NBC Sports Washington brought together local coaches Ron Rivera (Washington football), Todd Reirden (Capitals), Scott Brooks (Wizards) and Mike Thibault (Mystics) to discuss the intricacies of their craft in a free-wheeling discussion hosted by Julie Donaldson. We present six days highlighting different themes of their conversation - experiences, stories and lessons shared from careers in coaching.
One of the most important jobs of a head coach of a professional sports team is to build trust with players. This isn’t the pee-wees where coaches are teaching you how to play the game. A head coach must bring several professional men or women together and convince them that he can make that team successful. It’s about selling yourself to the team as much as it is leading it.
This is a task coaches like Scott Brooks and Todd Reirden know all too well.
Brooks took over as head coach of the Washington Wizards in 2016. Reirden, meanwhile, was promoted from associate coach to head coach after Barry Trotz resigned in the wake of the Capitals' Stanley Cup championship in 2018. Both coaches joined host Julie Donaldson along with Washington football head coach Ron Rivera and Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault in NBC Sports Washington’s Coaches' Roundtable.
Brooks inherited a team with two superstars in John Wall and Bradley Beal and immediately went about the task of teaching them how good the Wizards could be if those premier talents worked within the team’s structure. But that took work.
“When you have superstar players, you have to form a relationship with them and have them have a good understanding that you need your teammates to help you even become even better of a superstar,” Brooks said. “I’ve always believed in good role players. If you can make them superstars in their roles, and I think the star players and the coaches can do that and allow that to happen, that makes the star players even better. It makes your team better. ... When they understand that your team has a chance to be special."
Brooks has now been the head coach in Washington for four seasons, leading the team to the playoffs twice. The Wizards did manage to make the cut for the resumption of the 2020 NBA season on July 30, so Brooks still has a chance to make it three out of four.
Reirden also inherited a talented roster with players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals were coming off a Stanley Cup championship when he took over, of course, and he had been with those same players since 2014 so his task was unique. He already had established relationships.
“I thought the real challenge for me coming in and taking over the defending champion was to be able to relate to that and find different strategies,” Reirden said.
Reirden was with the Capitals as an assistant coach for four years under Trotz coaching the team’s defensemen. Now in his second season as head coach, Reirden has led the Caps to two Metropolitan Division titles and the team will be among the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference when the NHL’s season pause ends on Aug. 1.
As a member of Trotz’s staff, Reirden knew the players already. Building the same level of trust with those players that Trotz had while convincing them that he, too, could lead them to the NHL mountaintop, however, remains was an unenviable task.
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“It was going to be a tough act to follow,” Reirden said.
But in many ways, that relationship with Trotz helped Reirden. In fact, much of Reirden’s preparation in taking over was learning from his own coaches.
“I think trust from players, it comes from honesty and as a player, I was fortunate enough to play for a coach by the name of Joel Quenneville, who is the second-winningest coach in the NHL history,” Reirden said of the current Florida Panthers coach who led the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups last decade. “What he taught me as a player, and I didn’t always like to hear it, but it was honest evaluation of my game. And some days were some pretty long drives back to my apartment. I may have even shed a tear after some of the things he said to me. But at least I knew where I stood, and it allowed me to focus on what I needed to do to improve.”
That is a philosophy Brooks shares with Reirden after a discussion he once had with legendary UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden.
“I remember middle of my career, like in the middle of the 90s, I knew I wanted to get into coaching, so I had a meeting with Coach Wooden and it was the most surreal experience I've ever had,” Brooks said. “It was like a biblical figure. It’s like John Wooden. You've heard so much about fundamentals, so much about pyramids, so much about the first thing he taught his players, how to tie his shoe and put the shoes on so it wouldn't cause blisters. And I just remember one thing, one word that really just stood out, and he said 'honesty'. You want to be a good coach? Be honest with your players. And some of the tough conversations that I had with players or some of the tough conversations that coaches had with me and honesty was so important.”
Brooks added, “Sometimes you kind of want a little bit of a half-truth and the reason why you didn't play was because you couldn't guard anybody and you couldn't pass in positions. But you want honesty, and I think that helps gain your players’ trust.”
On the one hand, what is Brooks going to be able to teach Wall or Beal about the game of basketball that they don’t already know? What could Reirden possibly have to tell Ovechkin about scoring goals? They most want to be put in a position to succeed.
As great as those players are, however, they can’t have that success without the team and both coaches agreed it takes that honesty to build up a player’s trust enough that they are willing to listen and play how they are coached. But that is a goal more realistic with buy-in from the top players. If they believe, their teammates will follow, too.
“You cannot fake genuineness to the players and passion and the desire,” Reirden said. “They know whether you're trying to make them better, trying to make our team better. They know whether you're all in or not. They see right through you and I think that it's best to wear your passion on your sleeve and show up with a great game plan that involves everybody, involves your full team. Because none of us are winning without having a team in our sport.”CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO SPORTS UNCOVERED
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