Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was asked to speak to the VCU basketball coaches about leadership. But during the meeting, he did some learning of his own.
During a Zoom call this spring, Stefanski chatted with Mike Rhoades and company about the challenge of getting teammates to bond with each other and create friendships, instead of retreating to their cell phones at every moment of the day.
“It’s something we think about a lot,” Stefanski said. “It was doubly hard in the spring, because we weren’t together, we were on Zoom calls for hours on end.”
Rhoades told him about an activity VCU does among its team referred to as the “Four H’s.” Players and coaches get in front of the group and discuss their history, heroes, heartbreak and hopes.
The intent is for the players and coaches to get to know each other, and provide connection points they can use going forward.
“I think part of being an athlete is you’re supposed to be strong and you have this unbelievable armor up, and nothing affects you,” Rhoades said. “I think this is so positive. It allows to see that we’re all vulnerable and we all have a story. And let’s share our story with each other.”
Stefanski liked it, and he adopted it during the Browns’ meetings this spring. He said it was stunning how quickly teammates opened up to each other and shared parts of their life nobody knew about.
“I was able to learn things about people I probably would not talk to that much,” Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt told the Akron Beacon Journal. “That was a good way to do it. It brought us closer together as a team.”
The initial meeting between the staffs was arranged by VCU’s director of basketball operations, Jimmy Martelli, who played high school basketball with Stefanski in Philadelphia (Martelli’s dad was a legendary coach at Saint Joseph’s).
Rhoades is also from Pennsylvania, though his hometown is further north, in the rural area of the state.
It’s not unusual for coaching staffs to meet up and share ideas during the offseason, but the basketball/football crossover is a unique one.
Stefanski credited that to Martelli reaching out.
“Having a friend in the sports business, you can always bounce ideas off each other, some thoughts on what works or what doesn’t with athletes, whether it’s coaching, messaging, whatever it may be,” Stefanski said.
Rhoades said he picked up the original idea from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi coach Willis Wilson at a clinic.
Rhoades said he traditionally does it during the season, often the night before a road game, when the team is at a hotel together.
“When one player talks about something that occurred in their life, positive or negative, and you’ve experienced that as well, that is a deeper association than just being a teammate,” Rhoades said. “And you never know that stuff unless you reveal it.
“Our coaches do it as well. So our players see all our coaches as well — they have the same dreams and heroes and heartbreaks as some of the players. And I think it just brings everybody a little bit closer together. It makes everyone a little more accepting of each other, and I just think it’s something that has been pretty powerful in our program.”