Coaching, Leadership & Life

This Saturday, my wife, Debbie, will be inducted into the athletic hall of fame at William Chrisman High School. She’s being honored because she is one of the best coaches in the history of the school.

Her sport? Cheerleading, which may not seem like a sport. But over the past three decades or so it has become a competitive event with stunts and flips that push young athletes to get stronger and do things bodies aren’t necessarily meant to do. Yes, cheerleading has become a team sport, and as with any team sport good coaching can make all the difference.

Debbie’s record over twenty-six years included an impressive list of district championships, nineteen top six finishes at state, two championships at the state level and two national titles. I was there every year and saw how she put the program together. To me it’s an example of what great coaching is all about. Here are some of the lessons we can take from her success:

Lesson #1: You can’t compete if you don’t want to be the best.

From the day she started, Debbie took on the challenge of building a cheerleading program with the goal of making it the best. Because of this, she brought a focus and passion to her coaching that gave her the energy to outwork programs at other schools. Her relentless drive to compete was critical to success.

Lesson #2: Surround yourself with great people and collaborate.

The cheerleading game changed dramatically as it developed into a competitive sport. Athleticism and training took on a new importance. Technique was critical to do complex stunts safely. Debbie was fully aware of this, so she studied and put a program together with coaches that consistently prepared her teams better than the competition. It was an honest collaboration where the best thoughts and ideas got implemented to build a foundation for success.

Lesson #3: Set high standards and stick to them always.

Great teams come together because they know what’s expected of them. Debbie made it clear that regardless of the outcome, squad members had to give it their all and uphold the values of the team. If you didn’t, the team had to move on without you. It’s a hard lesson to learn because people don’t always want to elevate their game. But great expectations and thoughtful process produces great outcomes. The standards Debbie established made this important connection.

Lesson #4: Building leaders from within drives performance.

It’s a common practice for coaches to appoint team captains. This doesn’t always work at the high school level due to the maturity level of students. Debbie knew this and spent time coaching leaders on how to be leaders – allowing them the space to grow, while making sure that if they did fail, the impact on the team (and the captain) would be limited. Her squad members have gone on to become leaders in many walks of life — including several who have gone into coaching themselves. That says something.

Lesson #5: Legacy creates a virtuous cycle of success.

One year, near the end of her coaching career Debbie asked me to watch her squad’s dress rehearsal before the state competition. This particular squad had struggled to come together and indeed looked rough in the rehearsal. The feedback I gave the team was simple, ‘Look up at the banners. Success is what William Chrisman Cheerleaders do, and it’s what you’ll do when you hit the floor.” The power of legacy is hard to quantify, but that squad – just like those before it – upped their game and delivered another great finish at the state competition. Legacy attracts people to the team prepared to follow in its path – and it gives people the confidence of knowing that good things will happen if they stick to the course.

Lesson #6: Loving your team means you want the best for them.

I’m guessing that many of Debbie’s former players will be there to watch her induction ceremony. They’ll be there not because they have to (unlike her mandatory practices), but because they were taught to care about each other in a way that only great teams do. Sometimes that means tough love. And sometimes it was comforting someone going through tough times. Mentoring. Counseling. A shoulder to cry on. Life is tough, and Debbie showed her teams, by example, what loving each other can do to get us through.

Perhaps one of the greatest tributes to the legacy of leadership is what happens when you’ve moved on. The success at William Chrisman continued after Debbie stepped down in 2011, with a 2nd place state finish in 2012 and another state championship in 2013. No doubt, the groundwork she laid played a big part in that success.

Coaching, leadership and life. These are the things that build winners. And create a better world. Far too often we overlook the impact of people like Debbie in teaching the values that help us be successful. I’m glad we’re not missing this one. Congratulations Debbie. You deserve the applause.

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