Pick Up Your Trash: How Great Coaches Handle The Small Things
4 min read

Pick Up Your Trash: How Great Coaches Handle The Small Things

By requiring each student-athlete to pick up after himself, I may have encouraged a positive habit, and a way of thinking that carried over to the court and our team. It was my hope that some of my teaching might even carry over to what the players did in their lives after basketball.
Pick Up Your Trash: How Great Coaches Handle The Small Things

After years of coaching at Lipscomb University, Don Meyer started his first team meeting at Northern State with three simple rules, the same rules he set forth at every team meeting at the start of the season. Rule No. 1: Everybody takes notes. Rule No. 2: Everybody says, “Yes, sir.” “Yes, ma’am,” “No, sir,” and “No, ma’am.” In other words, be courteous to everybody. Rule No. 3: Everybody picks up trash. Don Meyer will forever be remembered as one of the titans of college basketball. Through his basketball camps and his coaches clinics, he became nationally known and highly respected, despite never coaching at the Division I level. Perhaps best of all, Meyer did not just build basketball players. He built people; he taught life skills. And it started with something as simple as an expectation that everyone picked up trash.

In his book about Coach Don Meyer, Buster Olney wrote, "Meyer had given players those three rules for decades. Meyer talked about technical adjustments to an offense or defense, or strategic points of emphasis. But so much of what he discussed, and what the players wrote down, was about personal accountability, about being unselfish, about serving others."

Pick up your trash. A small thing that speaks volumes. As Chris Petersen said, "How you do small things is how you do all things." It all matters. Defensive Lineman Benning Potoa'e explained Petersen's mantra to Christian Caple for an article in The Athletic. "Details matter," Potoa'e said. "Something as little as making your bed in the morning carries over to a lot of things. You cheat yourself in small things, and you're going to see yourself cheating yourself in bigger things. It'll be a snowball effect, and your house won't be in order." To keep your house in order, pick up trash. To teach accountability, pick up trash. To teach your team to respect the equipment, the locker room, and the facilities, pick up your trash.

Look at the sideline or the locker room following a game and you can tell a lot about a program. When you travel, consider how your athletes leave the hotel rooms upon check out. It all matters. In his biography of Nick Saban, Monte Burke tells a story from Nick Saban's first year at Alabama. One Alabama insider said it took only one game for him to realize that things would be very different for the football program under Saban. “I remember watching when Shula coached the team. After a game, the Alabama sideline was a mess, with crushed water cups and tape all over the ground. It looked like a hurricane had come through. After Saban’s first game, I just happened to look at the sideline. It was pristine. There wasn’t a crushed cup to be found.”

Don Meyer told his players to make every place better than it was before you arrived. And specifically, he insisted that they apply this when they traveled as a team. Olney's book tells a story from Rick Byrd, the coach at crosstown rival Belmont. Coach Byrd recalled that after the first home game he had coached against Meyer's Lipscomb team, the visiting gym- where the Bisons players dressed- was left spotless, with the used towels neatly arranged. On top of the pile, there was a piece of paper: a thank you note from John Kimbrell, the team's center and best player. Byrd coached against Meyer's teams for many years. The schools were two miles apart. They both contended for national championships. Byrd always knew that no matter how talented Don Meyer's teams, the kids who came out of the Lipscomb program were good kids.

I was a Division III football player who had no business even making the travel squad. It was my junior year and I clearly remember a road game in Storm Lake, Iowa. The game was foggy and rainy and very physical. It was a classic mud bowl type of game. By the end of the day, the field was torn up and our jerseys were like something out of a Tide commercial. Following the game, we showered with all of our gear on just to expedite the mud removal process. Then, we removed our gear, undressed, and took a second shower. It was unlike any game conditions I had ever experienced.

Muddy cleats and dirty uniforms wreaked havoc on the visitor's locker room. But I remember our Head Football Coach being one of the last people to leave the locker room that day. Here was Ron Schipper, national champion coach, former president of the American Football Coaches Association, Hall of Fame coach in what would be his final year of coaching, with a towel wiping the mud off the walls of the locker room. He insisted that the locker room was left in better shape than when we had arrived. Ron Schipper passed away in 2006, but that is what I will forever remember about my coach. He taught young men personal accountability. He taught us that the small things mattered.

John Wooden preached details and he held his players accountable. He once said, “A student-athlete who feels so privileged that he can throw things on the floor while a student manager follows behind cleaning up the mess has a bad habit, one that contributes to selfishness, sloppiness, and disrespect- three character traits I particularly dislike. By requiring each student-athlete to pick up after himself, I may have encouraged a positive habit, and a way of thinking that carried over to the court and our team. It was my hope that some of my teaching might even carry over to what the players did in their lives after basketball.”

Don Meyer could regularly be found stopping on the campus of Lipscomb University to pick up trash. His players were required to always have their notebook on hand. One player's notes from November 3, 1985 simply said, "No trash on the floor in the locker room." The small things matter. Set the expectations for your program. Encourage positive habits. Remember, how you do small things, like picking up trash from the sidelines and the locker room, is how you do all things.

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