Wins Don’t Make a Great Coach

thumbnailby Addie Mister


On March 17th 2016 the Baltimore Ravens were struck with devastating news. Their cornerback Tray Walker was involved in a serious motor cycle accident in Miami. At around 7:50 pm Walker was riding a dirt bike with no headlight, wearing dark colors, when he collided with an SUV at a two-way intersection. The driver of the SUV stayed on the scene and was cooperative. Walker was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital due to major head trauma. The next evening the situation worsened when walker passed away do to the incident. Walker had lost his life due to the accident.

tray-walkerCoach John Harbaugh responded to this tragedy with an open letter to his players. In referring to his players he said, “You guys are that important to me.” He stated in his letter that he thought about what he would say to his own son, if he had one. The letter consisted of four messages of advice. The first was to “Lead in your home.” He wants his players to think about their families, their values, and what they stand for. The second and most related to the situation was, “Please consider your actions and choices.” He advises his players against risky behavior that could be followed by negative consequences. The third, “Be your own best friend.” While this can come across conceited and selfish, Harbaugh simply means for his players to stay smart, and to look out for themselves.  The last message consists of finding someone who “walk[s] free form the weight of self-created obstacles.” Other people have succeeded by taking appropriate actions towards their achievements, he wants his men to follow in their footsteps.

This letter was not only the mark of a great coach, but a testament to his character. According to Bill Cole, the characteristics of a great coach are marked by high emotional intelligence, a strong sense of interest in his players, and the ability to effectively communicate. Too often a coach is judged based on their success. Success meaning wins. Winning is only a mark of a group of people being successful at a completing a goal. According to The Business Journals, a group is “individuals coordinating their individual effors.”  A team however is made up of people who have relationship, who care for one another, and support each other in achieving their goals, either individually or as a unit. Fostering and creating this environment is something that could never be seen by any record, but the combination of this attitude and Harbaugh’s record is what makes him a great coach. Harbaugh was able to impress upon his men what it means to be a team, but has also led them to high levels of victory. Under Harbaugh the Ravens have been in six of eight playoff seasons and won the Superbowl in 2012.

The concept of emotional intelligence is prevalent when talking about leadership and success within businesses. According to an article from Educational Business Articles, emotional intelligence consists of four levels which build upon each other. The first two levels are self awareness and self management. The first deals with being aware of your own emotions while the second deals with controlling your actions as a result of your emotions. The third aspect is social awareness, which highlights the ability to recognize others emotions. The fourth and highest level of emotional intelligence, social skills, is the level John Harbaugh possesses. The article also states possession of social skills is usually linked to good leadership. These people have the ability to inspire and enlighten and move the group towards a common goal. They foster a sense of belonging within their team and set examples.

The letter written by Harbaugh contains many examples of his possession of social skills. The letter itself was written in a time of grief but offers enriching and positive advice for moving forward. “Pursue those things that make you better. Rest well. Eat well. Laugh with those who you love and love you. Fulfill your obligations effectively.” His goal for his team is to help them live their lives “fully and with purpose.”  He wants his players to live a great life, these goals he sets for his men to accomplish, like “Laugh with those who you love and love you”, shows his investment in their personal lives, not just their professional ones. Harbaugh also fosters a sense of inclusion and affinity for the team, he says “We are Brothers in Arms. And, again, take care of each other.” This phrase sets the tone of brotherhood and team cohesion.

Harbaugh wrote this letter the morning after the accident when the situation was weighing so heavily he was unable to sleep. The reason he found himself so affected is because Harbaugh truly does take a personal interest in his players. When making remarks about Walker after his death Harbaugh said:

 “Tray was a young man with a good and kind heart. He was humble and loved everything about being part of the Ravens’ team. He loved his teammates, the practice and the preparation, and that showed every day. He was coachable, did his most to improve and worked to become the best. I’ll never forget that smile. He always seemed to be next to me during the national anthem; then we would give each other a big hug. May he rest in the Peace of Christ Jesus forever.”

A man who doesn’t take a personal interest in his players, would never be able to make a comment about a players smile or his actions minutes before the start of a game, the time when a coach has the most nerves. This interest in Walker was prevalent even before his death. In a press conference in mid-December when Harbaugh was questioned about the cornerback, he referred to him a “sponge” stating that “he wants to learn.” Harbaugh is interested in his players individually, not just the big name players. 2015 was Walkers rookie season, he only played 8 snaps and made one tackle, but still was at the forefront of Harbaugh’s mind.

The letter itself was extremely well written, not only was it clear and concise but it portrayed a strong sense of emotion while staying at an appropriate level. His advice to his players was not over reaching but sincere and pertinent to the situation. His wise words within the letter says a lot about his leadership style. “I am asking you to consider what is at stake in your life. Consider what your thoughts, actions and choices mean to those around you. Live your life fully and with purpose.” These words do not just have deep meaning but also are succinct and clear as to what his purpose for the letter was.

Emotional Intelligence, a genuine interest in the players, and eloquent communication, all are important, but together they make a coach with leadership skills able to aid his players in not only winning within the game of football, but succeeding in being better men, whether together or individually. Harbaugh embodies all of these ideas along with being successful as a team. A coach who is able to look at his players in this light and create this type of environment for them  will be the coach that sees success on the field.

“Leadership rests not only upon ability, not only upon capacity – having the capacity to lead is not enough. The leader must be willing to use it. His leadership is then based on truth and character. There must be truth in the purpose and will power in the character.”   – Vince Lombardi

John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens organization are facing difficult times not only now but in dealing with this tragedy in the future. John Harbaugh is a great coach, not only in the game of football, but in the game of life.

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