There’s been some news recently regarding the Toronto Maple Leafs that’s, well, that’s frankly, the very opposite of heart-warming. And hearing this news, put some other news in a different light for me. Before we get to that, let’s back up to the 2014 Olympics in Russia.
Heading into the ’14 Olympics, Canada returned its head coach for the men’s hockey team that had led them to victory in the 2010 Olympics held in Canada. As a good Canadian boy, I was super-excited to see Canada defend its Olympic gold medal. In watching the games, I remember thinking that it was like Team Canada was playing with some kind of ‘cheat code.’ Their style of play made it very difficult for teams to score on them — they allowed three goals the entire tournament. One of those was on the penalty kill in their first game of the tournament. They also held their opponents in the semi-finals and the gold medal game scoreless. Very well done, eh?
Fast-forward a year and the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that the coach that led Canada to gold medals in 2010 and 2014, Mike Babcock, would now be the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (he led the Detroit Red Wings to a Stanley Cup victory in 2008). I was overjoyed. Overjoyed! The Leafs won the draft lottery to select first overall at the end of Babcock’s first season and with it, the opportunity to get a generational talent — Auston Matthews. Things were looking pretty good.
Fast-forward to the current season — things haven’t been going swimmingly for Babcock and the Leafs. Expectations were high after resigning some of their stars to expensive contracts. However, the proof very much wasn’t in the pudding. In the first quarter of the season, the Leafs didn’t play well enough and ultimately, the team decided to part ways with Babcock. When I first read the news, I was stunned. I knew that there had been talk of it, but it didn’t seem like the right call. Babcock was a coach with a record that preceded himself and I still had in my mind the images of how much better Team Canada at the ’14 Olympics looked in comparison to other teams. Hoo boy, was I wrong.
That brings us to this week. Earlier this week, there was a story that came out in the middle of the night about some, oh, shall we say, “poor motivational techniques” employed by Babcock with the players. Now, before I should go on, I should say that I’ve never played professional or organized hockey. I don’t know what it’s like in the “locker room” or on the “practice ice.” I have, however, played organized baseball, so I am familiar with some of the groupthink and harsh conditions that can be employed by coaches/managers for any number of reasons. OK, back to it.
Right, Babcock and poor motivational techniques. When I first heard this story, and it wasn’t coming from a “major publication,” I didn’t want to believe it. Instead, I told myself that it was an unsourced claim and that someone was trying to vindictive or hurtful in dragging Babcock’s name through the mud. Flat wrong. The next day, the beat reporters interviewed the player subjected to the poor motivational techniques and… well, as it happens, it did happen. Colour me surprised. Very surprised.
I had this image in my head of this great coach, this coach who had it together, who could command the locker room and motivate the players to do great things. I mean, just look at what he did with Team Canada in 2010 and 2014 — how could the guy who brought so much joy to Canada in these times be the same guy who would subject a player to abject humiliation in front of his teammates? Major cognitive dissonance for me.
And as quickly as I was having those thoughts, it was a stark reminder that you can’t judge a book by its cover. You can’t judge a coach from what you see in the 2+ hours during the 80+ games they play during the season. There’s so much more than meets the eye in sports. The coaches are with the players as part of their frickin’ job (!). They seem the daily for many stretches at a time. As fans and viewers, we go to work all-day. We spend time with our kids. We have other hobbies. There is so much behind the scenes in sports that we don’t see. Yes, we see the players/coaches give interviews, but that’s a very small snippet of their personality and it might even be some kind of a “show” that they’re putting on. Some famous examples: Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich. There’s more than meets the eye.
In trying to pull out a more applicable lesson, I can’t help but thinking about leaders, managers, or senior management, in our day-to-day work as public servants. Yes, we see pockets or snippets from people who come from these groups, but that doesn’t mean that what we see is a true representation. In this case, counter to my example from above (in that I was thinking the best of Babcock, while it turns out there were some unsightly things going on), it’s common to associate negative action with “management” (i.e. they’re not doing enough, they don’t see me, they’re not responsive, etc.). While all of that might be true, let’s consider for a moment that maybe there’s something else going on there. Maybe management is doing a lot to try and make sure that they’re meeting needs. Or, maybe that senior leader in the meeting who seems like they’re not taking an interest in you, that senior leader who’s not recognizing you for who you are — maybe there’s more to their story. Maybe they’ve got things going on in their personal life. Maybe they’re in the middle of a messy divorce. Maybe they just heard that one of their parents has Alzheimer’s. Maybe their dog is sick. Who knows!
The point here is that, in all the circumstances that bring people together, all the times where we’re greeted by the faces of people near our orbit, we can never really be sure of the events that immediately preceded the stranger to be sitting across from you. So, take a moment, take a breath, take a beat and remember, there’s more to this person’s story.