How Do You Build and Maintain a Kick-A$$ Team? 3 Lessons from the Best Coach of the Best Team in College Softball
Over the last couple of years, I have been awed by the dominance of the University of Oklahoma women’s softball team. As many of you know, I’ve been a huge college football fan since I was a kid, but with recent changes such as the player portal (giving players the ability to easily transfer to another school) and the NIL rules (allowing players to get paid for their Name, Image, and Likeness) it just doesn’t feel the same. It feels like college football went from selfless teams with individuals you felt were like family members to feeling disconnected from the “team” concept and uninspired by some of the “what’s in it for me” stories coming out about the players. Super disappointing to millions of us fans. There is definitely a gravitational pull to finding sports that feels a little more authentic and inspiring…
But, hold on, this blog is not able college football, it is actually about leadership and building a high-performing team. Research tells us that, at best, 20% of leadership teams are high performing. It also tells us that at least 50% of teams in organizations are underperforming. So, of course, one of the best routes to success a leader can take is being able to build an effective team. A high-performing team can be a game-changer for any company as it can significantly impact productivity, engagement, innovation, and profitability. So, today I am going to introduce you to the OU Women’s Softball program (if you don’t already know of them) and understand what nuggets of wisdom we can glean from the leader of that team to use in your own leadership journey.
When Patty Gasso first arrived in Norman, Oklahoma in 1995, she was overwhelmed. After five years at Long Beach City College, this Californian was hired to take over Oklahoma’s softball program. While the work was the same, the grind and heightened workload of being a Division I coach left Gasso feeling underwater. “I thought going from junior college to Division I was kind of the natural step, but I found out it is absolutely not a natural step,” Gasso said. “The workload, the stress factor, the recruiting, everything is magnified by 1,000. And I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect it to be as tough as it was.”
Back in those days, before OU softball called their current Marita Hynes Field home, it had Reaves Park. Don’t be fooled by the name. Reaves Park stretches from Timberdell Road to Constitution Street, just east of Jenkins Avenue, in Norman but was no mecca for softball. Yes, it’s where OU played its home games and even hosted postseason events before its current stadium opened in 1998.
But it’s quite literally a park. Home to family picnics, youth sports leagues, and the city’s annual Medieval Fair, Reaves Park provided humble beginnings to the Gasso era. OU’s dugout wasn’t big enough to hold its entire team, forcing a few players to sit on nearby wooden benches, meant for spectators. Recruiting was tough. Team activities often included picking up trash, such as beer cans from the adult baseball and softball leagues that shared the venue, often before and after practice and games. Games, mind you, that the team could hardly charge fans money to attend, because, well, there weren’t exactly gates to keep anyone out. And, worst of all, no excitement for the sport.
Fast forward to what Gasso’s Sooners have done since those early days. It is dynastic. They’ve won six national titles in the past decade, starting with the 2013 championship, and continuing their latest last week. So, what exactly does this leader do to create such extraordinary results? Here are three of the most relevant lessons from Gasso:
1. Surround Yourself with Great People
Gasso learned in her early years that the rigor of being a Division I coach could not be taken on by one person alone — it required an elite staff working together. The ability to craft a staff that’s able to execute her vision has been crucial in maintaining success. “It’s about trusting your assistant, trusting your staff, appreciating your staff so that they’ll work for you,” Gasso said. “And when I first was here, I was trying to do everything myself, and that’s part of why I was so underwater. When I started to bring in coaches and give them bigger responsibilities that allowed me to oversee things versus trying to control everything, which was not working well for me.”
Gasso cultivates that trust in her staff by keeping those duties in the family of OU softball, and sometimes even within the Gasso family. All of Gasso’s assistants in 2019 had some connection to the program before being hired as coaches. Her oldest son JT is an assistant, and her youngest son DJ is a graduate assistant. Associate head coach Jennifer Rocha played at Oklahoma from 1996 to 1998 and was a graduate assistant from 1999 to 2001 and Gasso hired five recent former players as assistants this season. That’s no accident. Gasso intentionally and proactively hires people who have seen her coaching style — a unique combination of tough love, compassion, and life lessons — up close and personal.
Business Questions: Are you surrounding yourself with the best talent? Do you trust people on your team? Is there diversity on your team? Are team members loyal to one another? Do you feel people on your team are competent and do what they say they will do? Are people motivated and passionate about what you are trying to accomplish?
2. Evolution is Necessary for Survival
Gasso has evolved over time as a leader and attributes that change to part of the formula for success. “When I got here, I wasn’t a player’s coach,” Gasso said. “I pushed, pushed, pushed. I was a discipline coach. I didn’t let players get away with a lot of things. I just ran a very tight ship.”
Kelli Braitsch, a freshman on Gasso’s first national championship team, knows that version of Gasso well. Following an expo tournament at Reaves Park, Braitsch and her mother, Judy, met with Gasso, who was still recruiting her at the time. Judy Braitsch inquired what position Gasso envisioned her daughter playing at the next level and received an answer her daughter can’t forget. “Coach Gasso looked directly at me,” Kelli Braitsch said, “even though my mom asked the question, and she said, ‘Kelli will play whatever position she earns.” Braitsch now admits “In the end, I earned the spot that I deserved and that is one thing that I love and respect still to this day about Coach Gasso. She doesn’t care who you are, she doesn’t care what stats you had the year before or what you did in high school or whatever. Who cares that you’re an All-American one season, because the next season, you could be the worst player on the team.”
Gasso saw a need to change. She didn’t want to compromise her authenticity, but she understood coaching the way she did in the late 1990s wasn’t the way her program would sustain. “I knew that there was a generation change happening, and I knew that my style was not going to fit them,” Gasso said. “That’s when I knew I had to meet my players halfway. ” Yep, she had to tweak her style to fit new circumstances.
During this time, Gasso naturally became the coach recruits wanted to talk to — a stark contrast from when Gasso was first cutting her teeth in big-time college softball, doing all she could to convince players to come to Norman at a time when softball championships ran through UCLA and Arizona. Perhaps as important to anything she’s done as a coach, Gasso has learned how to uphold her lofty standards, while also building those meaningful bonds with her players and staff. “The goals from my side are to make them understand that, win or lose, you’re loved, you’re appreciated and you’re fabulous.” Players matter to this coach.
Business Questions: Do you emphasize the results AND the relationship? Are the “goalposts” established so people know how to succeed? Does your team have one another’s back? Do people perceive that you really listen to their feedback? Are members of the team continually growing?
3. Remember, There is Life Beyond Work
For those who have played for, coached with, and been raised by Gasso, the part of her style that stands out most has nothing to do with batting stances, throwing motions, or base running techniques — it’s her emphasis on preparing players for life beyond softball. The crux of Gasso’s coaching isn’t separating teaching the minutia of softball and teaching broader concepts about life, she combines the two and uses athletic lessons to inform life lessons.
“It’s cool to be able to see how things correlate on and off the field — she teaches us to be tough on the field and to stand our ground,” said Keilani Ricketts, who played for Gasso from 2010 to 2013. “And she teaches us off the field to have a voice and stand up for ourselves whenever we’re dealing with conflict… It inspires us to advocate for ourselves.” Inspiring her players to advocate for themselves is exactly what Gasso aims to do. A coach directs, instructs, and trains her players to succeed on the field. But as an advocate, Gasso tries to transform her players from teenage girls to young women ready for professional softball, coaching, the workforce, or whatever else may await them.
She also utilizes some other interesting tactics for life skills. “What we have started to do now is create like a blue-collar day, where after practice, they’re all given job responsibilities. Last night, we were raking leaves, we were blowing out the dugouts, we were down on our hands and knees picking up little pieces of trash from the indoors. They’re picking up trash behind the grandstands. I mean, they are sweeping off the turf. Everybody’s got jobs. Like, you get to learn how to take care of your house. So this is our house. You want to know what it means to keep your house in order. This stadium is going to be in order as long as we’re here. So we’ve changed a few things and put them to work.” It’s probably not the most popular thing she’s ever done, but for this team, there are new opportunities for team bonding, building a sense of pride, and taking care of the “little things.”
Business Questions: Do you care about your employees beyond what they bring to the job? Do you have a mentorship program? Does your team think outside the box when creating team bonding experiences? Can everyone on the team tell you what the purpose is of what they do every day? Do you spend informal time together as a team?
In leadership, you always hear the stories. The tough road that had to be traveled, the grit and determination that was needed, and the lessons learned along the way. I’m sure you have many of those same stories. Patty Gasso is no different and we can learn a lot from her experiences. She would tell you the word “lukewarm” is a dirty word in the OU program. To her, it means someone is either half in or half out…They need to be either all in or not be in at all. I actually feel that way about leadership. Of course, there will be days you feel a little “off”, but if you are not totally committed to those three tenets laid out by Gasso… surround yourself with great talent, adapt your leadership when needed, and truly care about your employees…it will be tough to build that high-performing team you are working towards.
*Interview excerpts from OU Daily News