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All Points West: Win, or lose your coaching job?
April 08, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
N.Y. Yankee legend Yogi Berra was quoted as saying, “baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.” That goes for any sport. Humor aside, the sentiment is an integral part to coaching and helping athletes to believe in themselves despite their physical attributes.

Keep in mind, athletes remain a huge part of the equation to winning. As many coaches have lamented, “I can’t play the game for them.”

On Wednesday, NU announced the resignation of women’s basketball Head Coach Connie Yori after 14 years in Lincoln, which included a phenomenal 30-1 in the 2009-10 season.

She made her mark as the Huskers’ winningest women’s basketball coach with an overall record of 280-166. Stunning if you think sports is a business, and successful sport programs are strictly measured by numbers.

Equally stunning: Last week I learned fellow La Verne University (California) alumni and friend, Don Flora, was fired this past December as the head coach for volleyball at Texas Tech. I was inadvertently told this by young assistant volleyball coach Whitney Roth (See story Page B1), who this past week joined the Western Nebraska Community College women’s volleyball coaching staff as a brand new assistant.

During my talk with Roth, she shared with me the intricacies of coaching, and how much winning factors into a coach keeping their job. She said the Red Raiders had hired a new head coach, and I wondered. The proverbial revolving door has become commonplace in college sports, but how much?

I reached out to Flora to offer him best wishes and wondered if there exists some magic formula to coaching.

Another fellow alumni and La Verne classmate, Leo Sayles is the head volleyball coach of Gardner-Webb University’s Running’ Bulldogs in Boiling Springs, N.C., where he has been since being hired in February 2011. Before his job at GW, he guided Bryan College in Tennessee during seven seasons from a mid-level conference team to a conference power. After two losing seasons, in the next four, his Lady Lions went 70-14 in conference.

This year, Gardner-Webb finished the 2015 season at 9-22 overall. How do the numbers stack up considering all the other aspects of the game?

Flora was hired at Tech in January 2011, one month before Sayles took over at GW. He led the Red Raiders to 53 victories over four years. In his 15 seasons at the collegiate level, he totaled a 322-130 overall record, which includes stints at La Verne, where his team won the 2001 NCAA national title in Division III with a 27-1 record, and New Mexico State, where he worked as an Aggies assistant for one year.

Those are a few highlights, but back to the formula for winning and my attempt to dissect the anatomy of a winning team. Pointing to motivation, Sayles said, “the easiest athlete is the one seeks to excel because they take ownership and responsibility for what they do as a player. However, most athletes are not at this point when they come into your program.”

Once an athlete joins the volleyball program at GW, Sayles said, “We walk through a process to get them on OUR page.” Sayles gives the players his spiel about the program, both success and failures, with a stringent focus to mission, and how his call to ministry affects his passion and defines his goal for excellence.

Similarly, Flora added there is the aspect of “challenging players to reach their potential, to help them see their growth and development in the skill of the game by catching them doing the right things, and giving players feedback when they are successful at meeting the demands of the game.”

As for bringing in the right players, Flora said, “It is a two-way street, meaning sometimes athletes find us. Or, sometimes we identify the athlete while playing or from film. Then we try and go in depth about the whole person, and not just look at volleyball skills. The recruiting process is a big key to winning.”

When his new recruits join the team at the start of the season, Sayles shows them how they fit in, the role they play, no matter how small. Overall, Sayles lets each player know they’re already respected as a person and player. “I believe we earn respect by giving it first. Players who respect you will do far more,” he said.

His staff works on getting players to willingly choose a mentor. “I say willingly because she submits her rights willingly under our leadership.” This humble, authentic approach, opens the door for feedback. How do they respond in tough situations? Once they find out, he and his staff can “push the right buttons” to help them succeed.

Players are constantly reminded of expectations, daily in fact, but it’s more than Sayles keeping a rule book in his hip pocket. “I voice these goals every chance I get so our players know what we stand for,” selling them on a culture of making it on their own. For athletes that means extra hours, strength and conditioning, watching tape. All of this behind-the-scenes work, which most people don’t see, feeds into the big picture, and the next phase of development. “Right now, helping players to see the big picture requires a concerted effort of getting players out of bed every day at 6 a.m. for practice,” Sayles said.

In dealing with failure, things get tricky. For Sayles, it’s about setting standards. “We issue a consequence for failure to reach that standard in practice,” he said. Out of a basket, team members pull a slip of paper on which consequences are written, but only if they fall short during drills. He makes it a point to show how that kind of failure could cost the team later. “I save the ‘yelling’ for encouraging or pushing,” he said.

Aside from a balance of praise and reprimands, he believes praise drives athletes more than yelling at them for failure, even if it’s meant constructively. “I do know there are times I have to ‘call out’ an athlete for repeated failure,” he said. Plus, teammates are encouraged to help each other lift up their performances.

As for the ever-present motivational aspects, which bears a great deal on skills development, “I like to see how a player interacts in a non-competitive setting with teammates and coaching staff,” Sayles said.

Flora agreed with Sayles in seeing his players through different lenses. Their play depends on “how they handle teammates’ failures; how they handle personal success or failure; how they handle and receive coaching in matches and practice. Body language is important, too.”

Flora also soaks in “the joy of the game, seeing people grow and reach new heights of skill and success, and hearing about the lives of each athlete.”

As a Christian coach, Sayles tries to convey to each recruit a sense of the program and his coaching style. I want to see that they at least respect the worldview of Christian values − honesty, integrity, faithfulness, loyalty, moral character, and humility.”

Sayles learned from his high school track coach, “He taught me the professional side of working with young people.” Sayles counts ULV’s Coach Roland “Ort” Ortmayer for “the personal touch he brought to coaching.”

Flora, too has been one of Sayles’ mentors, a sounding board, and a friend since he coached the men’s team at ULV. “Don was the first coach to encourage me to give college coaching a try. He is someone I talk to during the season for advice or just to share stories.”

Flora, who cites volleyball greats Jim McLaughlin, Karch Kiraly, longtime ULV coach Jimmy Paschal, and Paul Grout, said he was drawn to volleyball “because it is the ultimate team sport.” I was drawn to working with people and serving them.”

For Sayles, he believes “the volleyball community is great in that no one is trying to keep trade secrets. Instead, we are in this together to make volleyball great.”

Despite the inherent employment risks, high school sports – at least from what I’ve seen – have managed to stay somewhat apart from the coaching carousel and businesslike atmosphere.

But then again, weren’t sports meant to be fun?
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