In our latest content series, our CEO and Co-Founder, Brendan Kamm, recently met with Mike Blaine, Head Men’s Basketball Coach at State University of New York College at Plattsburgh, to discuss why it’s important to implement an attitude of gratitude when managing or creating programs and initiatives. Listen to their conversation here!:
Editor’s Note: The transcript of their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Brendan Kamm: Hey guys. Thanks again for listening in. I am Brendan Kamm, Co-Founder and CEO of Thnks. I have a very, very special guest today, and I say that for two reasons. First, because it’s someone I’ve known for two decades now and has been a close friend of mine. But also someone who actually comes from outside of the business world, and has a little bit of a different background than what we usually talk to on the program. So, with that, Coach Michael Blaine, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background.
Michael Blaine: Great. Thanks Brendan. I’m really excited to be here. Appreciate the invitation. I am currently the Head Men’s Basketball Coach at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. I just got here in September, so just completed our first season at Plattsburgh State.
I had some previous stops along the way in my coaching and professional career. I started as the Director of Basketball Operations at James Madison University, Director of Basketball Operations at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and then stops as an Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach at Radford University, Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Cornell University, and then got my first Head Coaching position at Medaille College, a small NCAA division three school in Buffalo, New York, before coming to Plattsburgh State this past September.
Graduated from Johns Hopkins University, where you and I both had a chance to compete and play basketball for legendary Coach Bill Nelson. So a lot of twists and turns along the way, but excited to be with you guys on the program and really enjoy some of the content you guys have been generating.
Brendan: As you kind of went through the resume there, it’s a tough life sometimes being a coach, especially when you’re first getting started and working through the ranks.
A lot of it, the end effect of the gratitude and empathy that we talk about, is actually around building relationships. And it’s such an important thing in business. You know, we have these quick meetings where we have to quickly try to develop a relationship with someone. I would imagine for you, it’s been even harder between having to go to a lot of different places, meet a lot of different people, and now as a Head Coach recruiting—literally being in people’s homes—it’s a very personal thing.
What do you find is best in terms of building rapport and building relationships in those settings?
Michael: Well, I want to make sure that the people that I get a chance to meet and interact with on behalf of our program know just how much I appreciate their time and their effort and their energy.
Obviously we’re in a business of higher education and educating young people and helping them grow and develop. But you know, as we know, there are so many colleges and universities out there, just having an opportunity to represent Plattsburgh State or any of these other places, when your consumers, in this case, the student athletes have so many other choices, you have to let them know that you appreciate it.
You have to let those closest to them know how much you appreciate, the time and the energy and the effort it takes for them to visit a campus, to sit down and set up a home visit, or a meeting, just to talk with you after a game, because there’s so many other choices out there.
So you need to make sure that people that you’re engaging with know that your interest in them is genuine, and that your appreciation for their time when they have so many other options, is profound.
Brendan: You talked a lot about the on-campus visits and you’d go see them play. Obviously things have changed over the last few months. How are you staying connected with both members of your team, maybe prospective recruits, how are you leveraging that appreciation during these times where we don’t really have the chance to go see people in-person?
Michael: Yeah, we try to make sure that—the players in our program—I’m looking to touch base with them at least once a week. I try to personally, just send a text message, a Zoom, a phone call, a Tweet, something to let them know that, “I’m here, I’m on your side, whatever I can do to help.”
In terms of expression and appreciation, I try to make sure that the young men in our program know how much I appreciate the opportunity to have a chance to coach them, because it’s a difficult time right now.
So, for everyone, and certainly for college students, having that level of uncertainty with what’s going on with the virus right now, and then what the rest of their college career may look like, you want to make sure that they know, despite the uncertainty that they’re facing, how much they are appreciated by those closest to them, by those in their network, in their university and their family.
So I try to make sure that we remind the guys, “Hey, I know it’s hard right now, but we appreciate your efforts. We know that things are going to get better at some point in time for you.” And we’re going to be excited and grateful to get back on the court, to get back in the classroom, to get back on campus with the idea that there is a lower goal here, and we want to make sure we’re thankful for that opportunity to do that. I try to make sure that when we are on the floor, or we are together, I thank the guys for the work that they put in.
Being a college student athlete as you all know is very, very difficult. You’ve got your personal responsibilities, your academic responsibilities, athletic responsibilities as well, that are a large investment of time and talent.
That’s something I did a great job with early on in my career, and it’s something I’ve been really trying to make a better emphasis of as I’ve gotten more perspective, to thank the young men for the time and the effort, how hard they’re playing, how much work they’re putting in, on behalf of the program.
We try to make sure that we cap every interaction, player, recruit, whatever it is, with something that says, “Hey, you know what, thank you. I appreciate you. It means a lot to me that, you call back so quickly, that you sent me this thing that I asked you for, that you carve some time out of your own schedule to make sure that you connected with your teammates, to make sure that you built relationships that work towards establishing the foundation of our program.
Brendan: I love that. I don’t think we touched on not just the big ticket items of all the effort and the hard work and the practices, but the little things like the call back, right? It’s those day-to-day little things that if you’re, if you can show a little extra gratefulness for—frankly, why I was really excited to have you come on today. As I mentioned, I’ve known you for a very long time, and you’ve always been someone who’s put that idea of gratitude first.
I think that’s just served you so well, both in your career and in your family life as well. I’d be curious to hear about the other side of it. So you talked a lot about the ways you guys express gratitude, both yourself and your program to your student athletes. What’s the effect that you see on that? Do you see these guys, younger guys picking up on that? What’s the return you get on that?
Michael: I think that they do a great job. We want to establish that as the foundation of our program. We want to be so consistent with our gratitude, that it becomes ingrained in our program, that it becomes a part of the foundation of, you know, who we are, that we are going to be grateful, that we are going to be appreciative of others when they go out and do something for us or work towards our behalf.
As we’ve done that over time, I think that we’ve seen a longer stretch in our program when I was a Head Coach at Medaille and over, you know, three, four, or five years, we started to see the young men in our program going outside of themselves to show thankfulness to people that maybe even aren’t in our program, but do something on the side for us, do something to make sure that they get registered for the class properly, that they are able to stay in the residence hall that they’re looking for.
So, we try to make sure that the guys understand in our program that the more gratitude we show, the more we realize how many different people we have to be grateful to and thankful for. It’s not just about us. It’s never just about our team.
There’s so many people in a university community, in a place of higher learning, that you may not see day-to-day that have a big steak in your success and your ability to travel, your ability to be successful in the classroom, and really your whole life as a student athlete, that we want to make sure we’re grateful and we show thanks to as many of those people as possible.
Brendan: One thing I love about watching you coach is that even when you’re clearly not feeling the appreciation, you always still try to show it. So I’ve seen that, “Hey man, I appreciate that you’re hustling for me, but if you don’t start boxing out, you’re gonna be on the bench the rest of the game.” So you can do that appreciation sandwich to provide some constructive criticism as well.
Michael: We’re trying to do that as much as we can, as much as we critique, we do want to show praise and we do want to show gratitude for the best efforts—we want to be thankful for those efforts.
Sometimes we might want those efforts to be a little bit better than what they are, but we always want to be thankful for the bottom line of giving the effort that we’re asking you to do.
Brendan: No, it’s true. It’s easy to be grateful and have that attitude of gratitude when things are going well. It’s impressive when you can do it when things aren’t going the way you’re hoping that they go.
Michael: That’s something that we’ve found, over time, the more emphasis we put in gratitude in our program that when you have a 6:00 AM practice, when you get back at three o’clock in the morning and it’s snowing outside and you have to get your gear and get back to the dorm and then get up for class at eight o’clock the next morning, when you show gratitude or appreciation consistently throughout your program, when times are difficult, it becomes that much more easier to answer the bell, to put forth the effort to do the thing that is not easily done.
We try to tell the guys that we need to be grateful just because from an athletic standpoint, just the raw numbers of it, there’s only 4% of student athletes that get a chance to go on to play college athletics at any level. So we reinforce that all the time. It’s the fact that, “Hey, There’s a lot of people that would love to be doing what you’re doing right now, which is getting an education, being at a great campus community here in Plattsburgh, and having an opportunity to compete at a high level.”
I think the more and more we remind our student athletes of that, the more and more they realize, “Even though it might be tough right now, I’m still very, very fortunate.” I try to tell the guys that as much as I can.
From a coaching perspective, we certainly had a tough year in our first year of Plattsburgh. The results were probably not certainly what we had hoped. Certainly not what Plattsburgh had achieved historically as a program. I tried to make a point of emphasis, when I saw our guys giving maximum effort day-in and day-out, which is one thing that the group of young men we have this year—they were outstanding at giving their best and putting forward their best. I reminded them of how much I appreciated having the opportunity to coach them through such a difficult time. Because, as you said, it’s not easy to give your best when things are going against you, when you feel like you’re doing everything the right way and still not breaking your way.
So, I tried to remind them every single day how thankful I was to coach them, and how thankful I am to have an opportunity-there’s division one, division two, division three, there’s 1100 Head Men’s Basketball Coaches in the NCAA and the country. So out of however many basketball fans and coaches around the country, I get to be one of the chosen few that gets to be the head coach of an outstanding program. I’m always going to be grateful for that. I’m always going to be grateful for the young men I have a chance to interact with daily.
Brendan: That’s exactly what I was going to point out, which is, these guys playing on your team should be grateful. They’re one of the few who get a chance to do that, but there’s even less who get to the position that you’re in. So I’m glad to hear that.
It actually leads me to my next question, which is, what career advice could you give to someone who wants to do this, wants to become a coach, or maybe just a mentor or manager in their business, right? Doesn’t have to be a basketball coach, but to be that leader, what would you say is the most important thing?
Michael: The biggest thing that I would say that really, really stuck with me is “know your why.” Know why you’re in this profession. Know, “Why did you choose to become a coach? Why did you choose to apply for a managerial position? Why did you want to put yourself in a situation where you’re responsible for other people’s actions and the consequences of those actions?”
If you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and you can remind yourself of that “why” frequently, then again, when things become difficult, you have that constant reinforcement, you have that understanding.
For me, I got into coaching, obviously I love the game of basketball, but I had many coaches—youth coaches, high school, college coaches that I worked for—I had a lot of great people that I met in my life and helped shape my life through coaching.
As I considered what my opportunities might be professionally, I realized that coaching for me gave me an opportunity to hopefully have the kind of impact on some of the young people that other coaches had on me when I was growing up and developing as a young man. As coaches, we can have some type of impact personally, academically, athletically that makes a positive ripple effect in a young person’s life.
Very few people get to do that. So for me, that’s the “why” that I always cling to is even when it’s a tough day, even when you had a rough loss, you had a late night of travel—I’ve just completed my 17th year coaching college basketball—I’ve never had a bad day yet, basically because, I feel so fortunate to get a chance to do what I do every single day that I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Brendan: You know, we’re both going to be turning 40 years old. You’re basically sitting in a shower right now, talking to me—I’m in my parents’ spare bedroom. We’re both sitting here, smiling, laughing, and having a good time despite what the quarantining has done to us. So I love the optimism and the, “still being grateful” attitude.
Michael: As tough as it is, it’s still better than doing anything else I can imagine. That’s for sure.
Brendan: Can’t disagree with that. So listen, before we wrap up, we’ve got the rapid fire questions section here. I’m going to lob a few at you. This is just kind of quick answers and whatever comes to mind.
There’s no wrong answers. We’ll start with an easy one. So tell me an activity or hobby that you’ve picked up while you’ve been quarantining.
Michael: Learning how to operate the lawnmower. We just moved into a brand new house. We got a brand new lawnmower. I don’t think I’d mowed a lawn since I was 14 years old, basically.
So, figuring out all the different mulch settings and what’s our optimal level for grass cutting at home. My wife, Karen and I, are brand new homeowners in Plattsburgh and have a lovely lawn. We’d like to try to keep it that way. So I’m trying to figure out what I can do on my part to make sure that our front and back lawn are well-tended to and continue to provide our daughter, Erin, with a nice place to play.
Brendan: I actually brought my father to Lowe’s just last weekend to get a new lawnmower, because I think his was probably from when you were 14 as well. Tell me an athlete, or it doesn’t even have to be an athlete, maybe anyone within sports, a sports industry leader that more people should know about that people aren’t talking about.
Michael: I would say that one of the most powerful mentors I had professionally was the head coach at West Point when I was at army, Jim Cruz. Coach Cruz was a player on the 1976 Indiana National Championship team—the last team to go undefeated.
I was an assistant for the team that won the national championship in the early 80s with Isaiah Thomas, recruited a bunch of outstanding players for the team that wound up winning the national championship.
I learned so much from him, certainly from a basketball standpoint, obviously, but so much more from a personal standpoint of how to guide young men, of the way you want to carry yourself when things are not going your way, when you’re having challenges, when you’re having difficulties.
But the one thing that always really stuck by me is that Coach Cruz was the same coach and the same person. It’s really a testament to his character of who he is—what he’s about, that regardless of the success, the challenge of the failures, the triumphs, or whatever they are, he continued to emphasize doing the right thing every single day.
Coach Cruz was molding and mentoring guys in the best ways possible because he had the right plan and was the right type of person. But didn’t change anything about who he was regardless of circumstances. He’s a name that more coaches, more leaders, should really try to reach out to and connect to as much as they can.
Brendan: A caller question I have coming in from Steve Adams in Butler, Pennsylvania. He wants to know, did you steal that football fleet from the Dickinson locker room in 2001 after the game?
Michael: 100% frame job. I did not. That was a set up. I have yet to figure out who the actual miscreant was who would put something so nefarious into play. I maintain my innocence to this day.
Brendan: Very good. Michael, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate your time and please continue that attitude of gratitude. We love it.
Michael: I appreciate it, Brendan. Thanks very much for the time. I appreciate you guys having me on.
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