Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Coaching: The 'Five and Out' Law

With Bill Laimbeer leaving the WNBA Detroit Shock, all kinds of theories have been posited as to "why". Theories such as:

a) Laimbeer has a NBA/NCAA men's basketball job lined up, or he will soon.
b) Laimbeer wanted to go out of the WNBA as a champion
c) The Detroit Shock might not be around next year, and Bill wanted to leave a sinking ship.

However, I was thinking that there might be another explanation.

There was a book called "Up The Organization" written in the 1970s by a businessman named Robert Townsend. Townsend's book is a nice little manual of business maxims that an interesting read even if you're not a businessman. Townsend had a strong believe that five years was the "sale by" date for the leadership position in any organization:

Nobody should be chief executive officer of anything for more than five or six years. By then he's stale, bored, and utterly dependent on his own cliches - though they may have been revolutionary ideas when he first brought them to the office.

Also, decisions aren't based on consensus, but on one man's view of what's best for the organization. And that means even the best decisions will make some people unhappy. After five or six years a good chief will have absorbed all the hostility he can take, and his decisions will be reflecting a desire to avoid pain rather than to do what's right.

There's a lot of sense in the above. Think of yourself as being in Bill Laimbeer's large shoes. The life cycle of coaching is the same - preseason, season, (hopefully) postseason and off-season. The mechanical aspects aren't difficult to manage, but people management is the heart of the pro coaching job.

You come into the job with tried and true motivational techniques you've either picked up during your years of playing the sport, or you develop your own. The first few years, they work for the simple reason that no one has heard any of them before. (Laimbeer took an 0-10 team and led it to a championship in the following year.)

After five years, however, the tropes get stale. You end up giving the same rookie speech year after year after year, and the vets tell your rookies, "Listen, Coach is full of @#$@# about 'x' and 'y'." You attempt to motivate your stars but after five years, there are no more buttons left to push. They've figured you out. They know when to listen, and think they know when to tune you out...and over time, they start tuning you out more and more and more.

They're tired of you.
You're tired of them. And maybe it's time for you to go when you have nothing more to say.

This isn't to say that you can't have a long and successful professional coaching career. (See: Jackson, Phil.) However, as time progresses it's tough to bring something new to the table.

In college, this isn't a problem, and long careers seem to be much more the rule than the exception. Pat Summitt can play the same mind games with her freshmen in 2008 that she tried in 1998, because her motivational methods will always be "fresh" to a team of neophytes.

Look at the WNBA's big winners in coaching. I think the only coach who coached as long as Laimbeer who was as successful as Trader Bill was Van Chancellor, and even he knew when to wrap it up and move on. The other challengers for WNBA coaching wins have coached at more than one franchise, where they can bring their act to a new audience (so to speak).

Maybe Trader Bill is smarter than anyone is giving him credit for. Maybe this was the perfect decision to make. And Laimbeer knows that he'll always be welcome anywhere in the WNBA. You might hate him, but trust me, after he starts winning games for your team you won't hate him so much anymore.


pilight said...

Successful coaches (or CEOs) change the needs of their organization, and in doing so they make themselves obsolete. I blogged on this a few years back:


Scroll down to 25 June 2006.

pt said...

I enjoyed this final sentence:

Generally speaking, coaches are hired for good reasons and they're fired for good reasons. A team brings in a coach to fill a need. Once that's done, the team will have a different need and most likely will need a new coach to fill it

It seems like there's some truth to the saying, "Now that you came and fixed all of our problems...what do we need you for?"