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Players Don’t See The Same Game
The game looks different with the ball in your hands
The players don’t see the same game as us.
They don’t think about the game the same way as us.
They don’t observe the game with the same details that we do.
Somewhere along the line, coaches slipped into thinking our view was the correct one — the patterns we saw from the sideline, the opportunities we identified on film, the opposition analysis we concocted.
But it’s the players’ experience that is the sole source of truth.
And it’s not just gameplay that they see differently, either.
Players interpret their opponents differently
Former New York Knicks guard John Starks argues that it was more difficult to guard Mitch Richmond, Reggie Miller, Steve Smith, and Clyde Drexler, than it was to guard Michael Jordan.
“This might sound crazy — and every time I explain it to someone, they’re shocked — but Michael was the easiest to guard on this list.”
Starks’ perspective was that Reggie would run you all around the half-court, through a bunch of picks, and then shoot over you. Mike, on the other hand, would just take the ball and line you up one-on-one.
There’s no way a coach would ever make the argument that it might be tougher to guard Reggie Miller than Michael Jordan, but that was Starks’ lived experience.
Asked the same question about his toughest opponents, Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele listed four bonafide NHL superstars: Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Erik Karlsson, and Carey Price.
That’s not surprising, but it’s Scheifele’s fifth nomination that may surprise you.
“I think there’s also something a lot of people don’t realize: Josi is just a pain in the butt to play against. He cross-checks you, he hits you, he wears you down.”
There’s no way a coach would ever make the argument that it might be as tough to skate against Roman Josi as it is to skate against Connor McDavid, but that is Scheifele’s lived experience.
Players interpret their teammates differently
When asked to name the best player he played with, soccer icon Thierry Henry named his former Arsenal teammate Dennis Bergkamp.
His response raised eyebrows because Henry played a number of seasons with Lionel Messi, whom many consider to be the GOAT. Pressed on his answer, Henry shrugged and repeated “Dennis Bergkamp.”
There’s no way a coach would ever make the argument that it might be preferable to play with Dennis Bergkamp than Lionel Messi, but that was Henry’s lived experience.
Another great example of players interpreting their teammates differently was captured in the first episode of Amazon’s All Or Nothing documentary series on Tottenham Hotspur.
In one scene, assistant coach Joao Sacramento walked into Jose Mourinho’s office and took a seat. “One of the things that caught my attention was they say that Sissoko has great influence in the changing room,” conveyed Sacramento.
Mourinho sat up, shocked, before reclining into his chair.
“Fuck!” he said in Portuguese, as his eyes darted around the room in disbelief.
There’s no way a new coach would ever make the argument that with Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris, Christian Eriksen, and Heung-Min Son in the locker room that it would be the much-maligned Moussa Sissoko who would be the cultural architect, but that was the team’s lived experience.
Mourinho’s reaction suggests his perception was that Sissoko was expendable. But the players respected him, looked up to him, and deemed him to have “great influence” on them. That’s important.
As we’ve spoken about previously, coaching is important, and the coach’s vantage point certainly lends itself to a unique way of interpreting the game and making adjustments that can increase the odds of winning.
The problem is, criticism of players being unable to execute is as much, or more, a function of the disconnect between the coaches’ and players’ processing of the game.
Shooting 1000 jump shots isn’t the same as watching them. And even past experience can’t truly match up to the experience being lived right now.
And the most quizzical part about this is…it doesn’t have to be a problem! Coaches make it a problem by refusing to acknowledge the reality: their ability to see the game as the players see it is essentially non-existent.
And that’s okay. Because it can be fixed. And it can be fixed easily.
When you take the time to ask, you’ll be surprised at how differently players interpret the game, their teammates, and their opponents. What seemed like a simple half-time adjustment to you may be the equivalent of asking a player to do three extra reps out on the field.
The competitive advantage isn’t in the adjustment itself - it’s in knowing what adjustments can realistically be made, and which are worth making based on the expertise and perceptions of the people playing the game.
There’s an overlooked benefit to asking, too. It reflects humility, one of the most interpersonal characteristics a leader can choose to embody. Humility means to simply see yourself accurately. It doesn’t mean to subjugate your own needs or to be self-deprecating.
Seeing yourself accurately means developing a real sense of your strengths and weaknesses. And in this instance, it’s just reality that what you see isn’t the same as what the players see.
So what to do? Ask. Embrace reality. The same way we ask our players to not deny what happens on film, we challenge coaches to not deny what happens in the game.
Coaches and players may be watching the same game, but they see it differently.
Are you making assumptions based on how you perceive the game, rather than how your players do?
Are you imposing your perception of the opposition onto your players, creating a reality out of your perception?
Can you re-arrange breaks in the game to ask how the players are interpreting the game, their opponent, and their teammates?
What other opportunities exist to ask your players about their lived experiences, both on and off the field of play.