Champions is a heartwarming story about a down-and-out basketball coach, Marcus (Woody Harrelson), who learns what it means to connect with his team, treat people with respect, and to tone down their anger. Marcus is an assistant coach who is fired from the Iowa Stallions. Why? Because he attacked the head coach, Coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters fame).
This leads Marcus down a dangerous path of drinking, driving, and crashing into a parked police cruiser. In a moment of grace, the judge sentencing him sentences him to community service instead of jail time.
Marcus is told he must report to a community center that houses the basketball team of intellectually disabled people. The team consisted of Johnny, Cody (Ashton Gunning), Craig (Matthew on Der Ahe), Blair (Tom Sinclair), Benny (James Day Ketih), Arthur (Alex Hintz), Marion (Casey Metcalfe), Showtime (Bradley Edens), and eventually Cosentino (Madison Tevlin). At first, Marcus is put off by their lack of skill, inability to listen, and more.
The story unfolds, and Marcus grows. And that’s where the leadership lessons shine in Champions.
Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Champions
1. Leaders have to watch their tempers:
Marcus was an assistant coach for the Iowa Stallions. Tempers flared. He blew up at the head coach and pushed him during a game.
This was a big no-no. The organization fired Marcus without much thought.
Our tempers can destroy us. In a moment of rage, we can make a bad decision. Someone in the organization can notice that bad decision. Then, they have to make a decision of what to do with you.
Is a moment of anger worth losing your career? I doubt it.
Watch your temper. Your temper can get you in trouble.
2. Bad decisions often compound:
Not only did Marcus attack Coach Perretti, he also made bad decision after bad decision. After attacking Coach Perretti, Marcus began to drink. Drinking led to him running a red light. Running the red light led to him crashing into a parked police car as the two police officers arrested two perps.
Marcus’ bad decisions compounded over time. He went from physical assault to driving drunk to causing an accident.
Our bad decisions compound just like Marcus’.
We choose the wrong direction for the organization. We see the decision driving the organization in the wrong direction, but we push on because it can only improve, right? As things come crashing down, we look for an escape path. We save ourselves but leave those we led in a lurch.
Don’t let your bad decisions compound. Once you’ve realized you’ve made a mistake, course correct. Admit you made a mistake. Reach out to get help.
You don’t have to let your first bad decision compound into further bad decisions.
3. Coach Phil Perretti:
You know the game better than anybody. You got to learn to build relationships.
Coach Perretti said this to Marcus. He knew Marcus knew the game. What Marcus didn’t know was people or how to build relationships.
Marcus bulldozed people. He looked for results or the supposed best plays. It didn’t matter how people felt or where they were. All that mattered to Marcus was getting things done.
Perretti realized how important relationships were. If you didn’t have a relationship with the team members, you wouldn’t know how or when to play them.
When you know the people you lead, you can lead them effectively. You get to know the struggles they’re facing. You get to know whether or not their head is in the game.
Get to know your people. You have to know more than the business. You have to learn how to build relationships.
4. Judge Mary Menendez (Alexandra Castillo):
May I suggest you call them by their names?
Judge Menendez sentenced Marcus to community service. He would coach an intellectually disabled team of players. These players struggled with tasks that most of us would have no problem doing.
Marcus wondered aloud what he should call them. He repeatedly tried to say the R-word. Judge Menendez corrected Marcus. She told him to call his players by their names.
Here’s the thing, we have to be willing to identify people. We have to be able to call them by their names.
Their names are sweet to them. The sound of a name is impactful.
Learn the name of the people you’re leading. They’re not just accounting, IT, sales, etc… Each person has a name. Learn it.
5. Julio (Cheech Marin):
These guys are capable of a lot more than you think, you’d be surprised.
Julio runs the community center in Champions. He’s watched these players go through multiple coaches. He’s also watched who they are.
Julio lays the smackdown on Marcus when Marcus wonders about the players. Julio tells Marcus exactly what they do.
The things that these people do are amazing. They work in a restaurant, as a welder, in an animal shelter, and more. They are productive.
Many times, we dismiss employees with intellectual disabilities. We believe they can’t be a valuable part of the organization.
People with intellectual disabilities can be an amazing part of your organization. All you have to do is be willing to work with them and train them to do the best job they can. They’re capable of more than you think. I think you’ll be surprised if you give them a chance.
6. Learn the language of your people:
Marcus tried to teach the players the pick-and-roll move. He told one of the players, Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), to stand like a statue and then move. Johnny couldn’t get past the stand like a statue line.
That was, until his sister, Alex (Kaitlin Olson), spoke his language. Alex quoted a line from Shakespeare about being stone no more. This clicked with Johnny. He then moved and was able to finish the play.
Do you know how to communicate with your team? What words, in what way do you need to communicate with them?
Learn their language. Find out what moves them. Figure out the magic words to get things done.
7. Sometimes, you’ve got to take yourself out of the picture:
Darius (Joshua Felder) was the most talented player the Friends (the name of the team of intellectually disabled players). However, Darius wouldn’t play for Marcus.
Yet, one day, Marcus took the Friends to the local park. Darius showed up. Still, he wouldn’t play.
Marcus wanted Darius to play. So, he took himself out of the game. He faked an injury.
This allowed Darius to step in and finish the game.
Leaders, you can get in the way of the people you lead. You’re not needed in the nitty gritty, unless invited in.
Learn to step out of the way. Step out of the picture. Let your people handle things.
I could use an assistant.
Marcus was a jerk to people, especially Sonny (Matt Cooke). He’d tried to use Sonny to connect with his uncle to get him a spot on a professional team.
Sonny failed to do so. Marcus tried to write him out of his life.
Then, Marcus had a change of heart. He recognized that Sonny would be a great assistant coach. He invited Sonny to join him.
This time, it would be a social and mentoring relationship.
A couple of things that we can take away here. The first is that we can’t use people. We can’t pull people along, making them think we will give them more than we are.
The second is that we need to ask for help. Marcus asks Sonny to help him. To come on board as an assistant.
The third thing is that our relationships can be more than one type of relationship. Sonny wants a social and mentoring relationship from Marcus. Marcus gives this to him.
9. People have real reasons for not wanting to work with you:
Darius didn’t want to play for Marcus. And he had a good reason that wasn’t revealed until later.
Darius hadn’t always been intellectually disabled. He had been a bright prospect for basketball. That was, until a drunk driver injured him. This accident took so much from him. He didn’t want to play for someone who was doing the same thing.
If you discover some people don’t want to work for you, discover the reason why. There may be valid reasons.
It may be your past history remains vivid in their mind. They may have heard stories of or experienced your wrath in the past. There may be destroyed companies in your wake.
Figure out why people don’t want to work for you. They may have a good reason.
10. You need to forgive:
Darius’ mom wanted him to forgive the drunk driver that injured him. He couldn’t do that just yet. He struggled with everything that happened to him.
However, he decided he could work on forgiveness with Marcus. He could practice what forgiveness looked like by working with him.
This changed Darius’ life.
Who do you need to forgive? Forgiveness is hard, but it is possible.
You need to forgive. You also need to practice it.
Work on it, and you’ll get there.
11. Things come full circle:
Marcus and Sonny were coaching the Friends. They had a disagreement about a play. Sonny believed Marcus’ plan would fail. The other team would surround and defend Darius. He wouldn’t be able to get the playoff.
At first, Marcus couldn’t see this. Then, he flashed back to when he disagreed and got angry with Coach Perretti. It was the same situation but with a different ending.
Marcus’ journey was coming full circle.
Where is your journey leading you? It’s leading you back to where you began.
Remember where you started, it’s where you’re going. You’ll face off against your previous self. Find yourself better this time.
12. You can still win even if you lose:
The Friends went to the Special Olympics in Winnipeg, Canada. They played their hearts out only to lose in the game’s final seconds.
Did this stop them from truly winning? No. The Friends won more than winning the game could have ever done.
They found friendship, inspiration, and a common purpose. They rose above hardships and trials. Disabilities and handicaps.
They lost, but they truly won.
You may believe you’ve lost. But, maybe you’ve truly won.
Look at what you’ve accomplished in the end. Does it matter if you win according to the business world? Or did you win in relationships, family, building a team, etc?
You can lose but still win.
13. Beware of exploitation:
A team in Seattle was having an image issue. Their actions were tearing down their public image.
They reached out to Marcus. They saw his story and how he built the Friends team up. Now, they wanted him to come coach for them.
The only problem… They wanted to exploit his positive impact with the Friends to cover up their poor image.
Marcus turned down the role. He wouldn’t use what he did for the Friends to benefit a bad organization.
We have to be cautious of organizations that seek to exploit others. There are plenty that are from fashion companies to manufacturers.
Run far away from these organizations. They’re not worth it.