Fair, Not Equal Treatment of Players on a Team of Young Adults

John Wooden treated all players fairly, not equally, as he stated in his book They Call Me Coach. Each player is different, he believed, and treating Bill Walton the same as Henry Bibby was unfair to both players, as each was different.

When current Houston Rockets’ Head Coach Jeff Van Gundy coached Latrell Spreewell with the New York Knicks, he never punished Spree when he arrived a couple minutes late to the arena. Players were required to be in the arena two hours before tip-off, and he did not stress Spree over a couple minutes because he knew Spree would always be prepared for the game.

When coaches create team rules and consequences, they must consider their role in academics, attendance and other “outside” actions, as well as basketball issues. And, while establishing consequences is easy, implementing outlined punishments becomes difficult when missing the next game means missing the league championship game and the player is not just a player, but THE player. However, as University of South Carolina Head Coach Steve Spurrier said, “Never threaten a player (team) if you are not prepared to back it up.” Once a coach overlooks a rule for one player, or fails to handout the prescribed punishment, all rules lose their steadfastness and all punishment appears arbitrary.

Personally, I am big on common sense. I tend to believe most players understand what is appropriate and what is not and I think players need to learn to use their own discretion, rather than being handed a laundry list of rules to follow. Once something is prohibited, young adults want to try it; once something is mandated, young adults want to avoid it. In high school, we were required to wear a collared shirt and tie on game days. Since it was mandated by adults and thus “uncool,” we immediately strove to dress as slovenly as possible, wearing sweat pants with our shirt and tie or leaving our shirt un-tucked with our tie loosely around our neck. We looked worse than if we had been left alone to dress ourselves; the mandated dress code backfired because we naturally rebelled against the rule.

Without a dress code, we may not have worn ties, but we certainly would have looked respectable, as we would have wanted to look good when we left school. I tend to believe we would have self-instituted a dress code by the end of the season, using peer pressure to look good and look like a real team on game day. Had the coaches trusted our judgment, I believe we would have met their expectations, which we failed to meet by rebelling and dressing as slovenly as possible.

When I was an assistant coach at UC Santa Cruz, Head Coach Eric Bridgeland’s sole rule was: “Don’t embarrass the team.” While the rule was intentionally vague, it was specific enough. If a player wanted to party and drink, the coaches better not hear from another coach or administrator that the basketball team’s star center was passing out in the middle of the quad.

A Chinese proverb says: “If you don’t want anyone to see you do it, don’t do it.” When coaches give players some freedom and trust players, it furthers the coach/player relationship. Oftentimes, players/young adults avoid a behavior/action because they fear losing the coaches/adults’ trust, which is a more powerful deterrent than a punishment prescribed by a list of prohibited actions.

A common team rule is a minimum grade point average, which treats all players equally, but not fairly. Players have different academic aptitudes, preparation, support, etc. and using a standard grade point average for all players ignores the individual differences. A highly intelligent honor student exerts little effort to achieve a 3.0, while another student may require extra tutoring and effort to approach a 3.0. Therefore, while a 3.0 is equal for each player, circumstances suggest a 3.0 is unfair to each player. The honor student should be held to a higher standard to insure he challenges himself to meet his academic potential, while the struggling student should have a lower minimum grade point average that provides a similar challenge. Asking all players to attain the same GPA is like asking all players to score the same number of points per game; the twelfth player on the bench is not as good and will not have the same opportunities as the best player, so holding them to the same criteria is unfair. However, the top player and the twelfth player should be held accountable for their performance based on their talent level.

My two basic rules are:

1. As long as one behaves like an adult and accepts responsibility for his actions, he is treated like an adult; once he behaves like a child (constantly making excuses), he is treated accordingly (more and more rules spelled out).

2. The 24-Hour Rule: After games, I will not discuss playing time issues with a parent or player for 24-hours, allowing both parties to step away from the action and calm down before initiating a conversation. After 24-hours, it is fair to have an adult conversation with player or parent to address their concerns; however, the parent/player must be prepared to hear an honest answer, which may sometimes deflate one’s ego.

Beyond these rules, I follow the sage advice of John Wooden and treat players fairly, not equally, adjusting to each player’s needs, desires, concerns, personalities and individual circumstances.

During my first year as a Head Coach in Europe, I had a young, emotional center who was living in a new town on her own for the first time, had jumped from the second division to the elite league and was playing a new position in a new style of play with new teammates. I was “easier” on her than some other players. She was constantly in a bad mood because of her off the court life, and she simply was not as good as she had thought, which frustrated her more. On the flip side, when my leader, an experienced 26-year old forward in her ninth season in the elite league showed similar frustration, I acted quickly.

In short, I treated each differently though in my best estimation, fairly. And, each exceeded expectations, the rookie supplanting a legend in the starting line-up and the forward posting career numbers and earning a trip to the All-Star game.

While many other mitigating factors were involved, Wooden’s fair, not equal policy helped each player, as the veteran was more accountable for her actions and challenged to play better with higher expectations and the young center was allowed room to grow and gain comfort rather than constantly enduring my wrath every time something went wrong.

Eliminating steadfast, equal treatment across the board can be problematic, and it requires a relationship with each player in order to maintain a cohesive unit. It isn’t perfect, but no system is. It requires work, but everything worthwhile requires effort to make it work.

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