Summer serves as a unique time period in sports. For many coaches and athletes, this is a time of year to reflect on the past season, while also preparing for the upcoming season(s). In a sense, school is out for summer with regard to classes, but it is also a time to “go to school” for serious coaches and athletes looking for that edge to make the next step. This blog entry is intended for the coaches (and parents), but athletes may find some of the points helpful as well.
As I noted at the start, many coaches find summer to be a time of reflection; what went well, what needs to change, and how will I make the changes to help my team have the success I believe it can have? And for many of you, “success” equates to winning. This pursuit of wins can become both demonizing and a distraction from actually doing so. All too often coaches feel the pressure to win games; with the source being their own aspiration, powerful parents, or administrators/boosters who make not so subtle demands to have a winning program. Regardless of the source, the pressure to win can often lead to undesirable (and ineffective) coaching practices. Some familiar instances you may have witnessed include badgering or belittling athletes in practices and games, allowing talented athletes to play when team rules have been violated (and hurting morale of the whole), or promoting unethical play (i.e. acts of poor sportsmanship). Coaches often explain these situations away with phrases that rationalize the pursuit of winning, or being in a culture of competition where things are “different than the real world”. However, the end result is an atmosphere of distrust, anxiety, and all too often disappointing outcomes. Powerful coaches understand that sport is a both a reflection of the real world, and a way to prepare for the realities of life.
While we all can agree that winning is fun, and truly is the ultimate goal for being in a competitive environment, the reality is that coaches who have a long history of success have a different focus. What they have realized is that having a coaching philosophy rooted in values and principles is the key to being successful. This does not mean to imply that winning isn’t important to them, but that being rooted in their core values with anchored principles allows them to take actions that will lead to more opportunities to win. This is because such a coaching philosophy provides for strong leadership that can weather the storm of a competitive season, to offer a foundation and a source of direction when things go sideways (and they always will at some point), and become a rallying point to athletes and assistants for how to work between competitions to be ready for success. As a coach, try this three-step process to design an atmosphere you feel meets your values and principles.
First, establish your own values around an environment that demands and promotes challenge. This is different from a hazing culture that ridicules mistakes. Instead, communicate that the highest and fairest expectation is that of high effort, at all times. Provide clarity on the value of reaching for a high level of consistency, that every rep counts. Be the leader in recognizing and praising the pursuit or accomplishments in higher skill development. Doing so promotes a culture where athletes begin to compete with themselves to get better, rather than avoiding mistakes in the hopes of winning playing time over others who blunder in practice. Instead, create a culture that values self-growth and a willingness to risk being great.
The second step supports the first. Establish a caring culture. Develop the ability to make connections with your athletes that recognizes their value as a person, beyond their function as a cog-in-the-machine. Never lose the perspective that you are working with a person first, and an athlete second. As important as the sport may be to you or the athlete(s), there are many other factors in life that are often times more important. Paying attention to these enables you to also know when off-court life may help or hinder on-court performance. Athletes respond with higher levels of commitment when they feel a coach cares about them. Developing this connection can be as simple as “checking in” with a simple conversation to see how other parts of life are going (classes, family members, other interests or hobbies). Bottom line, provide reassurance that you are a source of support who can model the importance of a balanced life beyond the field.
The third step is to keep focus on the task when working with assistants and athletes. Too often coaches only recognize the outcomes of a play or competition. Doing so can easily reward poor quality/execution, and inhibit effort and good form, with the former leaving an athlete mindless of how they did it, and the latter uncertain or afraid to try again. The better approach is to clearly explain the purpose of the drill or technique. Help athletes understand the “why” so as to improve the chances of achieving the “what”, because you have targeted the “how”. Be realistic; the only thing an athlete can control is their focus and effort. Results are out of their hand for several reasons. Promote greater confidence by asking for a specific level of execution as a realistic goal, and recognize the effort to get there. While this may be tough in short term failures, you promote a willingness on the part of athletes (directly and indirectly) to get back out there and try again, and this is the only way you get another chance at being successful.
Hopefully you have found this article an effective piece of your reflection and prep for the upcoming season. Remember, be rooted in values and principles that are about the people you coach. Attempting to win is not only acceptable, it is recommended. But without a strong sense of values that communicate fair expectations, as well as care for the human in the uniform, you may find that winning is hard to do. Should you find yourself wanting specific guidance in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.