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How to Help Your Players Understand and Accept Their Roles


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"Sometimes a player's greatest challenge is coming to grips with his role on the team." Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls


Understanding and accepting roles is one of the biggest areas for developing a successful team. The obvious problem with getting individuals to play roles is that certain roles have more outside appeal than others. As Tennessee coach Pat Summitt observes, "Role playing is uncomfortable, especially for people who are competitive and diverse."

Who gets the most praise, pats on the back, and interviews after the games? Too often it is the player who scored the most points, not the one who set the perfect and painful screens to get her open. Coach, media, and fan attention to the "glamour" roles of the high scorer or top rebounder is one of the biggest obstacles for getting individuals to accept and embrace less popular roles. However, these roles are absolutely critical to your team's success. Championship teams have players who not only accept the often unsung roles of defensive stopper and back up point guard, but understand their overall significance and value to the team. As Miami Heat coach Pat Riley says, "The key to teamwork is to learn a role, accept that role, and strive to become excellent playing it."


Accepting Roles

Your goal as a coach is to have your players accept and embrace the role that they are given. When each player accepts her role and takes pride in playing it your team will have its best chance of being successful.

How do you get your players to understand and accept their roles?


ACCEPTING ROLES = DEFINING ROLES + APPRECIATING ROLES


Two factors are absolutely critical in helping players accept their roles. The first depends on how well defined the player's role is. The second revolves around how much the player feels she is appreciated by her teammates and especially her coach for playing the role.

Defining Roles

A key aspect of role acceptance is clearly defining roles for each of your players. Role definition means that each player knows what is expected of her to help the team be successful. Each player should be given a set of primary responsibilities that she is expected to handle and fulfill. Let's take the six-time World Champion Chicago Bulls as an example. Steve Kerr basically had to find the opening and knock down the outside jumper. Dennis Rodman had two responsibilities - to rebound and defend. Luc Longley had to play post defense while Ron Harper took care of the perimeter. It's usually your superstars (Jordan and Pippen) who have to take on additional roles. But the majority of the "role" players just need to play their role effectively and everything else takes care of itself. Each player should have one or two primary responsibilities that when executed successfully, propel the team toward its ultimate goal.


Two Ways to Define & Clarify Team Roles


1. Individual Meetings with Each Player

There are a few ways that you can help define and clarify your player's roles. One is to have an individual meeting with each player specifically discussing their role. It usually is best to begin the meeting by asking the player how she feels about her present role as she sees it. Find out how satisfied she is with her role as well as any future roles she might like to play. Either the player sees things the way you do or you need to bring in your perspective as a coach to help clarify it for her. If a player would like to play a greater role, discuss what you think it will take for her to have a chance to play the desired role. It may range from extra practice to a reality check to, in a few instances, transferring to another team. The key is to have honest and open communication between you and each player.


2. Teammates Clarifying Roles for Each Other

An excellent and effective way of clarifying and appreciating roles is to have your team assist in defining roles for each other. Many teams have found this exercise to be quite beneficial. Have your players sit in a circle and describe each player's role. Ask the team, "What does Jenny bring to this team? What do we need from her in order to reach the team goals we have set for ourselves?" If the person is a starter, the players will likely discuss her strengths and help her see her role more clearly. If she is a sub, players will talk about the need for her to push the starters to get better as well as appreciate the "little" things she does.


Appreciating Everyone's Role on the Team

The most important factor in helping players accept their roles depends on how appreciated they feel for playing them. Your acknowledgement and praise as a coach goes a long way in helping players feel more appreciated. Essentially, you need to create a sense of pride in playing every role. You want each player to understand the contribution she makes to the team and take pride in it, regardless of whether it is valued by the fans or media.

Phil Jackson acknowledged the importance of role playing in his book Sacred Hoops. "I knew that the only way to win consistently was to give everybody - from the stars to the number 12 player on the bench - a vital role on the team."


Nails and Glue Awards

Getting people to accept roles requires that you appreciate them. By appreciating them for playing roles, your players begin to understand that their role is valued and ultimately important to the team reaching its common goal.

As coach Rick Pitino says, "Recognize the people who get less attention in the group because they're not in the glamorous positions. Thank them publicly for their unselfishness and do it in front of their peers." While the fans and media may overlook some vital roles, you can appreciate them in a more effective way through team awards.

One such award that I have developed with teams is called the "Nails" award and the "Glue" award. We created the Nails award to acknowledge and appreciate the mental toughness of the player(s) who is "mentally tough as nails." The award is given on a weekly or bimonthly basis and is voted on by the team. The players are not allowed to vote for themselves. The Glue award focuses on team aspects and is symbolized by the "glue that binds the team together." The players vote for the teammate who had the best team attitude demonstrated by encouraging her teammates and/or making individual sacrifices.

You can create various awards for whatever roles you deem important to your team's success - like recognizing the player with the most rebounds, assists, charges taken, or screens. Let your players come up with the names for the award. Arizona's men's team created the "All Props Team" to acknowledge the player who best exemplified the team's standards for success. You can either determine your award based on objective stats or have your team vote for the player they felt did the best job. We usually announce the award at practice, put up a sheet on the player's locker, and add his/her name to the main award list in the locker room.


Your team's success depends on your ability to get your players to understand and accept their roles. Use the previous suggestions to help you define and appreciate each player's role and soon your team will have a winning chemistry.


This article is an adapted excerpt from Jeff Janssen's book Championship Team Building: What Every Coach Needs to Know to Build a Motivated, Committed & Cohesive Team.


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