Hall of Fame Lacrosse Coach, Mike Messere says " If you want to be great at something, you have to commit to it."
Many years ago, my son was privileged to be coached by this man, Mike Messere. He is legendary in lacrosse circles, having one of the most winning records in high school lacrosse history. He was a tough coach, but a fantastic role model. He held his team to his own high standards. Since he's had so much impact on so many young lives, I was thrilled to see this article in the local Syracuse newspaper about his leadership style, and I know it's worth your time reading.
I knew Mike personally, having taught with him at both the junior and senior high school levels. He checked up on his team and made sure they did their homework and behaved in class. He set the standard to produce fine young men for their futures.
He taught them life lessons about hard work, commitment and principles, all which he still lives by today.
From the Syracuse Post Standard
Next week, Mike Messere opens his last season as the head varsity boys lacrosse coach at West Genesee High School. LaFayette visits West Genesee at 4:30 p.m. March 28.
Messere became head coach in 1976 after seven seasons as a middle school coach. His varsity teams have compiled a remarkable record: Eleven undefeated seasons. Fifteen state championships. Thirty Section III championships. An overall record of 823-81.
His Shove Park summer program is imitated nationwide. He's in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the National High School Hall of Fame.
Messere said his goal has always been that students learn to excel, beyond school, as adults. It may be why he can list so many players who became high school and college coaches, or business executives, or doctors and other professionals. It's like he was running a disciplined farm team for leadership.
Messere already has retired from teaching physical education. Now, at age 74, he's ready to stop coaching.
Tell me about growing up.
I grew up right here, in Fairmount. Actually, I was born in Solvay. When I was 2, my parents moved to Fairmount.
I came right through the West Genesee School District. I was in sixth grade and the first group that went to West Genesee High School when they opened it. I was in there every year through graduation (1962).
I went to four years of college (SUNY Cortland, class of 1966) and came back to this school and never left. (Laughs)
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
Oh yeah. My mother (Rose) is from a large family - she had seven brothers and sisters. My two sisters and I were the oldest ones in the family. The other ones (cousins) were a lot younger. At that point, I was the leader, taking care of the little ones and playing games with them. That's kind of how it started.
When I got to high school, I was in a rock-n-roll band. I played rhythm guitar, and I guess I took the leadership of that. I was the captain of the high school lacrosse team my senior year.
After college and during the summers, I was captain of our club lacrosse team that played for nine, 10 years. I developed a no-nonsense and toughness attitude during my years playing club lacrosse with Larry Heart. I developed concepts and principles of play from playing club and Box lacrosse with and against my Native American friends.
I got in the Fairmount Fire Department. Because of my background, studying anatomy and physiology for physical education and athletic training in Cortland, I jumped right into the emergency squad and became the number 2 guy. I was president of the social group, which raised money. I was doing so much coaching I had to drop out.
I ran summer programs at the schools. The first year was in the city district and then in the West Genesee District.
In 1973, I started a summer wrestling program, and we took the kids around to tournaments.
In '74, I started a summer lacrosse program at Shove Park. I brought back special players who had graduated to teach the younger kids and help us. That program really propelled us on. It's become known around the world, and a lot of people have copied it.
Who were early influences?
My parents were good about letting us do a lot of things, and they gave us encouragement. They allowed me to have kids and the band come to our house. A lot of people wouldn't want that, all that noise. My father (Mike) was a hunter-fisherman kind of guy. He didn't like crowds and wanted to be out in the woods. He was a steelworker, in the Crucible steel mill.
A turning point in my life occurred in eighth grade. It was a setup with my Uncle Joe (Bonn). He took me out for an ice cream at an old parlor in Eastwood. It was time to leave. It's a narrow stairway. We're going down the stairway, he turns around to hold out a pack of cigarettes. I reach for one. He goes: Aha! Let's go back. We're gonna sit down. We need to talk.
Of course, at that age, you're experimenting. My mother had to know. So, she said to her brother: Joe, take him out. I respected him because he was athletic and in a lot of sports.
Uncle Joe proceeded to say: Is this what you want?
He said: If you want to play sports, no smoking, no drinking, do your schoolwork, be a good citizen.
I've kept those four things.
It changed my life. I changed my friends. I changed everything I did. I started with wrestling in eighth grade and went on to football and lacrosse.
Uncle Joe's advice still propels me. It shows that what you say can change a life. My life's work is to teach kids these are the sacrifices you make, these are the things you do to be successful.
Another turning point occurred in my junior year. I was going to go to the steel mill to work. I didn't plan on going to college. No one in the family had gone to college.
My varsity lacrosse coach my junior year, Phil Natoli, encouraged me to go to college. He said: I can help you.
One person stopped me in the hallway, started talking to me, and it changed everything.
What's your advice to be an effective leader?
The leader needs to have a backbone and the backbone needs to be based on ethics.
You make rules, you promise certain things, and you give everyone what they earn and deserve.
I learned years ago, you need to have principles and values. You stick by those values and treat people properly. If you stick to your principles and values, you don't have to be intimidated by threats.
You want to win, but you can't want to win at all costs. You can't bend on principles and values.
If you want to be great at something, you have to commit to it.
Promise yourself you never give up.
To be an effective leader, you have to be consistent.
If you're the leader, never allow things under your control to fail. You gotta be prepared for whatever's going to happen, for whatever you're going to face, for what you need to do in any situation.
If you're hiring people, you gotta hire people that are, number 1, honest. It means an honest work ethic and honesty in everything they do. That's a big part of my success and anyone's success - the people you have around you.
You expect them to stand with you, but they can expect and know that you'll stand with them.
Sacrifice is a key word. To be successful, you make sacrifices in your life. You have to give up things. Whatever your field, things are going to happen that aren't going to be pleasant, but you deal with them. You face them.
You lead by example. Leading by example is just as important as saying: This is the way it is.
What qualities of leadership do you see in leaders you admire?
They have a great imagination.
You can be smart, you can know stuff, but successful people have imagination.
They are innovative; they see beyond the immediate problem. They see the value in others' ideas: Here's how we can improve. You need constant improving, constant looking for a better way to do it.
I kind of drown myself in research, the piles of papers in my office. I do the research, see something new, think of something. Then I start writing - I write all this stuff down. Then I go back through it and look at the ideas again.
If you're leading - especially with kids - you can't B.S. If you don't know, you gotta say, I don't know, and let me check. Or I'm not sure that's the way I want to do it, let me go back and jiggle this around a little bit and see what we can do.
If you're lying, if you don't know what you're talking about, people know immediately. You can't fool the people you're leading. They're not stupid.
Great leaders have strong discipline. Look at John Wooden, the basketball coach that won so much (at UCLA). One of his star players wouldn't do what was required. Coach Wooden says: Oh, it's been nice. I wish you luck in your future.
I've followed that philosophy. There is no indispensable man - including yourself.
Don't figure you can just do what you want to do, just because you're successful or the boss. They'll replace you in a second. And you won't be missed!
I've had kids who've broken rules and our rule is then you no longer play. And they've been my top players.
As a result, we've done better after that person's gone. Somehow, that person was creating a friction on the team. Even if we did poorly, it didn't matter. If you say you're going to do something, then you've gotta do it.
Early on, a kid was fooling around, and jumped up where he shouldn't. I told him: If you do that again, I'm going to knock you off.
Well, all of a sudden he jumps up there again, and I realized I had to follow through. I knocked him off.
I told myself: I can't say anything like that again. I have to be careful on what I say I'm going to do.
Be careful what you say, because you have to follow through. If you say you're going to do something, you've gotta do it.
Let's say you're part of a group, and the leader says: You can't do it. Then somebody does it, but the leader says: Well, that's all right. We'll let you get away with it.
What would you think? If you're that leader, who will trust your word?
What attributes do you see in poor leadership, in leaders you don't admire, the kind of person you'd never want to work for?
Lying. They'll tell you one thing and do something else.
I've found sarcasm is a killer. In coaching sports, sarcasm will kill a kid.
You realize you could say one word - one word - and it could destroy a kid.
Or, it could enlighten them.
A sentence, some kind of advice, an introduction to an idea, could change a kid's life, one way or another.
You can be firm and right to the point. But sarcasm, that kind of thing ruins people. It ruins a relationship, and it destroys initiative. You make sure that a kid who makes a mistake understands the important thing: Did you correct that? What did you learn?
In years of doing these Conversations, I don't recall anyone telling me about the danger of sarcasm in leadership.
I had the experience myself at Cortland. My freshman year, I was the only kid that had played lacrosse before. I was playing well. I had a great year.
The next year, I moved to varsity and was starting on attack. But I had a coach that kept up the sarcasm.
I'd make a great play. He'd say, sarcastically, let me see you do that again.
I'm kind of like, huh?
He was always questioning in a sarcastic tone: Did you really do that?
I began to think: Did I see what I did? Did I do what I did?
He couldn't support me. It was like everything I did was a mistake. I was getting so frustrated. I remember I broke my stick. When that stick broke, everything broke. I lost all my skill. I went right in the hole, totally in the hole. I had to rebuild, and it took me to the following year. I got myself through the summer, and I got my brain straightened around.
I had a coach the following two years, who was the opposite. He helped people to blossom, and I took off again.
That was a great lesson. I didn't ever want that to happen to me, but as a teacher and a coach, it was one of the best experiences of my life to realize that sarcastic questioning, instead of encouragement, broke me.
Sarcasm and no encouragement, bang, you can go right in the hole.
So, a poor leader will use sarcasm. What kind of language will the good leader do to make sure somebody gets better?
Encouragement. Encourage them to do more. You're almost there. Try this little touch. You're in good shape. See what it takes to do that all the time.
Don't overly praise. You can't just tell people how wonderful they are. It's not like everything is always wonderful. You deliver praise when it's warranted.
You want continual improvement. You want the person to want to continue to develop. If you overly praise, they'll think: I don't have anything to learn.
Another thing: Good leaders don't use foul language.
I've never sworn in front of these kids. I don't allow it. I don't allow it on the field. I don't allow it anywhere.
I tell the refs: If you hear bad language, you let me know right away. That kid's right off the field.
Listening is important. You gotta listen, and you gotta make sure your team is listening and that they understand you.
When I'm talking to the players, I want to make sure they're not looking in the stands, seeing if their parents or a girlfriend is there. When I talk to them, I turn them, so their backs are to the bleachers where the people are.
You're making sure they'll listen. You're setting them up to succeed. You're not setting them up for failure.
If I tell the players I want total eye contact, and yet I let them look up at their friends in the stands trying to call attention to them, I'm setting them up for failure. I need to take the responsibility.
All this applies to life beyond school, right?
It all applies to life. These guys, these kids go on, and they use all this stuff and they become coaches or run businesses and so forth. It's unbelievable how many of my kids are right at the top.
I make sure my kids want to go right to the top, they want to be the leaders, they want to be the best at what they are doing. I'm teaching them to strive to always be the very best. They want to go to the top - and they have.
Little things make the big things work. You have to have a tremendous work ethic if you want to be successful in this program. You have to work hard. And we're very precise on what skills and the way you should play, how you should carry yourself, what you should do, how you behave in the community.
It's all about you as a person
I can't tell you how proud I am of this. Some of these kids were so successful as players in college - I couldn't even tell you the number of All-Americans. I remember one year, about 1990 or so, we had 11 former West Genesee kids make collegiate All-Americans. In one year - it was amazing.
I think every single year, we've had at least one West Genesee graduate become a collegiate All-American.
What allows that kind of success to blossom?
The unfair advantage. (Pointing to his head.) The mental part of it. We've beaten teams that we've had no reason to beat. We had no chance!
But we played smarter than the other guys.
It goes back to self-discipline. We teach self-discipline, that's there a way to do the higher percentage thing and consistently do it every time.
Repetition is the mother of learning. You study so that you know what works best in any situation. That mental preparation leads to imagination. With discipline and mental preparation, you can free your mind to be successful.
So, repetition and discipline allow imagination to flourish.
That's absolutely right.
In the system I teach, players have to make choices. Teaching them a system of choices, good choices and bad choices, so they learn to make choices. Which is the high-percentage choice, and which is the low-percentage choice in different situations?
This all leads into life. I tell them everyday: You're going to have choices in life. Learn how to make the right choice.
A lot of coaches will tell their players: You go here, you go there, and then run your play.
I tell them: You're going to go there. But when do you leave for that spot? What could possibly happen on the way? When you get there, what should you look for?
They learn to make adjustments on the fly, make decisions on the way.
It's true in life and business. You need to be disciplined. You need to be prepared. So, when things happen, you can make adjustments, you can be innovative, you can let your imagination go.