Scum Sucking Fish: Life Lessons from my High School Hoops Coach

The refrigerator boxcar.

Geese or Buffalo?

Don’t be a fire hydrant.*


My senior year high school basketball coach was full of quirky stories, anecdotes, and reflections, one of which we would have to learn each and every practice, or else deal with the pain of “the 11-liner” (11 lengths of the court in 1:10).


Prior to that season, I absolutely loved basketball. I scored my share of points, played up on the JV and Varsity teams as a Freshman and Sophomore, loved playing in front of the crowds (read: girls), borrowed different shoes to stay up on the latest gear, and did what I needed to do to get through practice so we could have fun come game time. That all seemed like a sound, rewarding approach to my 15-year-old self.


But as fun as basketball was one minute, it was equally as frustrating and discouraging the next. I could shoot it a little bit and see the floor pretty well, but at the first sign of adversity, I realize now, I would let negative thinking affect everything I did from that point forward. I’d get furious with myself, pout, and was made completely ineffective by my own mind. I was on a constant emotional roller coaster, and one I’m sure drove my family crazy! The game was fun if I was succeeding, but otherwise I didn’t know what to do, and therefore internalized any failures, which only compounded on themselves. I played soft. Physically. Mentally. All of it.


Enter Coach Fred Turner. The new head basketball coach for our senior season. As old school as it gets. From the maniacal emphasis on defense and effort, right down to the polyester Bike brand coaching shorts.


Coach Turner quickly implemented an entirely new system, process, and terminology, all of which was in stark contrast to the system I had run since 7th grade, and which I had come to know (and love) like the back of my hand. The old program was swept away and we were starting anew.


The story of that senior season did not in any way have a happy ending. We won our first game, pulled off two more in a mid-season tournament, and that was it. 3-21. Great way to finish your basketball career, I told myself. I was bitter, and didn’t particularly enjoy playing for some time.


But even though that season was a disaster, when I look back on it I realize just how much I learned and grew. There are so many lessons, insights and approaches that I apply to my everyday life today, and two overarching principles stand out from the rest.


Consistent, Clear and Concrete Objectives


Every one of Coach Turner’s practices started with three specific points – an offensive emphasis, a defensive emphasis, and a reflection of the day (usually in the form of a story).


Any one of us could be called out at any point during practice and asked to recall and explain any one of the three points to the rest of the team. If the person called upon couldn’t announce it quickly, the whole team ran 11-liners.


People talk all the time about goals, but especially to a 14-to-17-year old kid, goals can easily be brushed aside as lofty, conceptual, intangible ideas that don’t have a great deal of meaning during the daily grind. I’m sure our goals for the season were the same as every other team in our area, and every other soccer or baseball team I played on – win districts, win conference, win this or that tournament – but I don’t remember any specifics.


On the other hand, 15 years later I can easily rattle off 15-20 emphases or reflections from that season, and they all have significant meaning to me today, at the gym, at the office, and even at home.


I find it interesting that those reflections in particular all met the criteria for what authors Chip and Dan Heath describe as “sticky” ideas in one of my favorite books, “Made to Stick.” They suggest that the most powerful, memorable ideas – ideas that truly “stick” with people – all share six characteristics:


  • Short
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories


Each of Coach Turner’s reflections was told as a story, and one that was always just a little bit surprising and memorable.  To this day any of my old high school friends who were around the team still enjoy recalling those stories and ideas. The very specific lessons, reinforced on a daily basis, truly “stuck” with us, it’s one reason why I find great value and importance in clearly stated and measurable objectives in my professional life today.

Next Effort


By far my favorite reflection, and the one that to this day has had the biggest impact on me. It’s a simple but powerful idea:


The single most important effort is your next one. What is yours going to be?


I used to pout when I’d miss shots, get beat on D, or lose a rebound. But in my mind, that was my own issue and it didn’t make me any less of a good teammate. Since I was supportive of everyone else and unselfish with the ball, it didn’t matter that I’d get so angry and pouty with myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong. That negative talk and energy affected my every play and therefore hurt our team. I quickly learned there was zero patience for pouting with Coach T.


Miss a “bunny” (uncontested lay-up) on one end? Get back and take a charge on D.


Miss an assignment on the defensive end? Go set a great pick on the other end to free someone up for an open look.


Soon my negative self-talk was re-channeled into bringing that much more energy and effort into the next play. It seems so obvious now but that simple reflection changed my whole outlook on basketball, and I harken back to it when things don’t go my way today.  That’s not to suggest it’s easy or I’m not tempted crash a pity party from time to time, but that simple reflection is never far from my conscience, and I’m grateful for it. My next effort is one of the few things that, no matter what, will always be in my absolute control, so why not use it to my advantage?


15 years after our historic 3-21 season, my jumper is even more inconsistent, the well-below-average (i.e. slow) speed I once had is gone, and I’m in a constant state of soreness before, during and after I play the game. But the discipline and mental toughness that Coach Turner instilled in me as an eighteen-year-old kid has stuck with me much longer than any pair of shoes have.


On the court, my enjoyment now comes from trying to out-work people in open gyms and rec leagues – diving for a loose balls, talking on defense, hedging on screens, and putting a body on my man even out at the three-point arc. I’m not nearly as skilled as many guys I play with, but it’s such a fun challenge, working as hard as possible to not let two things I have absolute control over – effort and fundamentals – work against me.


Professionally, that experience has helped me to first refocus on the things that I can control on a day-to-day basis, even if they seem small or insignificant:



Everything from spending a small amount of time every day reading the trades to stay on top of industry trends, to taking the time to walk over and talk to a colleague in person about an issue rather than lobbing over a loaded e-mail, or simply getting to work on time!



Those things directly related to (professionally speaking) “my why.” Why I’m in this career – to help solve business problems in the most compelling, emotional and enduring way possible.


How am I facilitating that purpose every day? By strengthening relationships to pave the way for big ideas to flourish? Inspiring creativity in others through industry knowledge, a consumer insight, or a specific client challenge?


I’m blown away by the incredibly smart, driven people I have the opportunity to work with on a daily basis, but that can also be intimidating and lead me to question my own abilities. So simplifying things, getting back to basics, striving to excel at those things first without even thinking about it, has (I hope) helped opened me up to improve upon those areas in which I’m not as proficient.


Toughness & Competitiveness

Definitely the area I struggle with most, but one in which I’m focused on improving. I want to be a part of something big, something innovative, and something that inspires, but so often that brings with it disagreements, discomfort, and even pain (professional 11-liners!). Great decision makers, competitors and leaders don’t reach new heights by making everyone happy, so having the confidence and gumption to push back and fight for your team’s point of view when it’s the right thing to do is critical, and it’s something I’m determined to improve upon.



I’m so grateful to every coach I was able to compete for as a kid, and there are lessons I take from each and every one of them. But for many reasons, my experience with Coach Turner that senior season was truly unique, and one that has stuck with me in so many ways over the past 15 years.


It’s also inspired me to one day coach youth basketball, whether it’s for my own child or as a volunteer with a local school or community program. What better way to have a positive and lasting influence on a young person than coaching him or her in a sport that I love? Hopefully more to come on that soon!



*A quick summary of some favorite reflections…



Scum-sucking Fish:

Consider your typical fish tank or aquarium. The beautiful, graceful and/or massive fish get all of the glory. But without the tiny, nasty-looking bottom dwellers doing the dirty work and keeping the tank free of scum, none of the fish win. In fact, they die. Likewise, a team needs individuals willing to sacrifice the glory, the celebrity, and the admiration, for the dirty work that benefits the entire team.

Refrigerator Box Car:

A man finds himself locked in a train car. But not just any car, he’s trapped inside the temperature controlled refrigerated car. He appears destined to freeze to death and in fact after a couple of days inside the car, he dies. Soon after, at the next stop, the conductor opens the door, finds the man lying dead in the car. Puzzled, he checks the temperature gauge to see it reading 72 degrees. The car was at a standard room temperature the entire time. The point is, attitude is everything. Dwelling on failure inevitably leads to failure, and likewise for success.

Geese or Buffalo?

“Would you rather be geese or buffalo?” Coached once posed this question to us to start practice, and of course our first instinct was to choose the huge, powerful, strong and aggressive buffalo over the weak geese. But buffalo roam aimlessly, inefficiently, and without any sort of pattern, whereas geese travel as a group in such a way that benefits each individual, allowing all of them to draft off of the one in front of them, and alternating taking the front position of the “V.” The takeaway was to operate as a collective unit, and act in such a way that’s going to benefit (or at the very least not be a detriment to) the team.

Don’t Be A Fire Hydrant:

No explanation necessary.


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