Peer Into Character® ep. 3 – Marcus Jannitto

Leadership and Team Captains in Sports.

National leadership speaker Marcus Jannitto describes overlooked characteristics of a great leader, the #1 job of a team captain, and why leadership should be “intentional”. Anyone associated with youth sports will find value in this insightful conversation as Even Field’s Chuck Wilson talks with the long-time military leader, high school coach, game official, and Even Field advisor.

Peer Into Character® features thought-provoking and inspirational stories and observations about character and leadership shared by professional and amateur athletes, coaches, educators, and others.

Peer Into Character and Chuck Wilson on Sports™ are presentations of Even Field®, a nonprofit organization that promotes integrity, life skills, and leadership through sports.

Even Field founder and series host Chuck Wilson has been recognized as one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport.

You can watch this episode of Peer Into Character on Even Field’s YouTube Channel.

You can listen to Peer Into Character on Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher.

Episode Quotes, an Audio Timeline, and a Transcript of this episode can be found below.

Thank You from Even Field®!

If you enjoy this program, please like us on Facebook and subscribe to our podcasts. And, if you believe our mission is worthy and you are in a position to support us, your gift of any amount would be appreciated.

Donations to Even Field are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law.

National leadership speaker Marcus Jannitto in a Peer Into Character conversation with Even Field’s Chuck Wilson. (© Even Field)

This Peer Into Character® episode

Written and Produced by…Chuck Wilson
Post-production editing by Chris Gemma
Music by Daniel Belardinelli licensed through PremiumBeat.com
Theme music by MartynHarvey licensed through Pond5.com

Our thanks to Marcus Jannitto and to Professor Mike Davis and his Studio Production class at New England Institute of Technology for the recording of this interview. The recording took place at New England Tech’s East Greenwich, Rhode Island campus.

We also thank Even Field’s Board of Directors and the following, in particular, for their support of Even Field’s mission and this multimedia production.

Thomas J. Skala

The John and Jessica Pinkos Family Fund

And highly-regarded businesses in Rhode Island…

The Virtus Group, trusted advisors, led by Mark Cruise, providing an array of comprehensive financial planning services for families and businesses.

Epic Promotions — The Couto family has four decades of experience in printing, branding, and marketing. Thank you, Barry, Adam, and Keith.

Graphic Innovations – a New England leader in large-format printing, graphics, and vehicle wraps. Our thanks to Jim Larkin and his team.

Episode Quotes

(An unappreciated leadership trait is) “Edgy. Sharpening the edge of what you’re good at, not spending your time getting better at things you’ll never be great at. Your time is much better spent sharpening those edges that you have rather than dulling down and trying to be all things to all people.”  (6:35)

“As far as leadership goes, the higher you get up the more you’ll find that leaders surround themselves with people who are great at things that they’re not. That’s what makes them a great leader.” (8:12)

“You want to be able to point to a core value or one of your philosophies in every conversation that you have with a player.”  (27:30)

Episode Timeline

  • What is “intentional leadership” and why is it important? (4:24)
  • Six characteristics of great leaders that are seldom mentioned (5:00)
  • Focus on your strengths rather than on improving your weaknesses (6:35)
  • Why being deliberate is essential to effective leadership (8:43)
  • Leaders have to accept the difficult aspects of their job (9:12)
  • A leader has to be willing to make a mistake (10:45)
  • Train players on process for making and communicating decisions (11:26)
  • The relationship between good character and effective leadership? (12:15)
  • A leader’s ability to communicate their philosophy (12:46)
  • The team’s philosophy should be embedded in the team’s rules (14:43)
  • A story about applying team rules consistently, but differently (16:16)
  • The most important job of a team captain (18:12)
  • What is the role of empathy and compassion in leadership? (21:04)
  • Establishing a deliberate team culture (24:05)
  • Be deliberate in creating the team culture you want (25:09)
  • To avoid negative team behavior, be clear about expectations (26:26)
  • Paying “dues” and earning playing time (26:56)
  • Motivating players to develop a particular skill that helps the team (27:56)
  • What does competitive integrity mean to you? (31:17) 
  • A story about placing competitive integrity ahead of winning (32:26)
  • Why Marcus Jannitto is a believer in Even Field (34:28)
National leadership speaker Marcus Jannitto joins Even Field’s Chuck Wilson to discuss the importance of “Intentional Leadership”. (© Even Field)

Episode Transcript

Our focus today is on Leadership. Our guest is Marcus Jannitto, a long-time military leader, high school coach, and national leadership speaker:

  • Brigadier General, USAF (retired); 38-years in the Air National Guard.
  • Veteran of Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and the peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia, with more than 5,000 flying hours and fifty combat missions flown.
  • Served as Director of the Commanders Development Course at the Pentagon
  • Coached high school volleyball and soccer, both boys’ and girls’ teams
  • College coach and administrator
  • High school game official in multiple sports

Marcus is an advisor for Even Field® and has been a speaker at our presentations to student-athletes and adults. He is a friend and mentor.

As the conversation began, Chuck Wilson asked General Jannitto how we should think about leadership.


Interviewee: Marcus Jannitto
Interviewer: Chuck Wilson

Marcus Jannitto: When I think of leadership, I think it’s more about the how than the what, and I’ll give you a great example. 

A good friend of mine, Lieutenant General Mike Dubie, former Adjutant General of Vermont, now retired, but most recently the Deputy Commander of NORAD NORTHCOM, told me a story. 

Now, NORAD NORTHCOM was, as you imagine, out in Colorado Springs. NORAD NORTHCOM was charged with defense of the skies over all of North America, so Mike was the guy if they saw an airliner going off-course and they couldn’t talk to it, he would scramble the fighters to escort it. If it was still off-course, and not responding or looked hostile, he was the one that would give the order to shoot that airliner and the civilian occupants down. So, very high-level in the US Air Force, and a terrific leader.

And so, General Dubie was telling me one day. He said, I was at Balad, this was about 2004. He was a commander at Balad Air Base about 60 miles north of Baghdad. And he said, “My boss came to me and said, ‘Mike, I need you to go to Baghdad’. He said, “Okay, sir. When?” ‘Tomorrow morning.’ He said, “Okay.” He said, ‘No, I need you to pack your bags, and go to Baghdad.’ He goes, “Okay, sir. What’s going on?” He said, ‘Well, we had some toxic leadership, and I need you to take over the command in Baghdad.’

And Mike said, “Okay.” He said, ‘But I’ll talk to you more about it in the morning.’ 

Aircraft leaves at 0700, so Mike has his bags out on the ramp about 6:15. No boss. 6:30. No boss. The two helicopters are there. One’s starting to spin up about 6:45. Finally, about five minutes of 7:00 he’s getting ready to drag his bags out to the helicopter, and his boss comes out and says, ‘Mike, good luck.’ He said, “Well sir, I thought we’d have a chance to talk a little bit.” He said, ‘Well, I just need you to do one thing. I need you to go down there and be a Colonel. That’s all. Just be a Colonel.’

So, he said, “Yes sir.” Gets on the helicopter and he’s flying down to Baghdad. I said, “What were you thinking, you know, going into the situation with not a lot of information?” He said, “Marcus, I was calm.” I said, “That’s interesting.” I said, “What do you mean you were calm?” He said, “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew exactly how I was going to do it.” 

So, when we talk about leadership, or you and Even Field ® talk about how you play that matters and character, this is what we’re talking about, the essence of leader, I think, is the “how” for great leaders and great leadership.

Chuck Wilson: Let’s talk about intentional leadership. This is really big to you. What is “intentional leadership” and why is it so important?

Marcus Jannitto: Well, it brings in that thinking piece, that everything you do as a leader is intentional. Of course, you’re surrounded by crowds of witnesses to everything that you’re doing, right, but all the more reason to be deliberate and intentional in how you lead. 

I often get a chance to sit with groups of people, whether it’s high school kids, middle school kids, athletes, team captains, or adult senior C-Suite, high-level civilian leaders in their organizations, and we talk about and brainstorm, characteristics of great leaders.

You know, of the leaders in your life, what made them great? What would you emulate? What are the characteristics and things about them?  And, when we do that, all sorts of things come up. You can guess 15 of them right off the top of the bat. Honesty, good communicator, strategic viewpoint, but there were six (characteristics of leaders) that never came up.

One of those was deliberate. One was risky. You know, I would always tell my high school volleyball players, “Play like it’s the last game of the season. There’s nothing holding back. Let’s go out there and risk.” High-risk team. We want people to say, “I hate playing La Salle because they’re always hanging it out there, and they’re playing hard.”

And so, great leaders are risky. The higher you get in leadership, people take less risk. They build their career on being this entrepreneur, or this great coach, or this good leader because they’re risking things and great reward comes with greater risk, but as they end up higher and higher in their chain of command or in their organization, they risk less because more is at stake now.

So, we always talk to people about continuing to be risky. Not crazy risky, but continuing to have that risk aspect. 

“With any good leader, you see them doing the hard things. The best leaders do the hard things first and never shy away from them.”

Pursuit. Great leaders pursue being great leaders, but nobody mentions that idea of pursuit. 

Discernment.  Great leaders can take that razor edge and discern what things about somebody that they need to address that day, or that they need to cultivate or what are the talents in any particular person. So, discernment would be one of those.

Edgy. Sharpening the edge of what you’re good at, not spending your time getting better at the things you’ll never be great at. Your time is much better spent sharpening those edges that you have rather than dulling down and trying to be all things to all people. Sharpening edges of what you’re naturally great at, where your wheelhouse lies, and that’s when we see great leaders becoming great in the things that they’re naturally good at. 

Chuck Wilson: That somewhat flies in the face of a lot of what we think about, and that is, “Well, you’re good at this, but you need to work on these weaknesses.” But you’re saying, “Hey, we’re looking too much past the things that you’re really good at, and we’re not accentuating and really building on those strengths.”

National leadership speaker Marcus Jannitto joins Even Field’s Chuck Wilson to discuss leadership traits that seldom are mentioned. (© Even Field)

Marcus Jannitto: Correct. If you told any great quarterback that they have to be a better lineman, or they have to be a better receiver, or they have to learn to kick the ball from 40 yards out and come close to making a field goal, they’re going to look at you like you have two heads.

(Laughing) “I’m not good at that. I’m good at seeing a thousand things. I’m good at thinking ahead. I’m good at thinking on the fly. I’m good at throwing the ball and avoiding somebody close to me and looking 60 yards down the field to find a space where somebody’s going to be in three seconds when the ball gets there. That’s what I’m good at.” That’s what I’m going to work on. I’m going to become great at that because that’s just a natural talent that I have.

We see that with musicians. You know you don’t see the first chair violinist of the Rhode Island Philharmonic trying to be the first trombone player because it’s not what they’re good at.  

As far as leadership goes, the higher you go up, the more you’ll find that leaders surround themselves with people who are great at things that they’re not. That’s what makes them a great leader. 

When you talk about a leadership team, when you talk about a command team in the military, you’re bringing together people who are great at things that you’re not.  

Chuck Wilson: Clarity, being precise, and being deliberate. It’s all about preparation. Where does preparation fit in to being a leader?

Marcus Jannitto: Well, deliberate says it all. You know we look at all these traits of leadership, deliberate is one of those umbrella traits because if you say “I’m a good communicator,” unless you’re deliberate about how you communicate, about writing personal notes, about talking to people, about sending emails backed up by text message, backed up by eyeball to eyeball talking with someone, you have to be deliberate.

Chuck Wilson: “Willingness” is on your list. Why?

Marcus Jannitto: Yes. Great leaders have to be willing to do the hard stuff. 

You know, there’s a lot of hard stuff that goes with leadership. We tend to think of only the good things, and only the easy things. Well, leadership is simple, but it’s never easy. There are hard conversations that come with leadership, with being a great leader. 

With any good leader, you see them doing the hard things. The best leaders do the hard things first and never shy away from them.

We talk about having hard conversations, and I said, “Let me tell you a hard conversation because yours isn’t so hard.” ‘Well no, I have to tell somebody that they’re not doing a good job at work.’ I said, “Let me tell you something, we have to knock on somebody’s door, and tell them their son or daughter died in service of their country. That’s a hard conversation. When you are sitting down with someone, and telling them they can no longer work for you, or turn wrenches, or fly an airplane because they have a problem with a disease called alcoholism, that’s a hard conversation. When their wife comes to you and said,” ‘You’ve worked with my husband all these years, how can you fire him?’ I said, “That’s the only way he’s going to get the help that he needs to get healthy.”

Those are hard conversations and when you put on that role of being a leader, you have to be willing to accept those types of hard things that come with the job.

Chuck Wilson: In his book, Sailing True North, James Stavridis talked about 10 different admirals, and also his own stories. One of the key components he believes is decisiveness. Being willing to make that decision based on your best judgment at the time. 

Marcus Jannitto: Or, to be willing to make a mistake. Listen, we never have all the information we want when we make a decision. As a coach, you never have all the information on the other team you need, but you’re making key decisions throughout a game, throughout a match. Who you’re going to play, how you’re going to play, what’s going to be your words to the players at that time at any given moment, right? 

And so, nothing worse than an indecisive coach or an indecisive leader. 

‘Coach, where do you want me to serve the ball?’ “Serve to number six.”  ‘Oh, okay, I’ll serve to number six.’ Instead of looking at me and saying, ‘Coach, where do you want me to serve the ball?’  “I don’t care.” Now, they have five seconds to decide. 

This is about being deliberate, right?  You want them to go through, let’s say volleyball serving, right?  So, you want them to go through a thought process. 

What’s my best serve? What’s the score? There are five or six key things that go into this, what we call “pre-thought”.  

They’re going up to serve the ball, right? Now they have five seconds. Look for me if you need me, but here are the things I want you to do, and again, deliberately teaching them those things, and then how are we going to communicate what I want you to do? If you don’t look at me, I’m thinking that you are good to go, and you have already done that. If you’re looking at me, I’m thinking that you were concentrating on other things, and I’ll give you some guidance. So again, this idea of deliberate and decisive all comes into play as a coach.

Chuck Wilson: What is the relationship between good character and effective leadership?

Long-time military leader and H.S. coach Marcus Jannitto talks about the relationship between character and effective leadership. (© Even Field)

Marcus Jannitto: (Laughs) I think it’s everything. You know, just like you do with Even Field ®, right? Character is it. You know, when we look at these traits of great leaders, you know it’s all about how you do it, and that’s where your character comes in, right? How do you treat people? You know, my wife would say to me, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it that got me angry with something.” And so, I have to always be thinking of how I’m coming across.

And, I think the other aspect of character is this idea of philosophy. What drives you? Different things drive different leaders, but leaders have philosophies about what they believe about how they lead. 

I always tell leaders, “Do people know your philosophy on being late? Do people know your philosophy on work ethic? Do people know what you believe?”  I love the “I believe” statements. Writing out some “I believe” statements.

I think for new coaches, if you haven’t done that, you need to do that because when parents release their sons or daughters to your oversight for two or three hours a day, as I tell parents, “Listen, I’m going to have more face-to-face interaction on the good, the bad, and the ugly, with your son or daughter than you will in the next three months, so you need to know what I believe because I’m going to be in your son or daughter’s face about all sorts of things, and they’re going to be pulling a lot of what I believe into their own lives, and into their own play. 

So, I would tell new coaches, “Write down what you believe. What do you believe about hard work? What do you believe about playing until the end, and what’s important? What are your core values and how do those come out? How do you prioritize things?  What are our priorities?” 

I know at La Salle, okay Catholic school — God first, family, academics, volleyball. 

“Well coach, you know I’ve got to go away with my family, and I want to talk to you about it.” “Why do you want to talk to me? It’s easy. Where’s it fall?” “Well, family is above volleyball.” “Okay then, then that’s fine. Thanks for letting me know. The earlier you let me know the better, but I have no problem with that because that’s our philosophy.” And so, they need to know how you think. They need to know what you believe, and I think that philosophy comes out in your character.

Chuck Wilson: Tell me about team rules, and the way you apply those rules.

Marcus Jannitto: (Laughs) Love team rules. Military discipline, it’s all about rules. It’s all about the rule book.  Good coaching’s all about the rule book. 

I think team rules are great for a lot of different reasons. The more we set up guidelines, and guard rails for our players, the easier it is when things happen, that they know the ramifications or they know how you’re going to act towards them, right? 

With properly set up team rules, somebody violates a rule, and you say, “Okay, well, the sanction is this, just go ahead and do it,” and there’s no malice. There’s no anger, right?

The philosophy thing is important in the team rules because your philosophy sets this guiding line through each day. And when you find players coming in one day way up here, one day way down there, the coach’s philosophy can cut through in an even way through those different situations or that baggage that they drag into the court. Even though we tell them, “Leave all your life’s baggage outside of the gym,” it comes in. And I think team rules help coaches effectively deal with those especially when having a philosophy embedded in those rules.

“When I talk to team captains…their one job, their biggest job I would always tell them – “Reduce team drama.”

Chuck Wilson: The “why” is so important, and you’ve got a story you can share of applying rules, but applying them according to your philosophy, not just by the actual words on a piece of paper.

Marcus Jannitto: Sure. Sure. Now our team rule was, “Hey listen, let me know when you’re going to be late. If you don’t talk to me, it’s going to be one lap around all three courts for every minute you’re late” because high school kids are stopping in the hall, talking to their boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever, and showing up and they’re not ready to play. So you need something in the team rules.

And so, Marsha comes in 15 minutes late, and the team’s out there running a drill, and she says, “Hey coach. Sorry, I’m late.” I look at my watch and say, “Marsha, 15 minutes, but no problem. Warm-up, jump in.”  Julie shows up 17 minutes late, and she goes, “Hey coach, sorry I’m late.” I said, “Julie, 17 minutes. 17 laps.” 

As a new coach with a new team,  they’re going to look at me going, how come one person gets treated well? How come the other person doesn’t get treated well?”

For somebody who’s been working with you as a coach for a while, they’re going to know, “Oh yeah, well that totally makes sense. I want to hear this story”, right? There’s always the rest of the story and I would always encourage any coaches or anybody when we talk about leadership to find out the rest of the story.

Well, the rest of the story here was that Marsha’s dad had a car accident and was in the hospital, and she said, “Coach, after school my mom’s picking me up, I’m going to see my dad in the hospital. I’ll be a little bit late for practice.” No problem. 

Julie’s math teacher came to me that day and said, “Coach, one of your volleyball players was cheating on a test. I’m going to keep her behind, so you may not see her at all this afternoon, but, I’m going to find out why.” (Julie) never called me, of course.

So, you can keep this even philosophy enforced by some rules and guidelines that you set up, and that allows you to treat people consistently, but differently, according to their situation, what’s going on in their life, and who they are as a person.

Chuck Wilson: Tell us about team captains. What do you look for in a team captain?

Long-time military leader and high school coach Marcus Jannitto talks about the number 1 job of team captains. (© Even Field)

Marcus Jannitto: When I talk to team captains, high school level, and even college level to some extent, their one job, their biggest job, I would always tell them, “Reduce team drama.” If you can intercede before I know about it, all the better because coaches all the time, we’re our own biggest enemy. 

The less you fight the internal turbulence in a team, the more you can apply all of your weight and talents to the fight against other teams, as you compete.  

So, for team captains, I’m not in the dorm. I’m not in school with them. I’m not out with their friends on a weekend. But, team captainship, this peer leadership thing, Chuck, is so hard. You talk about preparing young leaders for doing the difficult things, for taking on that mantle of responsibility, man that peer leadership piece is hard.  

And, they have to be ready to intercede or have those hard conversations with peers, with their fellow teammates because they see what’s going on, you know, and have to be ready to engage their teammate and say, “Listen, you know the team rule. If you get caught, you’re going to be off the team. If you get caught going to that party, and with what was going on there, you’re going to be off the team. Make a good decision. Don’t do this. Don’t put me in this position. I’m telling you, this isn’t good for you, it’s not good for me, it’s not good for the team, and we need you.”

Your job as a team captain is to reduce team drama.  

“Coach, we need to take 20 minutes because we need to have a conversation. If you could come back, leave the gym, and come back in 20 minutes…that’s a great captain! I love those people when they do that.

And I would say, “I would gladly leave the gym,” come back and it’s a different team. It’s like taking the whole team behind the woodshed and they come out and they settle it. You know, that’s what great captains do, and I think when I talk to kids, and team players about being a captain, I bring up those examples. And, you need to be ready to do that.

Chuck Wilson: You’ve had situations in which captains have come to you with something serious. That’s important, but it’s that line what do you need to know, and what don’t you need to know?

Marcus Jannitto: The line for me is pretty clear. Anything that affects your play I need to know.  And sometimes all I need to know is something’s going on. “Coach, something’s going on with Jim.” “Okay. What it is?” “Well, I’m not sure you want to know.” I said, “If it’s going to significantly affect their play, if I can make something better, if I can make a difference, I want to know. If you can handle it, or they’re able to handle it, or they have the help they need, I don’t need to know.

There’s a very clear line there with what they would want to tell me and what that situation would be where I would have them share some of that information with me.

Chuck Wilson: What is the role of empathy and compassion in leadership?

Marcus Jannitto: When we think of emotional intelligence, like four or five aspects depending on who you talk to about emotional intelligence, one of those is empathy. Leaders with high empathy as part of their EQ, their Emotional Intelligence Quotient, are extraordinary entrepreneurs, very successful. But, it’s that one piece that really makes them successful.  

Empathy, being able to put themselves in other people’s shoes, whether it’s their own subordinates, people who work for them, whether it’s their peers, whether it’s their boss, being able to communicate with their boss, people with high empathy are people that are most successful.

And, this compassion piece is just as important.

Nothing like a kid coming in scared that you’re going to come down hard on them, and say, “Look, we all make mistakes.” They walk away going, “Whew.” 

So, mercy kind of goes with that compassion piece. I think it should always be a tool in your toolbox.

Chuck Wilson: Trust is fundamental to leadership. It seems to me that empathy and compassion are ingredients that you need in order to build trust. What have you found through the military, through coaching, through administration, through being an official, what have you found about building trust? 

National Leadership speaker Marcus Jannitto joins Even Field’s Chuck Wilson to talk about building trust. (© Even Field)

Marcus Jannitto: Trust is pretty much everything. People always mention trust when they talk about the traits of a great leader. Somebody you can trust. 

Different levels of trust though, and I think we have to understand that there are there’s a certain level of trust, more of a superficial level because we’ve known each other for a long time, because I respect you and you respect me, I trust you. You know, I would leave my wallet around you. You have what I would call just this normal superficial level of trust.

Then, you’ve got this deeper level of trust that really is reserved for those teams that have gone through something hard together. You see this on TV all the time, whether it’s one of their teammates going through cancer treatment or the loss of an assistant coach, or something like that. 

Great movies talk about this level of trust. Guys that I fly with in combat. One of the highest compliments you can pay somebody is, “I’ll go fly with him anytime in combat,” right? 

And so, this level of trust…Going through those hard, deeper things creates this bedrock, not this superficial, but this real bedrock solid foundation of a deep level of trust, essential for great, great teams to really come into their own potential.

“You want to be able to point to a core value or one of your philosophies in every conversation that you have with a player.”

Chuck Wilson: We talk so much about team culture, about group culture. What are the similarities, and what differences are there, from the military that you’re so familiar with and youth sports?

Marcus Jannitto: Creating the right team culture is terrifically important and new coaches miss the importance of that. Culture is established by the coach’s character, by some of the things we talked about. What are the core values of the team? Same as in a business, same as in the military. What are your core values? What’s the mission? What are you out there to do? Why are you doing it?  

Are you out there to defend our country, then what are your core values? Air Force, “Excellence in All We Do”, for example. Knowing those core values, establishing those core values creates this culture, the leadership creates this culture.  

Culture’s an interesting thing, you know. It’s three to five years to establish a different team culture. 

I remember when I was hired into one coaching job they said, “I need you to change the culture of this volleyball team.” “Okay. Not going to happen overnight.” He goes, “I know.” I said, “Okay.”

And so we started, but we started by laying down hard and fast rules.

What are our core values? Sitting down with the players to determine what the core values are. What’s our mission? What’s our vision for the end of the season? What’s our vision for three, four, and five years from now so the freshman can catch that excitement, and say, “This is where the coach is taking us,” and painting that crystal clear vision of where the organization or where the team’s going, and how it’s going to get there.

You start with the end in mind. 

For coaches, where would I want to be three years from now? Where do I want to be at the end of the season, mid-season? What are our goals for this week? How does that translate to today in this drill right now? 

So, establishing this idea of a deliberate team culture. How you do things, why character is important, what we believe about things. That’s all part of this team culture, and it’s all part of that conversation.

Chuck Wilson: We really urge youth coaches to talk about hazing, about bullying. Culture issues that can come up on a team in which the upperclassmen look down on the freshmen, sometimes sophomores as well, who make the team. What is your thinking about coaches being really deliberate about bringing up some of these issues and making it crystal clear as to where you stand on them?

Marcus Jannitto: Set them down. I like the idea of the team handbook. You know, having all these things in there. 

Here’s the coach’s philosophy for the parents and for the players to know what you believe, but here’s the team philosophy. And, one of the things on our team philosophy at La Salle was everybody sets up, everybody breaks down. That’s simple, right? We’ll all stay until it’s done. We’ll all set the nets up at the beginning of practice. You know, it’s not freshmen or it’s not this group or that group.

“I would tell them “be better at one thing”. If you can be better than anybody on the team at that one thing, you’ll play.”

However, you have to understand that there are “dues” to be paid too.  

The idea of dues is an interesting one for coaches because, okay, so if you say everybody does this and everybody does that, but now freshmen have to earn a spot on the team. 

Earning, you know that can be confusing, so you have to be really clear in how you explain the idea of being on the team long enough to earn respect, to earn a position, to challenge somebody for a starting slot, right? And how that works.

That hard work works every time. Maybe that’s part of your philosophy, You want to be able to point to a core value or one of your philosophies in every conversation that you have with a player. 

Long-time military leader and high school coach Marcus Jannitto talks about clearly communicating team philosophy. (© Even Field)

So, a freshman says, “Coach, I think I deserve more playing time.” Okay, let’s look at what we believe about this. “Why do you think you earned that slot?” “Well, I think I’m better than this player, and they aren’t performing.”

Here are some of the things you need to work on before you will take their starting position.”

I would tell them “be better at one thing”. If you can be better than anybody on the team at that one thing, you’ll play.  And then, if you play a little bit doing that one thing, let’s say it’s a topspin serve. If you’re best on the team at a topspin serve, you’re going to go in for somebody because they’re a weak server and serve for them. Then, you’re going to come out, but you know what? After you serve, you’re going to have to play in that volley, and so that’s your chance. So, show yourself, be able to play, learn those defensive skills, those back-row skills, learn to jump and swing from the back row. You get that opportunity. “Okay, maybe I’ll play them all the way across the back row now because they’re getting better and better.”

So, I would always say, “What’s the one thing that you can be better than anybody else on the team at?” “Playing defense in that left three feet of the court.” “Okay, then I need you over there. You’re the best over there. I need you to go in because they keep hitting that spot. I need you to dig that ball. You’re better than anybody.” “Okay coach. All right.” “Just do that one thing. That’s your job. Do your job.” That would be part of our philosophy that they will play if they’re better than anybody at one particular small or big aspect of the game.

Chuck Wilson: That is really motivational. It’s simple. There’s clarity to it. You know, that ought to put a spur under somebody.

Marcus Jannitto: It’s achievable, right?  It’s achievable for even the young kids. You’ll see them now come in and practice. “Just keep hitting me a ball on that left side of the court.” They’re setting up themselves for success without you even going in, right, and so it’s a fun thing to watch and one of the rewards of coaching.

Chuck Wilson: One of the stories that you’ve told has to do with team captains taking it upon themselves to take on an individual’s transgression, and make it kind of a team situation.

Marcus Jannitto: So, Cal Butler was one of our team leaders. He was the Rhode Island D-1 Player of the Year in 2016, his senior year. Went on to play Division 1 volleyball. Cal would always be the guy that when somebody was the last one in a sprint or a relay or something, he would be the guy that would always be egging on the last guy because he knew the importance of the weakest link in the chain of a team, right.  But, he would be the one that would rally everybody around the last person. 

“Hey, if he has to run, we all have to run. Coach, if you’re going to make him run laps, we’re all going to run.” “Okay. All right.” So, the whole team runs instead of just one person because they did something wrong, and so he was big on this team thing.

He would always be the first one to run with them, and then other people started catching that fever, and then the whole team would be doing it by the end of the season, which was a great thing to watch.

Chuck Wilson: Where do you think that came from?

Marcus Jannitto: With Cal, it wasn’t a conversation. Sometimes it’s a conversation you’ll have with your team leaders. Sometimes it’s something that came from their freshman year, and they saw it and they liked it. 

I think with Cal it came from inside. It came from his character, but it came also from his intense drive for the team to be great.

Chuck Wilson: What does competitive integrity mean to you?

Marcus Jannitto: It’s an interesting combination of terms…When I talk about integrity, you have this normal view of the person you are behind the scenes is the same person you are in front of everybody, that piece of leadership that people talk about. But I like to talk about integrity as the structural integrity of an airplane.

When we think of an airplane falling out of the sky because a wing came off, or some structural member failed on that airplane, the airplane doesn’t fly anymore. So, when we talk about competitive integrity or team integrity, I talk about it in terms of the structural integrity of a complicated mechanism, like an airplane.   

What does that mean for a team? What does that mean for a group of people in the business world? Cal Butler. When one member starts to fail or fall behind, it’s important for the rest of the team to bring him up to the level of everybody so they maintain structural integrity. Not losing a player to doing stupid things. 

When I talk about integrity or competitive integrity, that’s what I talk about.  This structural integrity of this group of people, all holding each other together, and nobody letting go.

“The opponents scored a goal and the referee didn’t see it.”

Chuck Wilson: The challenge to integrity, of course, is adhering to your principles when you know it’s going to cost you something that you want. That’s hard.

Marcus Jannitto: It is hard. (laughs) So, I remember, I was coaching college soccer, an indoor soccer tournament, and it was our off-season, so we’d been practicing for this indoor tournament. And, we’re there. This one game we were playing would get us out of the pool of play, and put us into the first round of the playoffs in this one-day tournament. And our bench was positioned so that I could see the two edges of the goal. 

The opponents scored a goal and the referee didn’t see it. And I had to tell the referee that I saw it, it was clearly over the line. And, I could see my players had seen it too, but they’re not saying anything because they want to get out of pool play. It was the end of the game and we were tied. Had about two minutes left and I had to tell the referee. And some of our players got angry with me.

That’s what we’re talking about when we see those kinds of things. 

I remember my daughter was with me. I forgot where it was. It might have been Home Depot, and I was looking at a pack of bolts or something that I needed, and I was grabbing three or four things. I put them in my pocket, and I get outside, and I’m going, “Oh crap. I got these bolts. I didn’t pay for them.”

She said, “Dad, don’t worry about it. It’s like 97 cents.” I said, “No, got to go back in.” “Ugh, I’ve got to get home.” I said, “Come on, let’s go back in.” 

You pay the 97 cents, and you walk back out.  

None of us are perfect with that. But that’s the standard we want to set as leaders, that that we’re going to let people know when things happen. You’ve got to let people know and take the consequence, whether it’s losing a game or whatever it is. That integrity, and those kinds of things, count. 

Chuck Wilson: You’ve been a believer in Even Field®. You’ve spoken on our behalf. What is it about Even Field’s message that resonates? Why is it important what we’re trying to do?

Leadership speaker Marcus Jannitto talks about character and integrity with Even Field’s Chuck Wilson on Peer Into Character. (© Even Field)

Marcus Jannitto: I think this idea of character, this idea of how you play matters. 

So many coaches miss that. So many coaches get it. But, I think Even Field is helping the coaches explain that to their kids in a tangible way through your videos, through the high-level players that you have coming and talking to kids, through the messaging, through coach training, and player videos. All of the pieces for Even Field, you know, I just love it because they’re filling in these gaps. 

Coaches don’t have time to research this stuff. Coaches don’t have time. They have time to mention it, yeah. But your one-minute video on any aspect of those character pieces is tremendous for coaches because they can insert that anywhere. They can talk about them. They can look at the notes that you provide, and the guidance, and incorporate that into their messaging to the kids every day, which for any set of players, college-level or youth sports, has to be repeatable and it has to be consistent.

Chuck Wilson: Leave us with this. The whole concept of The Way You Win Matters ® is pretty simple. If you look at competition, the further up you go, the more that the differentiating aspects are not on the physical side, they’re on the mental side. There are the character traits that separate you because the further you advance in a sport, the narrower are the physical differences. 

And what coaches are looking for is, is this somebody that’s going to make my team better? Are they going to be resilient when the times get really tough? Are they going to represent our team, our college, our university, favorably, honorably, and so on?  What are your thoughts on that?

Marcus Jannitto: I think that that aspect beyond the X, beyond the O, beyond the tactics, this is now into the strategic piece.     

I would tell parents, “Volleyball is just a venue for making your boys and girls into young men and young women that are will be respected in society.” That’s all it is. You know, we can make it about a championship, or chasing a championship. You know, our goal was always to play championship-level volleyball. That’s our goal for the year. If we do that, we’ll have a greater chance of making it actually to the state championships and then see what happens. 

But, having that out there, that character piece, was just about the most important thing that we could do beyond the X and O. Having that higher level of conversation and having the kids understand that I’m here to make you a better person. We’ll do it by making you a better player. We’ll do it by having these repeated conversations, but volleyball or athletics, in general, is, as they always say, a microcosm of the real world. 

I’m more than happy to teach you some of those real-world lessons so that you don’t have to learn them later. Let’s learn them here on the court. Let’s figure it out here, so you can go and be successful when you leave this gym, when you leave this court, when you leave this school.


That’s Marcus Jannitto — Brigadier General, USAF (retired), war veteran and national leadership speaker, a long-time coach, administrator, and game official in high school and college sports, with valuable insight and perspective on leadership

Our thanks to Marcus Jannitto – a friend and mentor.

Chuck Wilson on Sports™ and our Peer Into Character® conversations are a presentation of Even Field® cultivating integrity, life skills and leadership, through sports.

If you enjoyed this program, please like us on Facebook and let us know who you would like to see us interview in future weeks. And, if you are in a position to support us — a donation of any amount, big or small, would be greatly appreciated. 

Even Field is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Donations to Even Field are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law. 

Leave a Comment