All too frequently our news feeds and gossip circles are filled with stories of athletes who have broken the rules. These stories often range from criminal behaviors and violence, to team infractions. Such instances often bring up conversations and philosophical stances on how punishment should be dealt so as to “teach a lesson” to the wrong-doer, as well as warn others to not cross such lines. These debates are typically based on emotional reasoning, and despite the harsh punishments that are levied, the instances continue to occur. But what if we changed the focus? Instead of reacting to provocative actions, what if a coach were to purposefully set up a culture of discipline?
Let’s first define “discipline”. Too often people use this term in reference to harsh reactions intended to be negative consequences for undesirable acts. The technical term for this is punishment, and typically includes things such as the restriction of playing time, demands for heightened physical activity (push-ups, running a lap…), or public shaming via fines or reprimands. But as noted above, these actions rarely correct the behavior, and they definitely don’t influence others or we would not have consistent instances of bad behaviors. Instead, athletes inclined to commit these acts only work harder to not get caught.
So what is discipline? It is the ability to self-monitor, self-correct, and self-direct behavior to meet a standard that will promote growth and accomplishment. Such athletes can recognize the choices they have with regard to behaviors on and off the field, and purposely choose to behave in a way that aligns with values connected to team and individual success.
In my experience, most coaches would prefer a culture of discipline as describe above, to one where they feel the need to monitor and punish. What I propose is taking actions that promote a disciplined culture by focusing on your style of communication, reframing playing time, and modeling what you expect from your team.
Developing a culture of discipline begins with communication. Too many times I see coaches who believe that being intimidating is the method most appropriate. They threaten, yell, belittle, or otherwise chastise athletes in a way that shames. However, this typically breeds contempt from your players. What works best is to define expectations with clarity, and to explain how proper behavior benefits the team and/or the individual. Think of it as guiding the horse, rather than fighting the horse down the path. This also prepares athletes with knowledge of how to respond when they find themselves in questionable situations without you around.
Admittedly, despite using the strategy above, you will find yourself in situations when an athlete has crossed the line. In these situations, defining the behavior as wrong is more powerful than telling the person he is wrong. This can be even more effective if you then provide guidance and expectations on how to correct for the wrong done to others. In short, provide an opportunity for the athlete to rebuild his sense of self and status. This will encourage proper behavior going forward, and a strong desire to commit to the team with a sense of humility.
Another strategy for developing discipline in players is to redefine how playing time is earned. Without a doubt, talent is valuable. But undisciplined talent is dangerous and unreliable. A coach who defines expectations of behavior, execution, and commitment as ways to build credibility and playing time will motivate discipline in athletes. Players will seek to earn opportunity, rather than worry about losing status. (Refer to my previous entry on Aug 1, 2017 “Build a Competitive Environment” for greater insight on this topic). This approach will likely produce a group of athletes who now view playing time as an opportunity to shine, as well as contribute to the whole of the team.
Perhaps as important as any other factor, model the behavior you expect out of your athletes. When I was a head coach, one of my favorite sources for leadership was Richard Marcinko – former Navy Seal commander. One of his most powerful phrases was “Lead from the Front.” The intent is to build camaraderie and discipline through a demonstration of commitment, and a willingness to develop yourself for the good of the team. Your ability to abide by the same expectations of self-challenge and self-regulation become an inspiration for athletes, and a guide to those who struggle to be disciplined themselves. You also garner tremendous respect of those who follow you.
My hope is that this article serves as a beginning guideline and framework for you to create a culture of discipline on your team. By teaching and encouraging athletes to better themselves, you promote an atmosphere that allows for self-regulation and a desire to improve. With clear communication of expectations and a commitment to a merit based system of play, you will develop players who are driven to be leaders in the competitive environment, as well as the world beyond the lines. Should you find yourself wanting specific guidance in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.