doing lots of little things well, you’ve accomplished a very big goal.
Winning in Life Is a Process
IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL, WE don’t just give kids Connecticut uniforms, teach them a few plays, and then push them out on the court, hoping they’ll score eighty points and win a game. We spend months recruiting talented kids, cultivating relationships with their parents, just to get them to the University of Connecticut. That’s step one.
Then, after they get here, we encourage the players do a lot of running and conditioning work on their own, prior to the official start of practice in mid-October. It’s psychological and physical prep time for the grind that lies ahead. That’s step two.
The night before our first practice, we have our "Basketball Madness" celebration, also known as First Night. We’ve got great fans at UConn, and last year 9,000 of them gathered in Gampel Pavilion to greet the new team, cheer, and have a little fun. We do it every year. The players were introduced individually, and some grabbed the chance to perform for the crowd. Freshman Stanley Robinson buffed the Huskie logo with a towel. Fellow freshman Curtis Kelly did a little dance. The fans roared, the players laughed. The coaches cringed.
We had a dunk contest and a three-point shooting competition. While guard A. J. Price was shooting threes, I could hear his mom, Inga, screaming encouragement to him above the din. She’s got a lively personality and loves to talk. Her husband was taking pictures. It was nice to see A. J., a player we were counting on a lot, finally on our basketball court. He’d missed the previous two years of basketball with first a serious health issue, and then legal problems. But they were behind him. A. J. felt good, and both his parents and I were thrilled that he was ready to start his UConn career.
First Night is fun for everybody. But the next day, the mood shifts. It’s time to get down to business. The laugh quotient is greatly reduced. The work quotient is greatly increased. It has to be that way: Our first game, usually an exhibition, is in two weeks. Last year our first real game was on November 10. With a frighteningly inexperienced team, we needed three months of practice to get ready. We had three weeks.
Every year, we start with lots of running and physical conditioning to build the stamina necessary to play basketball at a high level for forty minutes. We then focus on basketball fundamentals—playing hardnosed defense, making good passes, shooting free throws—and learning proper techniques, such as how to move your feet properly when playing defense, or how to pivot in the post after getting the basketball.
Basketball is, fundamentally, a simple sport: You move the ball around, try to find an open shot, and get the ball in the basket. Defensively, you try to stop your opponents from putting the ball in the
Excerpted from A Passion To Lead By Jim Calhoun.
Copyright © 2007 by Jim Calhoun.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.