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The Wisdom of Coaches

Top local coaches—from Ozzie Guillen and Tom Thibodeau to Oliver Purnell and Kelly Amonte Hiller—reveal sacred truths about perseverance, motivation, the importance of hard work, the value of failure, and more

Kelly Amonte Hiller, Northwestern Women's Lacrosse
Photograph: David Banks/Chicago Tribune

Kelly Amonte Hiller

POSITION Head coach, women’s lacrosse, Northwestern University
STATS Five consecutive NCAA national championships, from 2005 to 2009; women’s lacrosse national coach of the year in 2005, 2008, and 2009

You are either brilliant or you’re an idiot, one or the other. Ultimately, you have to have the confidence that nine out of ten times you are going to make a good decision. If I don’t trust my decisions, none of my players are going to trust them.

Today people let kids win to make them feel good about themselves. When I was growing up, my brothers [including former Blackhawks star Tony Amonte] never let me win at anything. I’d go home crying to my dad, and he was like, “Get up and get back out there!” I always had that never-say-die attitude from the environment that I grew up in.

I can’t expect my players to work hard if I’m not working just as hard as them, if not harder.

You can get bogged down in the day-to-day tasks of coaching, but you have to take the time to be creative, because that’s what’s going to take you to that next level.

There are similarities between coaching and parenting, but parenting might be a little bit harder.

You are going to get knocked down. It’s inevitable. It’s just a matter of how quickly you can get back up. That is the key to everything.

We always talk about Xs and Os, but the mental side of the game is so important. Every day before we get on the field, we do some type of a small meditation, visualization, or breathing exercise. You want to be in the moment to be able to perform at your best, and if your head is somewhere else, with schoolwork or with what happened last night, you are not going to be at your best. We try to clear away all of that stuff before we get going.

Ozzie Guillen, Chicago White Sox
Photography: (top) Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

Ozzie Guillen

POSITION Manager, Chicago White Sox
STATS In 2005, led the Sox to their first World Series victory since 1917

Honesty got me in a lot of trouble.

Don’t be afraid. Believe in yourself, then back it up. A lot of people say, “You talk a lot of shit because you have success.” Well, I have success because I talk a lot of shit. I never see a leader that is mute. You have to stand up and be a great communicator, and people have to believe what you say, trust what you say. That’s what leadership means.

I got 25 guys. If I get nervous, they will get nervous. If I can be happy, they will be happy.

It’s easy to coach or manage when the player is [doing well]. When the guy is good, you leave him alone. When the guy struggles, that’s when you hug him and try to talk to him about it.

I get upset if a guy doesn’t hustle. But I don’t get upset when a player makes mistakes.

[White Sox chairman] Jerry Reinsdorf has a very, very thick skin. Wow, it’s like a crocodile’s. Everybody jumps on his back. The Bulls don’t win, it’s his fault. The White Sox don’t win, it’s because he’s cheap. What did I learn from him? Make sure nobody gets to you. And nobody does.

[Former Atlanta Braves manager] Bobby Cox once told me, “Take credit when you are winning, because you are going to take credit for losing.”

You want your dream to come true? Wake up and do it. I don’t believe in luck. I don’t believe in dreams. I believe in goals. A lot of people say, “That was your dream to win the World Series.” No, that was my goal. I wanted to get there.

Joseph Newton, Boys' cross-country at York High School
Photography: Peter Thompson/Chicago Tribune

Joseph Newton

POSITION Boys’ cross-country coach, York High School
STATS 27 state championships; 12 state runner-up finishes; 4 third-place finishes

When a guy does bad, what good is it to chew his ass out? He already feels bad. The best time to chew a guy out is after he just did good, because then you can tell him anything.

The hardest thing is to get the guys believing that they can do it. You’ve got to go into every race thinking you can do your best. There’s no magic trick to do that, though. You just have to keep telling them. There are still kids who have doubts. So I’m working on that all the time.

The pressure [to win] is extraordinary. You’ve got to take the pressure off any way you can. People ask me, “How are you going to be next year?” I tell them, “We’re going to be terrible. Don’t worry about it.”

Once in a while, you’ve got to let the kids think they’re smarter than you are. If you’re always acting like you’re their superior, they don’t like that. Nobody does.

When the pressure is on my guys, I always say, “You’ve got to run free. Don’t outthink yourself—just go and run.” [British middle-distance runner and Olympic gold medalist] Sebastian Coe used to tell me all the time, “I’ve just got to run free.” When the pressure is on, you have to stop thinking so much, clear your mind.

Every day during practice, I try to call out each guy’s nickname. Now when you’ve got 225 guys on the team, that’s not easy. But I try to call them out at least one time. I learned that from my own children. They would say, “Mommy, Daddy, watch me,” and if they think you’re not watching them, it’s not good.

I make my guys tuck in their shirts when they run. Look sharp, feel sharp.

As a coach, you’ve got 225 guys, 225 egos. Some guys have confidence; some don’t have any. You’ve got to have that radar up and know what’s going on with your guys. There are some you can’t yell at—they just go to pieces. Others love it when you yell at them—they get a real kick out of it. What I like to do is chew a guy out who loves it when I chew him out. Then the other guys see that, and they get the message, too.

Mike Quade of the Chicago Cubs
Photography: Nuccio Di Nuzzo/Chicago Tribune

Mike Quade

POSITION Manager, Chicago Cubs
STATS 17 seasons as a manager in the minor leagues

I don’t get deterred when things don’t go right. I tend to work harder. I didn’t get concerned when 12 years of coaching in the minors became 13 and then 14. I just worked harder.

Perseverance is a huge word, and it’s a great quality in any walk of life. The [line on the] graph is never straight up. Most of us weren’t born with a silver spoon in our mouth. You’re not going to live life without adversity. But what you can do is look ahead. You’ve got to look ahead, believing that failure will eventually make you stronger.

Success is success. Don’t get caught up in titles. If you have success at any level, it’s still success. I make no differentiation.

I don’t have pat answers for anything. I don’t have things I say to the guys all the time. I don’t have a lot of lines. I try to deal with things on an individual basis.

The cliché is to say, “As long as they respect me, I don’t care if they like me.” But there’s a lot of truth to that.

You’ve got to know what you’re teaching, but you also have to have the communicative skills to get through to people. The communication is what’s most important—relating to your guys and getting them to buy into something. Part of that process is being flexible. I might have one thing I want to communicate but have to communicate it three different ways to three different people.

I like to think of myself as a blue-collar guy, and that means when it comes to baseball or anything else, there’s no magical way we’re going to get this done other than to work hard.

Scotty Bowman of the Chicago Blackhawks
Photography: Courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks

Scotty Bowman

POSITION Senior adviser of hockey operations, Chicago Blackhawks
STATS Winningest coach in NHL history; led teams to nine Stanley Cup championships

I never wanted to work with someone who would give me lip service. I wanted healthy discussions.

You need a lot of help. Even now on teams, the coaching staff is probably more important than just the coach.

I wasn’t a pep-talk guy. I liked to have contact with the players, not to socialize, but all business. Players can’t be wondering what you’re thinking of them. I’d say, “Look, this is what you did the last month or ten games” and motivate that way. I reviewed performance.

I often wonder if a corporation that owns a franchise can ever be as successful [as an individual owner]. The guys at the bottom have to know who their leader is.

Some people like to motivate by pushing people to the limit. But I don’t think you have to do it any one way. I think you have to be yourself. I can’t emphasize that enough.

When I got older, I always asked myself, “How will I know when I don’t want to coach anymore?” In 2002, all of a sudden I thought, Hey, this is going to be my last year coaching. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t think you can fret over decisions like that. Just let it be.

I was more insistent about motivating the team when things were going well. I wanted to make sure we never underestimated the team that was down in the standings. That was the game I would put a lot of preparation into. Conversely, if we were playing against a top team, I’d lay off a little bit. You want the players to relax. In those situations, it’s a lot like golf: If you stand over the ball and think of five or six things you have to do, you’re probably not going to hit it as well.

Early in my career, I made a point of hanging around people who were successful, and I got lucky. I learned a lot. One thing that stuck with me: There’s nothing so uncertain as a sure thing.

I was always trying to be innovative. The guy who comes up with an idea or suggestion before the other guy has the edge.

Oliver Punell of DePaul's Men's Basketball
Photography: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

Oliver Purnell

POSITION Men’s basketball coach, DePaul University
STATS Head coach for seven seasons at Clemson University (138–88 record; three straight NCAA tournament appearances); previously coached at the University of Dayton (two NCAA tournament berths)

Turning around programs is something that I’m passionate about. The reason why you are doing this is because you can, and you enjoy it. The other reason you’re doing it is because there are a lot of people saying you can’t.

Basketball—and life—is a game of habits. When the pressure is on, whatever habit you have, whether it’s good or bad, that’s what’s going to come out. A lot of coaching, to me, is building good habits.

If you lose your confidence, work at it. If you are not shooting well and you’re lacking confidence, one of the first things you need to do is get in the gym and shoot more. Then you start thinking, I deserve to be making these shots. Because, in the back of your mind, if you don’t feel like you worked hard at something, you subconsciously tell yourself, Well, maybe I don’t deserve it.

Every team I’ve ever coached, every camper I’ve ever had in my basketball camp, has heard me talk about the story of [former University of Maryland star] Len Bias—who he was, what kind of person he was, and how he died [a cocaine overdose]. At the end of the talk, I give the moral of the story. It’s not that drugs will kill you. If cocaine killed him, obviously it can kill me or you. The moral is that he didn’t honor his talent with the decision that he made. We all have special talents, and some of us don’t even know what [they are] yet. But you need to honor the specialness of that talent—and the fact that you are a special person—by the decisions that you make each and every day.

Look for small wins every day. You could be miserable all the time. We lost our last game. And we could be miserable from then till our next game. But if you can enjoy every day and enjoy the small successes, you become a happier person, a more positive person, and I think that that comes through to the people around you.

Dorothy Gaters of Marshall High School
Photograph: John Smierciak/Chicago Tribune

Dorothy Gaters

POSITION Girls’ basketball coach and athletic director, Marshall High School
STATS Eight state championships, the most in Illinois; more than 950 wins in 35 years of coaching, top among boys’ or girls’ basketball coaches in Illinois

Being the winningest coach, having the most state titles, wasn’t what I started out to do. My goal was just to beat everybody that we played.

My job is to maximize [players’] abilities, to manage their talents.

I do what I’m supposed to do in terms of laying out a plan for you. If you don’t follow it—well, you don’t follow it. That’s on you. I don’t take it personally.

By the time they get to high school, it’s hard to change kids’ characters.

Someone else’s perception of me is not something I can fix. I can only be myself.

When you get great players on your team, don’t mess them up. Just let them play. Don’t tie them down. Just put them in a situation where you can maximize their performance. Sometimes you can be too structured.

If you are going to change someone’s behavior, there have to be consequences for their actions. Without consequences, you need not even bring a problem to their attention.


Mark Onstott of New Trier High School
Photograph: Courtesy of Mark Onstott

Mark Onstott

POSITION Head coach, boys’ swimming and diving, New Trier Township High School
STATS Team state titles in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2011; boys’ swimming national coach of the year in 2005 and 2010; team awarded a national championship by Swimming World magazine in 2007

Hard work pays off; it just doesn’t always pay off when you want it to. Sometimes what the kids get out of swimming is learning how to deal with disappointment. One of my favorite sayings is “Disappointment is the fuel of accomplishment.”

When I was swimming and the coach said, “We’re practicing on Thanksgiving Day,” my dad said, “What time?” In my day, the parent backed up the coach. Nowadays it’s all about Johnny, so I think you have to try to be as clear as you can with the kids so they understand what you’re doing, so they don’t go home and say, “We ran 40 flights of stairs at practice, and I don’t understand what’s going on.” That doesn’t mean the parents are going to understand it better, but I think it gives you a better shot.

You can’t assume you’re going to beat someone just because your time coming in is better. You’ve got to swim the meet.

You swim fast when you want to. If you are tired or swimming against someone who is supposedly faster than you, you focus on that. If you emphasize the race and really beating people, the rest will take care of itself.

It’s not wishing and hoping. There’s a direct connection between hard work and outcome.

“Sorry” don’t buy me no bananas.

Tom Thibodeau, coach of the Chicago Bulls
Photography: Nuccio Di Nuzzo/Chicago Tribune

Tom Thibodeau

POSITION Head coach, Chicago Bulls
STATS As an NBA assistant coach, helped teams finish in top ten in defense in 15 seasons

It doesn’t matter whether it’s high school, college, or the pros, players know when you’re not being honest. Being honest, being reliable, and being trustworthy—that’s how you build a relationship.

At the end of the day, you only really answer to yourself. Only you know whether you have worked hard and put everything into something.

If you know you are doing the best you can, you should be willing to live with the result.

When the game is on the line, the big thing is preparation. If you have studied hard and prepared for all situations, you already have it thought out in your head. The big thing is to not have fear. Make the decision. If you fail, get up and move on and learn from it. The next time, you will handle it better.

You never want to stay the same. Study, learn, and keep getting better. Once you feel like you’ve got it figured out, that’s when you fail.

Frank Lenti of Mt. Carmel High School
Photograph: José Osorio/Chicago Tribune


POSITION Head football coach and athletic director, Mount Carmel High School
STATS 303–54 record in 27 seasons; nine state championships; five state runner-up finishes

A lot of [coaching] is about forcing guys to measure up.

I tell kids, “You are going to realize that your parents had the right answers all along. It just took you longer to figure out.”

With a pep talk, sometimes you have a theme in your head, and you just run with it. Sometimes they need a little “Rah, rah.” Sometimes they just need “Hey, it’s out there for you if you want it bad enough. Let’s go get it.” It’s not always fire and brimstone. It’s not always Knute Rockne, because they get tired of that, and it only lasts until the first hit.

Guys come back, and they don’t just shake your hand. They hug you. Some of them have no problem saying, “Hey, love you, Coach.” It’s not love like you love your mom or dad. But it’s something special.

When you have a lot of success, there’s also a lot of jealousy out there, and sometimes you just have to deal with it. You have to know in your heart that you are doing the right things for the kids.

I’ve always believed that if we’re helping make them better young men, then the other things are going to take care of themselves.

Parents have to be willing to allow their children to fail. Everybody can’t be a starter. Everybody can’t be a star. Sometimes kids have to learn that on their own, and Mom and Dad shouldn’t always be there for them. They need to get some bumps and bruises along the way. It will strengthen them, give them character.

I sometimes have to tell parents, “You are not emotionally qualified to evaluate your child as an athlete.” Because we all want to see our sons and daughters be as good as or better than the other kids, myself included.

It all emanates from this: Number one, be a good person; number two, be a good student; number three, be a good athlete; in that order. That doesn’t mean kids don’t slip. They do. That’s why we call them kids.


Steve McMichael of the Chicago Slaughter
Photography: John Smierciak/Chicago Tribune
Steve McMichael

POSITION Head coach and part owner, Chicago Slaughter (Indoor Football League); former defensive tackle, Chicago Bears (1981–93)
STATS Two-time NFL Pro Bowl selection; member, College Football Hall of Fame

When I got in the huddle with [Dan] Hampton and [Richard] Dent and their asses hit me in the ribs, I knew I was going to have to be an overachiever.

As a coach, the first thing I look for in a player is the perception that he’s an overachiever. The model is [New England Patriots MVP quarterback] Tom Brady. He was a talented quarterback, but he wasn’t a high draft pick coming out of college. He didn’t play for New England until Drew Bledsoe got hurt. When he got his chance, his mindset was that of an overachiever.

Parents can say the same thing over and over again, but when someone outside of the family unit says the same thing, all of a sudden the light bulb goes on and the kid gets it. That’s just the way it is. Parents should need and want to be role models for their kids.

A coach isn’t someone who tells you where he wants you to go in the scheme of the play. He teaches you how to get there.

In the off-season [when playing for the Bears], I’d work out Monday through Friday—upper body on Monday, Wednesday, Friday; legs on Tuesday and Thursday. I did it for four hours every morning, and then I’d go out and run in the Texas heat. I was ready to play ball. But in Walter Payton, I found a guy who trained harder than I did. I said, “Here’s one of the most talented guys I ever met in my life, and that’s how hard he works.” He was a talented guy with an overachiever’s mindset. Walter was always proving himself, baby. That’s what he was all about.


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