When I was a lad, I played organized baseball for a year. I didn’t understand all the ins and outs (this was before daily broadcasts of Blue Jays games existed) but I had my moments, having a little power and a decent glove.
My coach was an early twenty something who didn’t have a lot of coaching in him. On this team, you were either good or you were bad, and there seemed to be no way to change that.
I remember one at-bat, as I was trudging up to the plate, he yelled “Scott!” When I turned to look at him, his advice to me consisted of...
A fist pump. No words, just a fist pump.
I may have gotten a hit, but likely not, given that we only won one game that entire summer.
Which is a convoluted way of getting to the fact that I think it’s really interesting how the Toronto Maple Leafs have gone about rebuilding their team in the last 12 months. (And obviously I think there are some parallels to this agency thing we do. What do you think this is, a sports blog?)
Instead of their tried and true strategy of importing high priced free agents and expecting them to somehow change results – be great! be changeful! dial up that compete level! – the Leafs have brought in some key leadership off the ice to plan for the long term. They’ve realized that free agents aren’t a good strategy for long term culture change. Instead, they’ve beefed up their scouting system and unloaded lots of current players to add draft picks, knowing that smart drafting and lots of drafting are related things. They aren’t putting immediate pressure on those young picks to become franchise saviours, either; they’re using those young players to slowly develop a culture, a way of playing and thinking about the game.
How do they play together? How do they get better? How can the team help the players learn all they can?
That last one is the key question. Yes, it’s up to the players to figure things out, but it’s also in the team’s best interest to help its players develop to their maximum.
There are benefits that fall out of this approach. In the Leafs case, it means that no one player – not even slick William Nylander – will be asked to do everything, or expected to carry the load. They will play as a team, with everyone contributing. The culture change means that even if one player gets injured or leaves as a free agent, the world doesn’t end. The team goes on, successfully.
And there’s a vision for how all those young players will work together not just next season, but five years from now. Because the only result that matters is the team’s.
That takes intelligence, vision and above all patience. Not random fist pumps.