The TAO of Mike

From his book Leave No Doubt — Insight into Mike Babcock’s Approach for Success

What can the players from the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans expect from their new Head Coach? A great summer question to discuss on the deck or on the dock. There is lots of speculation, parsing of news conference footage and bloviating on the talk shows, by fans and hosts alike. This IS Toronto after all.  None of it has been satisfying or substantial, with the only piece with any hints was an article about the Hall of Fame induction of Nik Lidstrom who only reinforced some of the comments about the nebulous word “preparation”.

This has only scratched the surface since there has to be more. This was never going to be about x’s and o’s, Detroit didn’t have magic plays that they used, the 2010 Olympic team didn’t play intergalactic hockey. There had to be something else to this. You can hear hints of it in the news conference where the winning card in word Bingo would have had “Process” written all over it. All the discussion of process was taken by pundits as meaning only that it was going to take time and new players, both of which may be true but neither is sufficient to explaining what was meant. Babcock came across in interviews as more substantial than that. Any puckhead coach can crack the whip, get players dumped and impose a system short run through bag skates, yelling and intimidation. We all have our favourite examples. This is no different than any CEO that can pump earnings in the short term by tossing people overboard and demanding it be “my way or the highway”. We all know it doesn’t work over time and that sustainable high performing organizations are constructed with strong foundations of beliefs and principles, but that foundation comes from “above” or leaders in the organization.

While I was at the bookstore looking for a book on Goaltending for my son by Francois Allaire I spied the word Babcock (B being close to A) in white on the red spine of a short and relatively thin book called, Leave No Doubt (McGill Press 2012).

Leave No Doubt is a book structured around Babcock’s 2010 Vancouver Olympic experience and is subtitled as “a credo for chasing your dreams”. Babcock indicates it is the codification of what he believes about how you push yourself and live life, the Tao of Mike so to speak. The book is definitely not a tactical manifesto of forechecking, puck cycling and how to defeat the trap. It is about getting the most out of teams and yourself. This is the insight I was looking for.

It is not a long book, it is 138 pages, a small paperback and it has LOTS of white space on the pages. The style is clearly Babcocks’s, brief without being terse, some parables worked in throughout that all to lead to a lesson. He is, at the end of the day, a teacher by training. While I recognized many of the concepts from the business and consulting world, there are no 2×2 matrices, Venn diagrams, flow charts and it is definitely not dressed up in consulting speach. Plain spoken, rapid fire and that reflects the author. The passion for the game, for coaching/teaching, life and his family are clear throughout.

Fans and Pundits are screaming for “The Plan”, but the Plan is path and that’s frustrating, fans and the pundits want achievement, not surprisingly, they expect it. Knowing where Babcock is coming from helps clarify the situation.

Babcock writes, “But dreams don’t simply come true. A lot of interesting things can happen between expectation and achievement – between dreaming and fulfilling your dreams

This guy is firmly committed to process, the start, the end, as well as how you get there.

The book breaks out each of the elements of what he is trying to achieve into chapters that he connects back to the credo he had put together for Team Canada 2010, the opening and closing line of this 19 line speech is Leave No Doubt.  Without going through this chapter by chapter the essence of the approach he sets up is what he calls the Circle of Success process(there is that word again!)

Preparation drives execution, execution leads to success, success gets reinforcement, reinforcement grows confidence, confidence raises expectations, expectations drive excellence and excellence demands greater preparation”

Just mapping the above sentence back onto the problems that we saw with the Leafs hints at why Babcock is the cure for ails of the franchise. But underlying in all of this, is a fierce desire to “not just be good enough”. This is where the aligning of the coaching, management and ownership planets has to come into effect. There are all kinds of tips and tricks that we are all aware of. But they are empty gestures if there isn’t a tie into a belief system and that dreaded word “culture”, something that Babcock would call a Foundation, or a team’s belief system. The tactics are less important, but you do see outlines of what is going to come. Again the watchwords will be preparation and commitment. Babcock and the staff will work hard on preparation, well run practices, focuses on skills that matter, and a proper game plan so all know what their role is. The lack of buy in, no commitment and no preparation are what get a player or assistant coach pushed out.

“As a hockey coach there are only two things that disappoint me. One is a failure to prepare. The other is a failure to compete.”


Preparation


The foundation he is trying to build is based on Preparation.

“Preparation is the fuel needed to chase your dreams”.

“Preparation is a step-by-step thing.  Winning is a step-by-step thing.  Success is a step-by step thing.”

In other words it’s a process.

“I know it (process) doesn’t seem very exciting or revolutionary.  That’s because it isn’t – but it is effective”.

To reinforce its importance Babcock uses it when facing adversity, which he defines as,

“….an opportunity you are never happy to meet”.

The key point being it is an opportunity. I believe he would call it a necessary evil since nothing worth achieving is achieved without adversity. How you deal with it, which we will come to, is the hallmark of successful people.

When facing adversity you fall back on your foundation of preparation to fight your way through. The best players are the ones Babcock refers to as “Super Learners”, “Super Learners are those who work the direct line between preparation and excellence”, and that process takes commitment.

“Preparation never stops it evolves game by game, opponent to opponent.”

“You can’t be the best in the world without world class dedication to practice”

“It just doesn’t happen any other way.  And that means practicing smart not just hard.  Winning is in the details.  Repetition accelerates learning.  For any team roles and responsibilities have to be crystal clear.”


Accountability


The way to keep the circle of success going is to have accountability. For Babcock this about respect; respect for yourself, your team and the game, owning your responsibilities to all of those things. While he doesn’t address this directly in the book this must be what he is talking about when he says creating a safe place to play. I say this, because he draws the analogy to his family and how they hold each other to “Kitchen Table Accountability”. The key was honest discussions that happen amongst families where it is understood that the discussion is always coming with positive intent. The safe place to play has to be within the organization since you cannot control what the media or the jersy tossing fans will do or say.


Leadership


Leadership is modelling, showing the way. The lesson he learned from his father, who ran mining operations, was that you can’t ask anyone to work harder than you do. Hence why Babcock out prepares his players. The leaders he refers to are those who commit, prepare and do not settle on “good enough”. Its also about doing what is right for the team and not yourself. Babcock brings up the example of Brodeur supporting the decision to play Luongo after he had a sub par performance in the Olympics or how Toews agreed to be in a checking line role throughout the tournament.

We will see if Dion Phanuef is still on the team come September, but Babcock has hinted that maybe this is about teaching to be a leader. One can only imagine what Babcock’s reaction to “salutegate” would have been, at a minimum it would be deemed to be a failure of leadership, wrong modelling and not in the team’s best interest no matter how one felt. What I have sense from Babcock’s writing is that the past will be the past. Whether it’s his spiritual beliefs or his training as a teacher, likely both, Babcock see’s past as the past. With changes in attitude and behaviour, you gain the potential to get better. He seems to believe that the potential of individuals can grow through overcoming doubt and adversity. If there was ever a team in need of that, it is this one. Babcock’s success with this team through time will be the evidence of what has been missing.


Pressure


We often hear about the pressure of playing in Toronto. Babcock would turn that around by saying,

“Pressure is what you feel when you have a chance”

The attitude you bring with the pressures is what matters. The way to deal with pressure is to go back to first principles. Are you committed? Are you accountable to yourself and your team? Will you do what the commitment implies? Which is preparation, showing and executing to the best of your ability, and doing what is best for the team. The commitment is what enables you to turn the pressure into a motivator rather than the doubt creator.

“When teams are under big pressure you have to narrow their focus….We had to focus on the task at hand.  Players had to concentrate on their roles and responsibilities.”

“When you are under pressure, preparation is especially critical to performance because it fosters a sense of confidence….Being under prepared is one way both individuals and teams allow for doubt to enter the frame.

Under pressure you fall back on foundation and structure.  You always go back to who you are.  That’s why foundation and structure are so important.  And it has to be ingrained in you if you are to fall back on it.  Who you are sets the foundation and the structure that allows you to execute.  It frames the way you play in all zones.  It sets up accountability, so each and every player can do their part”

“…..one of the key things a coach needs to do is focus on foundation.  This ensures that everyone knows what needs to be done.  This allows each player to execute at top speed – knowing and trusting that everyone else is doing their part.”


Player Management


Interesting tidbit is, Babcock said he doesn’t really speak to players after a game. If they win he shakes their hand and if they lose he leaves them alone. This is done to avoid not saying something that he will regret later. Essentially he wants to sleep on it. If he is still mad about it the next day, then it will definitely get addressed. He doesn’t shy away from issues, but they may be addressed in practice the next day or sometimes at his home. He wants to have conversations with players as humans, not coach-player type.

An interesting insight comes from Babcock about the time they lost to the U.S. in the Olympic tourney and how he dealt with it.

“Did we make mistakes? Yeah. I told them not to make more of it than it was. We lost. It was over. Would we get better? Sure we would. You can get hung up on the negative…….This was one of those moments where it’s important to remember (you’re) not coaching players, (you) are coaching people.”

Underneath all of this Babcock makes it clear that he believes this is a choice. A choice of how you want to live, choose to be, chase your dreams or just be “good enough” and that choice is driven by attitude. The players have to get used to this one, because they will see the following quote behind Babcock’s desk every time they come in to see him, it is a quote that was passed on to Babcock from Scotty Bowman.

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.  Attitude to me is more important than facts.  It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say and do.  It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill.   It will make or break a company….a church….a home,   The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day,  We cannot change our past….we cannot change the inevitable.   The only thing we can do is play the one string we have, and that is attitude……I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.  And so it is with you…..we are in charge of our attitudes.” — Attitude by Charles Swindoll


Concluding Thoughts


The book provides the framework that Babcock will be using, and is a good guide to imagining and interpreting his actions. Rather than be at his beloved Emma Lake Saskatchewan cottage this summer, Mike Babcock has realized the size of the task at hand and has scared himself of its size. That means he is preparing the most amazing camp, designing practices and mapping out how he will deal with players and situations. Babcock will lay groundwork for his Circle of Success to get started. I don’t think the players really know what is coming, but it will be challenging for all and exhilarating for those who buy in. Babcock believes communication matters, meetings matter; So he will go to ground, super prepare for his camp, as he did for the 2010 Olympics.

I would urge them all to read his book so they get a sense what he is all about. I urge fans to read it and the media as well, so you understand that there is a path and a plan. Preparing your self by knowing, that it will not happen overnight. You will start to recognize some of the signposts along the way. As Babcock says, any journey needs joy….

“….if you can’t celebrate the achievement celebrate the effort.”

Mike Babcock is going to need the fortitude to press through with the right attitude and get the players to keep on appropriately. The good news in this case is that there is a unity amongst the management group(s) for this. Babcock has a clear set of principles that he operates by and that will guide what he will do and that is what MLSE has hopefully bought into. In the language of Babcock, achieving that “moment” will be worth it, but it will take commitment and accountability of all involved to get there. Leave No Doubt is a good introduction into the Tao of Mike and we will be seeing a lot of.

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