With his team’s NFL season teetering on the precipice, the Dallas coach has a novel idea. In advance of a recent game vs Minnesota, he emphasizes the need to “hit” certain key strategies. To reinforce his point, he and several players take a sledgehammer, then smash a selection of defenseless watermelons.
They must have made a hell of a mess.
Still, the unusual, even bizarre, ploy comes up trumps. The Cowboys scramble to an unlikely victory, giving a brief spark to their flickering playoff hopes.
If anything, the above scenario shows that certain coaches and managers will go to extreme lengths to inspire their troops. And smashing watermelons is far from the only ritual at their disposal. Similar motivational gambits have included chopping wood, punching the clock, literally burying a ball, or adding poker chips to an ever growing pot.
However, too often these gimmicky approaches have a very short shelf life. Watermelon carnage may be all well and good, but the Cowboys, in a dismal home defeat the following week, only confirm they are, at the core, a poor team.
The chopping wood mantra also has its moment in the sun. At least until an unfortunate participant from one squad, swinging a heavy axe, misses the cedar shake but not his own shin.
Not to be outdone, a pro basketball outfit, looking to improve consistency of work ethic and habits, goes old school by installing a time clock and punch cards for its players. Alas, the group finishes some twenty games under .500 and the coach is fired. Another football team, 0-4 to start the season, digs a grave, buries a ball, administers last rites, promises the remainder of the year will be one of rebirth. Then proceeds to lose six more in a row.
In the same vein, those hoping to elicit a positive response in their athletes, but who are not necessarily into stunts and gadgets, may consider a thought provoking, even fiery speech. All with an aim to trigger an elevated performance.
So it comes to pass, some years ago. I am asked to address the Men’s basketball team at my university alma mater. The newly appointed Victoria coach, successfully navigating his rookie season, perhaps also sees an opportunity to build ties with alumni.
Whatever the case, I am happy enough to accept the invitation. I am familiar with the Vikes roster. I am comfortable speaking in a public forum. And I am confident my message will leave a mark, will tug at the heartstrings, will get the players fired up, tingling in excitement and anticipation.
I enter the locker room. Stand at the whiteboard as the team gathers round. Slowly I begin.
My talk focuses on Vasily Alekseyev, the great Russian weightlifter. Olympic gold medalist in 1972 and 1976, and holder of 80 world records. I hammer away at the reasons for his success. My voice, quiet, then rising in pitch, touches on various key themes. On conviction, power, and precious moments. I make eye contact with each individual sitting in front of me. Finishing with a flourish, I focus on the special moment, the “white moment”, that scintillating level of performance Alekseyev would always pursue fanatically in order to taste it again and again.
The players catapult out of their seats. Eyes sparkling, they form a tight circle. “1-2-3-Vikes” they shout. They fight their way out the door, race down the hallway, burst onto the McKinnon Gym floor.
I settle into my courtside seat. Await proceedings. I am well pleased with myself, very keen to see my impassioned oratory propel the Vikes to a new level.
The Vikes do achieve a new level. Unfortunately, it is one of ineptitude. Jacked up and over motivated, they crash 98-64 to a skilled, haughty Simon Fraser side. From start to finish, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. They absorb an absolute beatdown. It is as much my fault as anyone's, and I cannot escape the building quickly enough.
The two teams meet again the following evening. Not surprisingly, my verbal skills are deemed surplus to requirements. Back on an even keel, the Vikes play outstandingly well, winning 105-76. The stunning 63 point swing remains a national university record for a two-game weekend series.
I reflect on the lessons learned. Without question, there have since been occasions when a rev-up, a harsh truth, a stern word, or an effusive plea to an individual or team, has had merit or been a success. Yet, when I think of the absolute best coaches I have met, played for or worked with over a half century, not one has been seduced by raw talent, sentiment or emotion.
Instead, they have been, and are, measured, prepared, organized, consistent and thorough. Can teach and develop crucial fundamental skills, can outline to their charges the what’s, how’s and why’s. Can correct technical flaws. Can build trust and establish relationships. Know the critical importance of superior fitness. Achieve clarity of thought and action.
What they don’t do is worry about the “white moment”. After all, they know that, in the vast majority of cases, it is really nothing more than white noise.