Genius is in the Fundamentals

February 3, 2012

I don’t know how this year’s Super Bowl will turn out, but being from New England I’m naturally rooting for the Patriots. And I’ll admit that the New York Giants certainly give me reason to worry… However, it should be a great game!

This will be Tom Brady’s fifth Super Bowl appearance, an indicator that he’s been playing at an elite level for quite some time now. What does it take to be one of the best? Apart from his incredible work ethic and constant study of the game, Tom Brady focuses on a superb execution of the basics.

In his article Tom Brady still listens to QB whisperer, Tim Graham talks about how Brady recognizes the need for solid mechanics and works on them constantly. Interestingly enough, Brady still relies on Tom Martinez, his personal throwing coach since before he ever made his first junior varsity start.

Why? According to Martinez, a coach discussing flaws with someone of Brady’s caliber can be intimidating to the coach because the coach isn’t as good as the player. “So they hesitate to say things,” Martinez says. “Therefore, the player gets sloppy.”

Coaches shouldn’t be afraid! It’s up to coaches and leaders to make sure that people and teams haven’t strayed away from the fundamentals before we start making a bunch of other “fixes.” And bear in mind that those who are being coached might be experts at what they do, but often lack the perspective on what is going wrong with their own performance.

This was pointed out in the book, Unusually Excellent by John Hamm. Hamm observed that some of the greatest golfers on the planet went to coaches to correct problems with their game, and he noticed that the golfers had some very strong opinions about what they felt was wrong. And what did the coaches do? The coaches “…politely and deceptively ignored that line of thought and instead insisted that the golfer begin with the most basic fundamentals of grip, stance, posture, ball position and aim.”

Why? Because, Hamm explains, “Even the best performers, in any field, will slowly—and imperceptibly—stray away from the fundamentals of their craft. This drift is almost always invisible to them. The human nature part is that losing precision in the fundamentals is exactly the last thing most accomplished people would imagine or will accept as the cause.”

Agile teams can drift in the same ways. Putting too much work in progress at one time can cause teams to finish sprints with little in the done column. Or they stop tasking User Stories out or skimp on the basics in some other way. They drift from the fundamentals – and run into problems.

If you’re a coach or ScrumMaster, keep an eye out on the basics and gently guide your team back to those basics if you see that they are running into trouble. It can be very rewarding, just like John Hamm’s golf coaching story concludes: “I can't tell you how many times I've watched these professional golfers, after an hour of a supervised, disciplined return to the basics, begin to hit the ball as well as they ever have, and predictably turn to their coach and say, ‘That was it. You're a genius.’”

Be a coaching genius and keep your team focused on the fundamentals!