DJ hadn’t been to Rhett’s office for a visit since October, right around the time basketball practice became official. Of course the team had been practicing since the players returned to campus in August, but officially – legally in terms of compliance – they began mid-October which would make her three quarter mile trip across campus a little over four months prior.
Rhett always stuck around after games and talked to DJ, building trust and providing a sense of empathy that so many leaders don’t bother to attempt. DJ shared her frustrations, her joy, her successes and failures and Rhett always offered invaluable advice. When she needed motivation, Rhett gave it. When she needed an honest opinion, Rhett wasn’t afraid to give it. DJ trusted and respected Rhett because she took the time to build a relationship with her and she had no real reason to do so, other than her nature to develop and train people.
After a month on the road recruiting, DJ returned to meet and begin individual practices with the team. DJ’s specialty was the post players and her immediate attention was focused on footwork and speed. Her kids could catch, they could rebound and play defense, but they were overweight and slow. Catching a ball is all well and good but if two guards could drop down and trap before her player turned to the basket, there would never be a reason to pass the ball down low. She spent hours creating practice routines that seemed like basic post work but always increased their speed. In the weight room, everything was done double-time and after every drill players had to do sprints. When DJ learned that her players were eating at McDonald’s before practice, she created a meal plan of healthy, easy meals they could grab quickly that cost the same as the combo meals she could not believe Division I athletes were eating. By the time the team was running unapproved full squad practices the post players were eight to 10 pounds lighter, quicker in the paint and able to run what mildly resembled a sprint.
Most of the team’s success fell on the shoulders of the team’s point guard but without a doubt her kids contributed. They may not have the points, the flashy moves or the accolades, but their presence, rebounding and blocked shots kept opponents away from easy buckets and forced more of a guard game, which couldn’t stand up against their point guard.
DJ was proud of her girls and proud of the team’s success. It was clear now, already into the conference season and knocking off the league favorites, that the team had a chance to win the conference and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. But working with Kim, the head coach, was a stress DJ could hardly bear. ***
Despite knowing the contributions, the improvement she encouraged and the development she directly caused for the players she coached, Kim wanted more. She had not once publicly acknowledged the value DJ and her players brought to the team and if reporters or fans mentioned a great play or commented on their improvement, Kim downplayed the success or stated how much more they needed to develop. DJ couldn’t think of a reason for Kim to treat her, or her players, with such disdain and she definitely didn’t want to move forward with her coaching career using Kim’s assume-your-doing-a-good-job-if-you-don’t-hear-anything-bad approach.
She talked to Rhett about the negativity Kim, hopefully inadvertently, encouraged. Not because she expected Rhett to do anything, but because it was seriously affecting her quality of life. DJ was working with someone who thought she was a positive person because the team was winning but the negativity was overwhelming. No amount of winning could mask the dismal world DJ lived in, every day, while working for Kim.
DJ needed to talk to Rhett because she was concerned that the longer so endured an environment of jealousy, negativity and favoritism – even while winning – the more likely that would rub off on her. Plus, she knew she took this job blindly, thinking it would catapult her coaching career quickly. She failed to ask around, to check with other coaches who knew Kim, to see if it would be a good fit. That faith, that getting out from under her alma mater would be the simple change needed to get her to the next big gig, was a monumental mistake. Now she knew why she had to take the job blindly. It was because the coaching community was aware of Kim’s selfish ways and the abusive environment she created.
“I know, from personal experience giving and receiving, how important recognition is for a team,” DJ told Rhett. “And I’m not talking about player-of-the-week type recognition; I’m talking about basic stuff, good job, well done, recognition. We are at the point of just blatant denial, it’s like myself and my players don’t exist because we are being ignored. ‘Here’s your time slot, go work with your players’ is the only acknowledgement that we are part of this team.”
DJ did her best to be aware of her tone because she was at her wits end. She was talking to Rhett because she thought she did all of the right things. She tried talking to Kim, because that is the adult, mature thing to do but Kim’s reaction was volatile and led to literal vindictive behavior. She explained to Rhett, “I scheduled time with her before practice because I knew she’d be free. I sat down and told her I had some ideas about how to boost morale and increase the player’s practice productivity but that it could be a sensitive conversation. She welcomed the conversation and asked me what I thought could help so, I expressed the importance of recognition. I used stats to point out people who are praised work harder because they want to achieve that praise again. I thought everything went well because she smiled and thanked me for the feedback but when we got to practice, I realized I unleashed the animal.”
“The animal? What do you mean?”
“Well, after stretching and warming-up with layups, passing drills and free throws we typically break out into our segments – posts and guards. Each assistant has prepared a 30-minute set of drills for our segments that we determined needs focus for the next game, or based on the previous game.”
DJ felt a little silly explaining simple practice structure to a leader, but Rhett often needed a step-by-step breakdown in order to fully grasp what she was being told, especially if it involved a deep-dive or sports jargon. There was a popular rumor that Rhett had asked someone how she knew who the winning team was if the higher score was after the lower score in the history section of the basketball media guide. DJ knew it was a true rumor because Rhett asked Lesa and Lesa told DJ. Lesa told DJ, “I had to explain to her that the highest scoring team still earned the victory, that it was common for stat programs to export results with the home team listed first, not the winning score listed first. Because people can tell who won from a.) the highest score and b.) the W and L listed in the results.”
“So just as we got ready to go to our segments, Kim made an announcement. She said:
‘Today we are going to do things a little different because today I learned that coach DJ thinks we aren’t doing well. Coach DJ thinks all of you, despite having an 11-2 record this season, are doing awful. And since coach DJ is so wise, and knows more than anyone else, she is capable of coaching all of you better than me, or any of the other coaches here, I’m going to have her coach the guards. Post players, come with me. Guards, go with coach DJ.’
If we had traded our segment plans, maybe that wouldn’t have been the worst idea, just to shake things up. But Kim was so angry, so convinced that my feedback was an attack on her personally, she wouldn’t let me have the guard workout and she didn’t consider taking what I had planned for the post players. It was humiliating and a complete waste of everyone’s time. All I knew to do was make the guards shoot jumpers. I couldn’t understand why she would punish everyone on the team because I gave feedback trying to help the team. She took away what I know how to do best, what I offer better than anyone else on the coaching staff can, just to prove she’s in charge. Or at least that’s what it seemed like. And now the posts are in worse shape because they don’t know if they are supposed to ask me for help or if they will get in trouble if they ask me questions about, well, what I know best.”
Rhett knew she had to offer some sort of advice to help DJ but she was shocked to learn that Kim, who was always polite and eager to learn how to be a great leader, coach and to do whatever it took within the rules to win, fit the description of the majority of her previous male managers. She was saddened that a woman would use the outdated tactics men had used to climb the ladder of success and even more disappointed that it was happening right under her nose and she didn’t see it. She scoured her mind to find an analogy as quickly as she could but the only one that was remotely similar to what DJ experienced was the idea of having a successful employee pivot to something new, teaching others how to do what she does well in order to make everyone better. But that didn’t really apply here – DJ couldn’t teach something she took 30 years to learn, overnight.
“Well, DJ. You have two choices.”
DJ perked up, excited that someone was going to offer her advice for the first time in months. Someone understood her situation and was going to help her get to a better place. “Ok, what are they?”
“You can stay or you can leave.”
“Stay or leave. That’s it?”
“The last time I was in your situation I knew it wasn’t going to get better. I’m not saying it won’t get better for you, it might. But you did the right thing, trying to have a conversation, even introducing the conversation as one that might be hard to hear. And the result was retaliatory. I could have a conversation with Kim, but that likely would make things even worse for you. We can’t fire a coach that’s winning because she isn’t nice. Winning beats all. But you have a choice. Do you want to coach? If coaching requires you to be what Kim is, is that what you want to do? Ask yourself why you got into coaching, what you, personally, wanted from that career path. Is it because you love basketball or love winning? If someone tells me they got into coaching because they love winning, I know they haven’t done much soul searching because winning isn’t a guarantee. Is it because you want to help others, to see them evolve into educated, well-rounded people based on your guidance? If that’s the case, there are plenty of other jobs that you can do to make that happen.”
“Like what,” DJ asked.
“That’s for you to figure out. Think about why you really, truly wanted to coach. Get as granular as you possibly can and when you determine that, you can find a job that has those elements. Then just look up some buzz words for that job, write a nice cover letter and move on. I’d be happy to be a reference if you need it.”
DJ thought, what job will let me wear shorts and a t-shirt every day and couldn’t believe this is what 18 years of her life had boiled down to – stay or leave. But she also knew it’s where she was, as hard as it was to hear. She couldn’t have Kim as a reference and based on how she reacted, Kim likely would sabotage any of DJ’s efforts to find another coaching position. Still, find some buzz words seemed like an oversimplified approach to a career change.