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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Van Wie

Build A Winning Team From The Bottom Up

As your favorite teams claw their way up the NCAA bracket, or fight for home ice advantage in a Stanley Cup run, it is usually the star players who are in the spotlight and in the headlines. But who really makes the most difference in a championship run? Is it all about star power, or something deeper than that?

As coaches, and as managers in the everyday working world, it is important to recognize the power and importance of developing depth in the line-up, in providing as much focus on the new and less experienced players as we put on the starters. Sadly, too many coaches forget this important lesson, or never learn it in the first place. And their teams suffer as a result.

After watching Villanova win this year’s NCAA basketball title game, and after playing and coaching team sports for several decades, I would argue that championships are won from the bottom up, rather than the top down. Sure, the best players have to play their best, as the cliché goes. But once teams get to the elite level, the top tier stars usually balance out, more or less. One player may have a killer fastball, and another a wicked slider. Gronk may be a terror across the middle, but the other team has a deep threat. A team needs more than just their marquee players to win the title.

I have observed that the bottom third of the roster wins the championships. Time and again, it is the player coming off the bench, or the unsung grinder who scores the game winning goal. This is true in professional sports, but even more so in high school or college sports where team depth is critical to success. It is also true in many non-sports settings.

My son played college soccer for Amherst College, a perennial Division III powerhouse program that placed enormous focus on the “everyone matters” philosophy, even the players who only played five minutes or less per game. The second team- known as the Blue Steel after the color of their scrimmage pinnies - prided itself in the fact that, despite their limited playing time, most of them were better players than many of their opponents' starters. Which was true. And they knew that it was their job to make the first team better. Which they did.

This was reinforced every day by the coaches and the captains. The seniors mentored and critiqued the freshmen, working on skill development and game awareness. The unwritten rule was reserve players did not sit down during a game; they were the most vocal cheerleaders and supporters, keeping their heads in the game every moment, fully aware of every tactic and one-on-one battle. And ready to go at any time.

Many of us are familiar with instances at the pro level when players from the “bottom third” stepped up to make the difference at a crucial moment. Often it surprises us, but it shouldn’t. We should expect it. This is how championships are won.

Two of the more prominent examples are Bucky F. Dent, the light hitting shortstop who hit a three-run homer in the famous 1978 one-game playoff between the Yankees and the Red Sox. And more recently, it was Malcolm Butler stepping up to make a game sealing (stealing?) goal line interception for the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

It is not hard to find others…

  • Max Talbot scoring two goals, including the game winner, for Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. He had scored only 8 goals all year. Sydney Crosby got the attention, but Max mattered when it mattered.

  • Dave Roberts, a journeyman outfielder, stealing second as a pinch runner in the bottom of the 9th to spark the Red Sox miracle comeback against the Yankees in the ’04 ALCS, leading to a World Series win for the Sox.

  • Cam Ward, an unknown rookie goaltender who was not expected to step onto the ice during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but who led the Carolina Hurricanes to victory in the Finals.

Anyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows that Bill Belichick (love him or hate him) is the master of bringing in unknown players at critical times when top tier players get hurt. He has built his career on the mantra of “ready to play,” a strategy that requires an enormous commitment of time and effort on developing players in the bottom third of the roster so they are ready when the moment arrives for them to step in. Belichick carefully chooses players who are willing to work within his system and who expect everyone else to do so.

At the youth sports level, I recall one year when my son’s soccer team had a fabulous starting eleven players who matched up well against any team. But when the 12th player subbed in, it was like playing a man down. And so on with the 13th and 14th players.

The coaches and the more experienced players recognized that they needed to spend extra time with the less proficient players, mentoring them and encouraging them to put in extra time to raise their skill level and their “soccer sense,” and to be fit and ready. They had to build from the bottom up if they wanted to win more games against stronger competition. Everyone did what they could, and the improvement came quicker than expected.

Which brings me back to my point about how to develop and motivate the bottom third players to prepare them to be better than the competitors’ substitutes and role players. To do this, a coach must make them feel valued so they will work as hard as, or harder than, the players who get the glory.

The key for coaches is to find every opportunity to provide rewards and incentives. They must know what works best for each player. For some, getting two minutes of playing time when the score is lopsided might be all the motivation they need. The starters should know that their extra effort in extending a lead might give the second team players a chance to show what they have learned, and to be better prepared when they are needed as subs.

For others, perhaps those middle tier players on the verge of a bigger role, giving them an opportunity to start a game can be a huge motivator, even if their playing time overall is still limited. Getting recognition from the coaches, and the respect of their peers, can be a huge payback for putting in the extra effort.

The players know these moments and the messages they contain. It is critical for coaches to recognize them as well.

Many people think of competitive swimming as an individual sport. But my high school swimming coach was a master at promoting the team aspect. Given our limited numbers, Coach Martin would juggle swimmers around in different events to extract as many points as possible. If he knew that our top butterflier wouldn’t beat the other team’s top butterflier, Coach would put him in the backstroke instead where he had a chance of earning more points.

Coach Martin planned every meet so that every swimmer had a chance of earning points that we needed to win. I can’t tell you how many times our meets came down to everyone cheering while a freshman battled for crucial fourth or fifth place points. Coach made it clear: everyone had to work hard and do their very best so the team would succeed. It wasn’t all about the superstars.

Unfortunately, I have seen far too many coaches miss these opportunities to extend the respect and recognition to their developing players. It kills me to watch coaches pander to star players, forgiving their tantrums or laziness, when other players who have worked very hard are waiting for an opportunity to just play at all. The message this sends can affect the entire squad.

I remember one game where the star player on my daughter’s ice hockey team kept taking stupid penalties, even with a four goal lead. The weary top line had to kill penalty after penalty when the third line should have been out there getting much needed game experience. The players who rarely stepped onto the ice could have earned a few minutes of pride. But the coach kept putting her star back out there when she should have been sending a different message to the entire team. And the younger players watched a rare opportunity to play slip by. How about that for motivation?

No, I am definitely not advocating the “everyone gets a gold star” mentality, nor blanket rules for “if you practice, you play.” Rather, I am saying that effort and commitment deserve appropriate recognition, especially for developing players who may mean the difference come playoff time, or if a starter gets injured. Too many coaches can be DE-motivating when a clear opportunity arises and they fail to take advantage of a learning moment which will make the overall team better by building needed depth.

When we hear of certain coaches retiring- those special coaches who were “loved by all”- we understand that these are the coaches who considered themselves educators first. These are the coaches who coached every player, not just the star players, the coaches who built their programs around a team ethic that everyone mattered, no matter how tiny their role might be.

And how does this all apply to other contexts – in the business world, in community activities, or even in family situations? We must all look for opportunities to build from the bottom up. In any organization, it is important to find every chance possible to mentor and develop younger staff. We need to give them a moment to shine, and give recognition and credit for their hard work. What about cross training staff so that Chelsea can fill in if Stanley is sick, or out of town, or on vacation?

In any competitive endeavor, the bottom third of the roster is as important as the top third. Everyone needs to understand his or her role and be given the opportunity to step up when the right time comes. If this is the expectation, and leaders plan for these occasions, then nobody should be surprised when that unheralded somebody just happens to score the game winner.

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