I grew up in South Bend, IN. home of Notre Dame, Studebaker cars, and one of the best soccer coaches I have ever known, Jim Tallman. As a graduate of Clay High School it might seem blasphemous to speak so kindly about the former head coach at John Adams High School; they were one of our most hated rivals. But there was something you just had to respect about the man who had built a mid-sized public school into a soccer powerhouse. There was no arguing his coaching effectiveness and his teams always came to play. (Full disclosure: Jim Tallman was also my middle school teacher and soccer coach so admittedly I am a bit biased. In fact, I still remember his 4 golden rules which he drilled into us: 1) Do what you’re supposed to do, 2) Do it when you’re supposed to do it, 3) Do it to the best of your ability, 3) Do it that way all the time. We’ll get back to those later.)
Even though I had played for Tallman in middle school I was always interested in how he ran his program at Adams. What were his tricks? How did he consistently have great teams? Yes, he had great players but in a public high school where school zoning ordinances decide the hand you are dealt, he always seemed to be sitting on a straight flush. He couldn’t recruit like a private school; he had to work with what he was given. There had to be something special about him or his methods.
Fortunately, after high school I became very close friends with many of my former Adams’ rivals. So, I dug a little to find out the magic of Jim Tallman. Of course they had many stories, but nothing extraordinary. Until, one of them said, “Oh, since he taught at that other school he sometimes showed up late to practices.” What? This legend, this architect of great soccer teams showed up late?
After thinking about this I actually became angry. How did this team beat us? I mean their coach was occasionally late to practice. Certainly they weren’t getting anything accomplished. And then it hit me: The magic of Jim Tallman. While most teams would have used their coach’s tardiness as an excuse to fool around or show up late themselves, Tallman’s teams took the road less traveled. They started practice on their own, they held each other accountable, and pushed each other to limits that they might not have otherwise reached. In his absence, Tallman built the foundation for his teams’ success.
Maybe it was by accident, but I have to believe that Tallman intentionally showed up late to those practices. He was testing his team. He wanted to see how they would respond. What culture would develop? By putting them in that situation he forced leaders to emerge and players to hold themselves and each other accountable. The result: a team (better yet, a program) with a culture of winning. What Tallman did was quite remarkable. While most coaches try to micromanage every aspect of their program and force players to become leaders, be accountable, and work hard, he allowed those things to happen on their own.
What he did reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink…but you can put salt in his feed.” Quite simply, this means that while we can’t make people do things – we can certainly put them in a position where they are more likely to do what we want. The horse that eats salty feed becomes thirsty and therefore, is much more likely to drink. Tallman put salt in the feed. He forced the players to take ownership of their practices and, ultimately, their success. Of course, this could have backfired but my guess is he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew the strong personalities on his team would take over and others would fall in line. In the end, he had a program where winning was expected and, more importantly, the hard work it took to win was demanded.
Then it hit me: He had built a team that 1) Did what they were supposed to do, 2) Did it when they were supposed to do it, 3) Did it to the best of their ability, and 4) Did it that way all the time!!!
In his absence his team had developed a culture of winning. A culture where everyone on the team demanded the best from themselves and others at all times. A culture where everyone was fully committed to doing the little things necessary to be successful; not sometimes but all the time. A culture where players accepted their roles and all pulled in the same direction. A culture that ultimately led Tallman to the Indiana Soccer Hall of Fame. Most coaches try to force their teams into doing this. The smart ones, like Jim Tallman, allow it to happen on its own.
One of the greatest challenges you may face as a coach is letting go. Do you have the ability to sit back and just let things happen? Can you do less? If you can, like Jim Tallman, you might be surprised by the results. You might finally have players who do what they are supposed to do, do it when they are supposed to do it, do it to the best of their ability, and do it that way all the time.
Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sport Psychology graduate program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA. He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004. Gentner served as an Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College. During his four years at IC he helped coordinate the undergraduate and graduate programs in Sport Psychology. In 2009 he began his current position at GSU where in addition to coordinating the graduate program he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Sport Psychology and Coaching Education. He has published his research in several journals and has given presentations on Sport Psychology at worldwide and regional Sport Psychology, Coaching, and Athletic Training Conferences. Currently he is completing a book on Sport Psychology Consulting techniques. He is an Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant and since 2000 he has worked with individual athletes, teams, and coaches ranging from youth sport to professional levels. For further inquiries or information about Dr. Gentner’s services or the graduate program at Georgia Southern he can be reached at [email protected] or 912-478-7900.