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MANILA - Filipino-American Erik Spoelstra may have silenced his critics after steering the Miami Heat to its first title since becoming head coach of the team in 2008, but the journey to the top has never been easy.
In a coaching seminar organized by Smart and First Pacific Leadership Academy at the Meralco Theater, Spoelstra acknowledged that managing personalities was one of the most difficult and challenging parts of being a head coach of a basketball team.
"As leaders, we all face the same challenge to motivate, to push the right buttons, try to inspire, try to relate sometimes with people we have nothing in common, to get people on the same page for a common goal," he said.
And for Spoelstra, managing personalities meant dealing with starting talents LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat's "Big Three."
With James and Bosh taking their talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010, the Miami staff wanted all the players to feel "the same," that everyone was on equal footing. They formed an "activity chart," which was devoid of the usual scoring statistics and showed hustle numbers and the "little things" like deflections on the ball and the charges they took.
Eliminate the Big Three and Little 12
"One of the first thing we decided to do on our training camp in 2010 was to eliminate the Big Three and the Little 12 and we have 15 players. We will never really call them the Big Three. They are the Miami Heat," said Spoelstra.
At the age of 37, Spoelstra became the youngest ever to coach an NBA team. He was criticized for lacking experience but NBA great Pat Riley, the man he succeeded, thought this would allow him to easily connect with the young Miami team.
However, Spoelstra had his fair share of "disconnects" with his players such as the infamous LeBron-bump incident during a game against the Dallas Mavericks in November 2010 and more recently, the shouting match with Wade in Game 3 of the Indiana Pacers playoff series.
"Despite what you read about, they wanna be coached. They wanna be disciplined and they wanna be a part of something bigger than themselves and sometimes there will be conflict but they can appreciate honesty," Spoelstra said.
"Ultimately, when we look eye to eye, it's not always good. There will be difficult times. There will be times quite frankly when you don't like me, and don't get me mistaken, but there'll be times I don't like you and when you get through those moments that's when you really become a family," he said.
Spoelstra sought the help of football coaches, motivational speakers and even psychologists so he could understand how he could connect, communicate and understand his players more.
He made an effort not just to prove his worth but to get to know the players as well. He organizes one-on-one meetings with them, listens to their music and never fails to let a day go by without giving his players a "personal touch."
"It doesn't seem like much but a physical touch, not just a nod, not just a hello, but something on the shoulders, something on the chest when you talk to them. I find that very compelling with them," he said.
And the same relationship also applies with his bosses in the Heat management as he maintains constant communication with team owner Micky Arison and Riley, whom Spoelstra referred to as his "mentor, boss and guiding light" in the profession.
Dealing with distraction
Being one of the most hated teams in the league, another challenge for Spoelstra was dealing with distraction, ranging from fans to "talking heads" in media, which always had an opinion about the team.
These "noises" have prompted the coach to joke about making a book called "Leadership Sucks" and entertain the idea of just staying in the background during tough times.
"Experience is the best teacher, but I learned the most from my failures," he said.
Spoelstra still blames himself for that heartbreaking defeat against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, his first crack at a championship with the "Big Three" in tow. But it was that same loss and inspiration from the book "Mindset" that led him to go out of his comfort zone and reinvent his craft.
Before the 2012 NBA Playoffs - and with the Heat still not over their loss against the Mavericks - Miami made a black replica of the NBA championship trophy, a color fit for the ball club being one of the most hated teams in the league, Spoelstra said.
Miami put "all in" in the trophy and had the players sign their family names on it with a gold pen as a sign of their commitment to do their responsibilities. Spoelstra signed it too, a guarantee that he will go to trenches with the team and a pledge that he will not repeat the same mistakes he committed in the Dallas series.
We know how the playoffs unfolded. After trailing 0-1, the Heat went on to sweep the next four games against the Oklahoma Thunder to become the NBA champions and making Spoelstra the only Filipino - and one of the youngest head coaches - to win an NBA title.
"We were able to finally get over that hump. We finally climbed it together as a family and raise that gold trophy and dust off all that black from the trophy. It was an incredible moment but it also reminded us how tough it is," he said.
"There's a psychology to being a leader. I think it's a quest that we'll never fully ever reach because you continue to learn that growth mindset, learn how to connect with people, to inspire them, to manage them, it never stops," he said.
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