What coaching ice hockey taught me about communications

by Jeremy Church, on Dec 31, 2013

Despite a valiant effort the last few weeks, the Steelers have fallen short of the playoffs (again). 

That means hockey season is in full swing again, and its popularity in Western Pennsylvania shows no sign of slowing down.

The sport has come a long way in the last two decades, thanks largely to the popularity of three men who wore (or still wear) the very non-traditional numbers 66, 68 and 87.

In the early 90s, those of us who wanted to have a chance to play college hockey had to leave Pittsburgh for other cities, teams or high schools. The scouts simply weren’t watching teams or players here.

That led me to a prep school in northern Indiana named Culver Military Academy, which – in addition to being the alma mater of the late George Steinbrenner – also happens to boast one of the top interscholastic ice hockey programs in the country.

Ice hockey and strategy communications -- a winning pair.

Before I returned to Pittsburgh in 2008, I was fortunate enough to spend six years working and coaching at Culver.

As anyone who truly enjoys coaching will tell you, I learned more from my fellow coaches and players than they ever did from me.

After playing competitively at the high school, prep school, junior and college levels for more than 15 years, it was certainly enjoyable to live vicariously through the teams I was privileged enough to coach.

Moreover, it was rewarding to know I played at least some small part in helping them reach their goal of competing at the next level. More than a dozen players from my time coaching at Culver went on to Division I college hockey programs and several more were drafted in the National Hockey League.

The parallels between effective strategic communications and successful coaching haven’t escaped me, even though being a full-time father has now taken precedence over being a full-time coach.

Borrowing directly from the team guidelines I gave our players before each season, I’ve included below a few other best practices that also apply to working as a strategic communications and media relations consultant:

No trash talk allowed. In other words, let your work product and professionalism speak for itself. At WordWrite Communications, we do our talking on the scoreboard – which is to say we provide valuable guidance and support for our clients in a manner always consistent with our values. On the ice and in business, winning the right way is more rewarding than simply winning.

Play each shift as if it’s your last. Outworking the other team (or your other business competition) makes up for many shortcomings. Outthinking them with new, different and creative ways of doing business – StoryCraftingTM as a new public relations paradigm, for example – provides an edge much sharper than the typical tactics so many others commoditize. Still, sometimes you can’t control the bounces of the puck or the calls the officials make. Likewise, despite your best effort and counsel based on experience and your clients’ best interest, you can’t always control how clients will react or what they might decide. You can, however, always control the amount of effort you exert.

Play under control. As John Wooden often said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” In other words, skating around full of energy with no regard for your position on the ice or the particular system being used at that moment in the game results in chaos, and usually, goals against. Similarly, public relations activity simply for the sake of racking up billable hours does nothing strategic for your clients and won’t help either party reach mutually agreed upon goals. Understand your clients and their markets, and develop a tailored PR strategy that helps them tell their story, with a capital “S.”

Place the team above yourself. Support your teammates and encourage them. We all succeed or we all fail. The same philosophy holds true in an agency. My success depends on the success of my colleagues and vice versa. At WordWrite, each of us is an accomplished professional who brings different strengths and experiences. We’re given the opportunity to stretch and grow into new roles, while exercising the PR muscles we’ve fully developed thus far. Successfully putting each individual together in a well-orchestrated effort yields far greater returns for our firm and our clients.

Do you have certain philosophies and experiences outside your profession that have influenced the way you manage or lead your organization? Please share them with us.

Topics:public relationsstrategic communications
Jeremy Church-1
Jeremy Church
Partner, Vice President, Director of Results

Jeremy Church is a partner, vice president and director of results at WordWrite. He can be reached at jeremy.church@wordwritepr.com or on Twitter at @churchjeremy.

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