Hugh McCutcheon’s lessons on championship behaviors

Hugh McCutcheon has won medals coaching both the men’s and women’s US Olympic volleyball teams, as well dominant teams at the University of Minnesota. More recently though he’s focus on helping develop coaches and is the author of  Championship Behaviors: A Model for Competitive Excellence in Sports.

Earlier this month coach McCutcheon joined us as a guest on GAINcast 275 and we talked about a many of the key behaviors he identifies in his book. As I reflected back on the interview this week, there are a few points that really stood out to me. Championship coaches and championship teams often excel at:

  • Focusing on the fundamentals;
  • Embracing randomness;
  • Letting go of control; and
  • Moving beyond flow.

Below are some thoughts from McCutcheon and myself on how these behaviors are often the difference makers at the highest levels, and how the behaviors come from a mixture of knowledge, skill acquisition, pedagogy, leadership, culture, and many more elements.

» Learn more: listen to our whole interview with coach McCutcheon on GAINcast 275.

Focusing on the fundamentals

We like to look at the top athletes and list all of their physical characteristics. In the throwing world we marvel over the wingspan of Virgilijus Alekna or the strength of Joe Kovacs. Of course we are distracted by these things as the numbers can often be mind boggling to us mere mortals. But by focusing on the physical we lost sight of the other elements they bring to the table: skill, technique, and fundamentals. More often than not, especially in dynamic team sports, those other factors determine who win:

What we really need to understand is that oftentimes fundamental mastery becomes a competitive advantage. Talent is not a particularly rare thing. There are lots of talented people out there. But oftentimes, these fundamental skill inefficiencies become a limiting factor because as you go further up the food chain in any sport, as you get higher and higher at the level that you’re playing at your physical prowess, the physical talent doesn’t become a differentiating factor anymore. Everybody at the highest levels in any sport have the physical tools to be great. So it comes down to fundamental mastery. Can you continually replicate these skills under pressure or whatever that is consistently time and time again?

My coach Anatoliy Bondarchuk focuses on this message all the time. He’s often interpreted as saying you don’t have to be strong. That’s not his point. You have to be strong, but whether you bench a few more pounds isn’t going to be the difference maker. What is the difference maker? The fundamentals which allow you to apply the strength in all kinds of situations.

Embracing randomness

One key point above is the ability to replicate skills under pressure. Having solid fundamentals one key to achieving that. Another key is testing those fundamentals under a variety of situations. In basketball, doing endless dribbling drills without an opponent is not how you’ll get there. In tennis, it’s not about taking 1000 hits against a ball machine. Training needs to match the randomness of competition in order to prepare athletes:

Coaches tend to want to operate in a very black or white way, where it’s very controlled inputs leading to controlled outputs. Everything works great and it looks pretty. But that’s not the game. At least volleyball, anyway, is grey. It’s not controlled. There’s a lot of randomness. And so you’ve got to embrace that and you’ve got to train to that. You’ve got to train in environments that look a lot like the game. The athlete has to bring an intention to practice, to learn. Practicing without intention is working out and you can do that on a treadmill down at the gym.

Letting go of control

Embracing randomness is connected to simply letting go a little. Coaches like to control practice, and they also like to control the environment through rules. But rules aren’t the leadership tool that coaches should be relying on the most:

“Lots of rules produce rule followers. People do what they’re told for fear of a consequence. There’s nothing complex about that. We’re controlling we’re not empowering.”

What’s the alternative though? Anarchy? Not quite. Rules are there to try and influence heavior, but the rule distracts us from the behavior and what even caused someone to break a rule. Take a step back and focus on core values and behavioral expectations instead. Then you have flexibility to actually improve the training environment:

When you have a lot of behavioral expectations and a few rules, you’re really affording the athlete the opportunity to choose to do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

When someone is late it is more an “us versus the problem” thing than it is this cry for justice and some kind of punishment. Even though the person was late and the rule was broken, the biggest issue is why were they late and how can we stop them from doing that again?

We just lost 10 minutes of practice. And do we want to do is lose another hour figuring out what kind of consequence we’re going to impart on this thing? Giving yourself the freedom to do the right thing is really important. Fewer rules give you more flexibility.

Moving beyond flow

Embracing randomness is also related to the idea of giving up on the relentless pursuit of perfection. Flow has become a buzz word again recently. Everyone wants to find flow in training. In the throwing events, it’s the quest for the effortless throw. Finding flow state is great, but there is only so long we can stay in the flow state and we better be able to perform when we aren’t feeing it too.

Do you have to feel good to play good? Hopefully that’s not the case, but oftentimes people do feel that. If we don’t feel just right, we can’t give our best performances. But it turns out you can have a good crummy day and get on with it.

People are in that state of flow maybe 5 to 15 percent of the time, which is great, wonderful, but, what do you do with the other 85 percent of your day or the 95 percent of the time? How do we learn to live in that space and still figure out how to excel?

We can all be good when it’s easy to be good. That’s nothing special. Championships are about finding ways to get it done when it’s really hard to get it done.

Final thoughts

In our podcast, coach McCutcheon discussed a variety of topics beyond motor learning and championship behaviors. One good point to end on is a common thread that runs through all of the points above, and all of coaching as a whole. Coaches are in the people business. We don’t coach numbers, or sets, or reps. As Vern Gambetta always reminds us: we coach people. McCutcheon has coached young athletes and old athletes, across genders and continents. What’s the common theme: they’re people.

I found there to be way more similarities than there were differences [between coaching men and women]. What I say is, hey, before we’re men or women we’re people. And if you treat people with respect and invest in their development, it tends to work out just fine.