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On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Christian Webster, the Assistant Coach at Virginia Tech. Webster is a Washington, D.C. native who got his start on the bench at Harvard following a solid playing career for the Crimson under Tommy Amaker. Oh, and did I mention Webster is the all-time winningest player in Harvard’s history with 90 wins, including 3 Ivy League titles and back-to-back NCAA tournament trips?
After two seasons at his alma mater, Webster spent the 2015-16 season in Orlando with the Knights, his second Division I assistant coaching job that he landed at just 25 years old. Webster was named to ESPN’s 40-under-40 list before he even turned 30 — a prestigious list made up of the top 40 head coaches and assistant coaches in Division I men’s basketball under the age of 40. Webster was also recognized by the National Association of Basketball Coaches as a 30-under-30 honoree. On this episode of Bring It In season two, Coach Webster and Sam discussed what it takes to be a great coach, how to stay engaged in the moment, and how to build a team where every single player is all in.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Christian Webster shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: What’s been the hardest part of the journey for you as a coach?
Webster: Well, that’s a good question. I say the hardest is just getting up every day and keeping that same motivation and keeping that same fire and hunger. It’s tough after a tough loss and having to get up, but those guys in the locker room really motivate me, and just being a part of a team is really cool. It’s also really hard when you get fired. I’ve been a part of that. I feel like I’ve been fired twice. Going to UCF, I was at Harvard and flying high and I was a good player there. It was where I was most comfortable and I’d get out from under the nest. We get our wings clipped, and I’m right back on the job market. We have probably the best year in school history of Virginia Tech, and then Buzz Williams leaves. I’m still here and you got to find a way to figure it out and try to find a way to make value for yourself. That’s one of the things I really worked on.
Sam: The transition from player to coach is interesting. What do you say about that transition for you?
Webster: It was really tough Sam. The hardest thing for me was that, as I mentioned earlier, those guys were my teammates and roommates. Really, those are my best friends. They were out of school my senior year. So when I came back to coach, they were coming back for their senior year. So now you have guys that literally know everything about you — good, bad, ugly — and you have to coach them, and you have to hold them accountable, and you have to find ways to connect with them in a different way, it was tough. I’m not gonna lie to you that first year was tough. Not being able to hang out with those guys and having to be professional, getting sick of sitting at the front of the bus instead of sitting at the back of the bus and cutting up and telling jokes and stuff with my boys. I had to sit up there and be a coach. It was really helpful for me that Coach Amaker had done it before with Coach K at Duke. He got cut by the Seattle Supersonics and he was trying to figure out what he was gonna do. Coach K had them come back and be a GA and then he ended up being assistant coach right away because one of the other coaches had left, so he kind of assured me early on that, “if you come do this, I can help you through it.” I can teach you how to teach. I can teach you how to lead. I can teach you how to serve these guys because I’ve done it. He helped me out tremendously through that whole process
Sam: You grew up teaching because great coaches are teachers at heart. In the future — because you’re already 40 under 40 — you’re probably going to put a book on the shelf someday talking about your coaching philosophy. What are some of those things right now that kind of spin around in your head that you come back and talk to a lot when you’re in the huddle?
Webster: I think it comes down to teaching. As a coach, your classroom is on the court. You have to be able to communicate in a way the players understand, and you have to teach those guys. I learned that from Coach Amaker. Then working for Buzz Williams, he was one of the best life coaches that I’ve ever been around. We used to call them ‘tech talks’ for Virginia Tech and they were about everything about how to tie a tie, how to balance a checkbook, how to change a tire. Those sorts of things were things I learned. The kind of wisdom that he imparted on our guys was incredible and a huge learning experience for me. You have to teach, you have to be able to lead, you have to be able to lead from the front. We talk about leading in the middle, being able to hold a guy’s hand and walk them along, and then also being the lead from the back and be able to push a guy forward when he needs that too. You have to be able to lead and lead differently. And not everybody is gonna take to your leadership; not everybody wants to be led in one way. Everybody needs to be talked to differently. You have to manage those personalities and you gotta be able to serve. Servant leadership is huge. We talk about that all the time. Coach Young talks about it. You gotta be able to serve the community as well. You’re a huge part of a bigger purpose when you’re working at these universities. At the end of the day, I think it’s all about relationships. My coaching philosophy is if you don’t have relationships with the guys you’re coaching and with your recruits you’re not going to be able to coach them. You can scribble up all the X’s and O’s you want, but if those guys don’t trust you, if they don’t take what you’re saying the right way, if you don’t communicate it the right way, it’s not gonna work. I think it goes back to the relationships that you have; being intentional and developing those relationships with your team and your staff is huge.
Sam: It seems like it’s really easy for leaders to complain about Millennials and Gen Zers. What’s your perspective on getting the most out of young people?
Webster: I think you gotta meet them where they are. So many young people I’m seeing are on their phones, 80-90 percent of the time. So we started scouting on iPads just to be able to get to them where they are. I feel like they learn differently now. Even in recruiting, being able to get on Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter and direct messages, those are all ways that we have to be able to connect with our recruits. It’s different — this pandemic has changed everything. As much as we can adapt and meet the players and meet the recruits where they are, then I think they’ll be more susceptible to what we’re trying to give them.
Sam: I’m glad you brought up recruiters. How has it been to recruit over Zoom?
Webster: It’s been different. We’ve just been trying to find ways to be as creative as we can. We can’t go out on Virginia Tech’s dime and recruit. The NCAA and NABC have linked in the time where we can even go out. We don’t think we’ll be able to go out at all this summer. It’d be two summers in a row where there’d be no in-person AAU, travel team tournaments, none of that stuff. No all star games. It’s going to be different, it has been different. Just working the phones and trying to meet these kids where they are and being as interactive with them as we can on Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat. They are more receptive when we do that stuff, which is pretty interesting. They’re more receptive. I can text the kid 10 times, but if I send them a Snapchat, it’s like: bam, right away he gets back to me. They’re on that stuff more, they don’t really want to talk on the phone. I’m 30 years old and I really don’t like talking on the phone, so they want to text, they want to snap. They want to do all that stuff. We’re just trying to find ways to be creative and to meet them where they are.
Sam: If you think about one of your players that graduates and goes into the workforce next, what advice do you have for their next coach?
Webster: I would say just be absolutely transparent on what you expect from them. The one thing I’ve seen in our guys and guys that I’ve coached over the last few years is that they listen, they’ll do exactly what you tell them to do. If there’s anything that’s different that goes away from that plan, it’s going to be tough. I don’t know why it is that way but the Millennial and Gen X crowd is just learning differently. They’re very visual. They listen to everything you say, so just being very, very intentional on how you lead and what you do, because they’re not only listening to what you do, they’re watching. They’re watching everything and listening to everything, and you have to give them exactly what you want them to do, and then they’ll be pretty good at executing it if you give it to them straight.
Sam: We’re around the same age, and I remember when I was coming up, a coach said “do this,” and you didn’t ask why. Today it’s a little different. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t know how you feel, but you got to give a little bit more information, right?
Webster: You definitely have to have the details hemmed up, your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed because after everything we say on the court, it’s like, well, why are we doing that? Last game we did this. They’re going to test you because there’s so much information out there. I can go over a scouting report and they know the team better than I know the team just because they can Google, they can find stuff on Twitter. I would just say, just be completely tight and crystal clear on what you expect from them because they’re on it. They know the information, and there’s so much knowledge out there that they can get to.
Sam: I’ve got a few other questions that I’d love to get your opinion on. Over the last year and this being Black History Month in February, I think that there’s the reality of individuals wanting to know what their organizations believe in and what they stand up for and what they fight for. It’s a good thing that’s starting to be talked about a lot more. How do you talk to your players about how they can safely start to speak out and stand up? How do you talk about those things?
Webster: I think it’s such a trying time, it’s definitely different. The diversity and inclusion stuff is really important. The diversity and inclusion committee here at Virginia Tech, I was talking to Raina, Gilbert, and Laurie who run our diversity and inclusion department and she said something really interesting that I really agree with what she said: that it’s not diversity that is important. Don’t get me wrong. Diversity is very important, but inclusion is so important to have. Our guys on our teams and our girls on our sports teams know that this is a safe space to have tough conversations where they can speak their mind and they can voice their opinions and how they feel about certain topics and subjects and events that go on in the country and in the world. Just educating them on everything, putting people in front of them that have done it, that have seen stuff that they haven’t seen, that have done stuff that they haven’t done — I think all that stuff is so important, but just going back to the inclusion part, just making sure that people feel included. You can have people from all over the world in your department, but if they don’t feel like you care, if they don’t feel like they’re included in decisions that affect them, it’s not going to work. I just think the inclusion piece is so important. Raina said that the other day, and I really agree with what she said.
Sam: It’s almost like it’s easy just to do a one-day workshop or make people click through something or say that you checked the box. I think that now more than ever building on the inclusion point, it’s gotta be 365. You got to find a way to do that. I’ll give you the last word. Any other thoughts or feedback? You said that one of the biggest things from your point of view that I wanted to wrap on, which is how you get the most out of people. Any other thoughts for people out there who are trying to level up their people every day?
Webster: I would just have a word for young coaches that are trying to break into the business. I get so many hits on emails and things like that where guys went to BGAs and guys want to get into the business. I would just say be where your feet are, do a good job where you are. If I didn’t do a good job at Harvard when I was a player and was trustworthy and was somebody that people could count on, I would’ve never got an opportunity to be an assistant coach right out of college. That really propelled my career. I will also say find mentors and find people that can help you get to where you’re trying to go. Find people that are going to put their arms around you and help you and teach you and show you the ropes. Every job that I’ve ever gotten has been because of a handful of people. It hasn’t been a whole lot of people, and those people that are dear to me are mentors and friends to this day. I would say: be where your feet are, find a good mentor, and invest in yourself. Own your craft, learn, and read. That’s something really important that I learned through the last few years. To those young coaches out there, that’s what I would say.
Topics discussed: leadership, coaching, future of work, diversity and inclusion
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