Adapting to Unpredictability


Matt McMahon likes order. Predictability and precision give him comfort. Then, Ja Morant walked into his life. The LSU head coach, McMahon, was in his third year at Murray State when Morant arrived on campus. In two years’ time, Morant would turn McMahon’s preferred order into delightful and successful chaos. Together, they’d lead the Racers to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, with his success at Murray ultimately catapulting McMahon into the bigger job at LSU.

What was a true partnership should have, at least on its surface, been a disaster. Morant is everything McMahon is not - a freewheeling extrovert who plays basketball with innovation and creativity and relies as much on his gut as a gameplan. Yet the two found that opposites can, in fact, not only attract; they can work together really well. “He made me a better coach,’’ McMahon says.

McMahon has thought back on his relationship with Morant a lot lately. McMahon recently started using Profile with his LSU staff , players, and recruits. He’s found the assessment tools to be a game changer as he tries to rebuild the Tigers’ program almost entirely from scratch. Yet as he sits in one-on-one interviews with his current players or reads through the 40 pages of documents detailing his players’ core values and motivators, he realizes that Profile has reaffirmed some of the lessons that working with Morant already taught him. Namely, that people who seem entirely different from one another oft en share more traits than they realize, that fi nding a good fi t isn’t necessarily about fi nding people who think just like you, and fi nally, that people can still surprise you.

It is not every day that a coach gets to work with a generational player, and even more rare at a school such as Murray State, which competes far away from the bright lights of the power schools. McMahon automatically saw that Morant wanted the same thing as he did - to win - and was every bit as driven and competitive about getting there. He just came at it from a completely different angle. McMahon quickly realized it was up to him to meet his player where he was instead of trying to force him into McMahon’s way of doing things. “I wanted him to play loose, confident, and free of the fear of failure,’’ McMahon says. “But for me, as someone who wants everything executed perfectly every time, well, you have to be willing to let go of some of that.’’ Morant, of course, made letting go easy. He might turn the ball over four times a game, but he would also score 20 and dish out 12 assists.

Yet McMahon now realizes that as he rebuilds LSU, the same rules must apply to his current players. They may not have the same otherworldly skill set as Morant, but as a coach, McMahon has to offer them the same freedoms to be who they are - so long as it’s in the context of his greater team vision. That’s not always easy, and Profi le’s self-evaluation skills have reminded McMahon of that. “I’m a perfectionist, and not everyone is wired the same way,’’ he says. “So I have to take a pause and remember that while the attention to detail is incredibly important to me, it might not be to someone else. I have to respect that we’re different and fi nd the best way to model the leadership I want in our program.’’

Because Morant offered a completely different personality perspective, McMahon also grew to understand that different viewpoints were, in fact, healthy. The college basketball buzzwords of “fit” and “culture,’’ inherently imply a very top-down model.

The fit and the culture both feed back to the head coach, and that’s very true to an extent. Part of what attracted McMahon to Profile, when respected coaching colleagues suggested he look into it, was the idea that it could help identify people who suited him. But he also knows firsthand, thanks to Morant, that a bunch of yes men and yes women isn’t the answer. Morant wasn’t afraid to push back or disagree if he believed his head coach didn’t adequately explain a drill or wasn’t properly prepared for a meeting. It was not comfortable for a man who likes discipline and order. It was, however, necessary. “If you went into that meeting room and you didn’t know what you were talking about, he’d see right through it,’’ McMahon says. “The way he thinks is different than me, but it made me prepare even more. It made my attention to detail even greater because I knew he’d call me out on it.’’

Morant established the culture at Murray State as much as McMahon, shaping the coach’s tenets into something definable and recognizable. McMahon wants the same at LSU. He wants his players to take the fi ve principles he wants his team to live by - hard work, accountability, joy, unselfishness, and toughness - and make them their own.

Yet perhaps the most important thing McMahon learned from Morant is to dig beyond what you perceive a person to be. Morant is what people see on SportsCenter highlights - a player capable of making jaw-dropping plays that take your breath away. But McMahon also sees a player whose basketball IQ might actually eclipse his talent. He saw it in those meeting rooms and at practice when Morant saw through people who pretended to know what they were talking about. He also saw it in his style of play and how his decision-making skills elevated everyone’s play around him. The team at Murray State was better because of how Morant saw the game. “He’s a genius,’’ McMahon says simply.

He’s using those same skill sets to dig deeper into who his LSU players are. Among the things McMahon has found the most useful from working with Profile is their ability to consider a person’s adaptive scores. It’s opened his mind to a better understanding that how a person is in one setting is not necessarily how they will perform in another. Like Morant, his players have more layers than meets the eye, and it’s up to McMahon as their coach to understand that.

At LSU, McMahon quite literally started from scratch. All 11 scholarship players entered the portal, leaving him a bare cupboard and little time to fill it. Profile is far from a shortcut, but it has helped McMahon streamline his understanding of his team. “You see how people are different in different moments, and I never would have known that without the assessments,’’ he says. “All of that opens up the conversations, the building of trust in our relationships, and gives me a better insight into how I can reach them in a more effective way.’’

Maybe most importantly, Profile has allowed McMahon to partner the lessons he learned as Ja Morant’s coach with the knowledge he’s gained from the assessments and make himself an even more effective coach. When Chad Brown, CEO of Profile, met with McMahon and the LSU staff , one of Brown’s throwaway lines stuck with the coach. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Brown said. That’s essentially the same guiding principle McMahon used to coach Morant. He let things go and reaped the rewards for the effort. “That simple phrase has been really impactful to me,’’ McMahon said. “There are some things that are non-negotiable, but I also understand that things that don’t impact winning, you have to be willing to let them go and move on to more important things. I’m getting better at that.’’