Category Archives: Coaching strategy

Creating A Connected Culture

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When members of a group of any size, from a basketball team to a business organization, share a vision that makes them feel proud, feel valued, and feel that they have a voice to express their ideas and opinions, it creates a connection, a bond, a feeling of unity or esprit de corps.
Why Coach K Coaches Like a Girl

Okay, I don’t like the title of the article I quoted above.  First of all, girls aren’t typically coaches, women are.  Second of all, it’s repetitious (coach, coaches).  Lastly, comparing a grown person to a child of another gender is rarely a compliment.  That being said, I get it.  It comes across as a slight or maybe even a slam against Coach K when, in actuality, the author paints “coaching like a girl” is a positive.

He’s being provocative.

The author does a great job of describing why Coach K’s been successful…attributing it to the female presence in his life.  I don’t know how true or accurate that is and I certainly don’t think you have to be a woman to create a connected team.  What I really enjoyed about the article was his formula:

Vision + Value + Voice = Connected Culture

Vision:  I believe this has to be two-fold.  Vision for each individual player: an athlete will put up with not playing, with being pushed mentally and physically, with a whole lot…as long as they see how it fits into the grand plan.  And of course we’ve got to have a vision for the program.  That vision will influence how we recruit, how we plan practices, how we schedule opponents…everything.

Value:  Our players invest a lot of themselves into our program.  Their time, their heart, their passion, their egos.  We ask a lot of them and they give us a lot, the least we can do is make sure they know we appreciate what they’re putting into the program.

Voice:  This doesn’t mean that you always do what your players ask of you, but they should feel comfortable in their belief that their opinions will be heard and considered.

Giving our teams a vision of the future of the program, combined with valuing their effort and giving them a voice is a great way for us to create a team culture that will withstand the normal ups and downs of a season.

Culture Change: Evolution or Revolution?

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A coworker of mine let me know about The Corner Office, which is a management/leadership section within the New York Times magazine.  It has lots of interviews of hot shot management types that are very interesting and, I think, applicable to the coaching profession.

Changing a team culture needs to happen when you take over a new team, when your team is stuck in a negative rut, and sometimes when a new and dominant set of leaders take over.  How should you go about it?

A model for changing a team culture:

  1. Evaluate the team.  Sit down with your assistants and go through your team, player by player.  What positives do they bring to the team?  Negatives?  Do you have the players you need to win?
  2. Figure out what needs to be changed.  Do you have good team leaders?  It’s easy to dust off old practices each year, but maybe you need to get to some clinics to learn some new ways to teach your old tricks.
  3. Figure out what doesn’t need to be changed.  Similar to #2.



Decide:

  1. Evolution.  Slow, steady change.  Probably best for a team you’re currently coaching.
  2. Revolution. Fast, radical change.   Probably best for taking over a new team.



Action plan:

  1. Set the strategy.  Where will you start first?  Staff improvements? Recruiting?  Increasing the skill base of your current players?
  2. Come up with a structure/plan.  Implementing the strategy.
  3. Identify the right players.  We can’t anything without our players.  Make sure you’ve got the right team leaders in place, the right players in the right positions, and the right recruits in the pipeline.



So that’s the coach version of the business turnaround plan from The Corner Office.

Teaching The Habit Of Excellence

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“It’s a compliment to demand excellence from somebody.”
30 Second Approach to Decision-Making

I’m sure everyone knows the Aristotle quotation, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  It’s perfect to use in the coaching profession and should be an accurate description of what our practices look like.

I would even hazard a guess that our athletes know and love this quote.  But knowing it and loving it are separate issues from living in daily on our fields and courts!  Truly embracing that quotation means signing up for getting their butts figuratively kicked by a coach.  It means leaving their comfort zone and stretching to become the best player possible.  Inevitably, there will be times when our athletes fall short.  What to do then?

Demand the excellence we seek!  The opening quotation is from a NY Times Magazine interview with the president of a compliance company.  She (Shanti Atkins) outlined how she handles the achievement gap: the difference between where we are and where we want to be…perfect for us coaches!

Demanding excellence: The coach’s role

  1. Set a high standard.  First off, Atkins says we’ve got to make sure that our teams see that we’ll apply the same standards to ourselves.  We’ve got to demand excellence from ourselves and our staff first and foremost.
  2. Celebrate successes.  Secondly, we’ve got to brag on ourselves.  Whether it’s a great recruit or designing a great practice, we’ve got to make sure we keep our teams included.
  3. Acknowledge where you fell short.  Finally, we have to make sure we keep it real with our players.  If we don’t make the mark, there’s nothing wrong with telling them…there’s actually a lot right with it!



Demanding excellence: The player’s role

  1. Praise effort/skill. “Look, I think you’re a good player.”
  2. Express your belief in their potential. “When I first saw you, I knew you’d be a great player and you haven’t disappointed.  You’re not where you want to be yet, but by the end of your senior year, you’re going to be a rock star!”
  3. Refocus their individual goals.  “You’ve got to do these things (come in for extra practice, watch more film, get stronger in the weight room, etc.)  to have your fairy tale ending.  I think you can work harder than you have been, so let’s come up with a plan to get you where you want to be.”



I would assume this is just the beginning of the “demanding excellence” idea.  If all we do is chat, but never put it into action in the gym, we won’t get the results we’re looking for.

Demanding excellence is a compliment, let’s not forget to do it with our teams.

Maintaining Close Relationships With Your Team

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I used to call this a “stop and chat”, but apparently there’s an actual name for this management technique called Management By Walking Around, or MBWA.

What is it exactly?

  • Stop and talk to players face to face.
  • Get a sense how things are going.
  • Listen to what is on player’s minds.



Why is it successful?

Years ago, I worked with a track coach who said it was his goal to talk to each athlete every day…even if only for a few moments.  Connecting with our athletes is a win-win.  We feel good about where our team’s mindset is and the players feel that we care.

If you do it correctly, you’ve been MBWAing all season, so the team won’t be startled when you stop and chat with them.  This strategy will pay dividends when and if something big happens within the team that you need to get to the bottom of.

How to MBWA with your team

  • Make it part of the routine.  The team should know when they come into the gym that you’re probably going to be talking to them, it shouldn’t be weird or awkward…just part of being on the team.
  • Just you, not the other coaches.  If your whole coaching staff approaches one of your players, I’d imagine they’d start racking their brains, trying to figure out why you were coming toward her with a posse!
  • Chat with everyone.  Seems obvious, but be sure to talk to each person on the team.  Super stud and practice player alike.  That way you can’t be accused of being unfair.  Well, you can, but it won’t be true.
  • Ask for suggestions.  This one is an easy one for a MBWA before a game, because you can always ask for suggestions for places to eat dinner.  It’s super important for them (for some reason) and the team’s gotta eat.
  • Follow up with answers.  If you’re doing a MBWA and one of the athletes asked a question you don’t know the answer to, you’ve got to be sure to get back to him with the answer.
  • Don’t criticize.  There’s plenty of time for that!  Keep it light…this is about relationship building!



If you want to read more about Management By Walking Around, check out this article.  Investing our precious time into our players will reap benefits down the line.

What Does It Mean To Play To Win?

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I’m not only a coach at my college, but also an administrator.  Because of that, I end up on a lot of search committees.  I’m not complaining though, because it’s an excuse for me to hear different coach’s philosophies and ideas on coaching.

It was at one of these interviews, sitting at a breakfast meeting, that I heard this Play To Win philosophy.  It’s more than that though…more like a curriculum.  The gentleman started explaining what he did with his current team and I started grilling him about what went into his program.  It’s great and I told him I was going to steal it and I have.

Playing to win sounds so cliché and so obvious.  But how many of us really think our student-athletes are always behaving with the team’s best interests at heart?  So let’s talk about the Play To Win curriculum.  I tweaked what he talked about (his included leadership training, study tables, etc.) to fit what would work with my team.

Play To Win

  • What does it mean to win? This is where I talked to my team about the different ways of winning.  A high team GPA is a win.  Players who go to study abroad are a win.  And, of course, winning games is a win.
  • Requirements of being on a team.  A lot of times, folks want to be on a team, but they don’t want to put in the work.  That work could be hitting the weight room or it can be figuring out how to be happy with whatever role you have on the team.
  • Leadership/captains.  The main point of this bullet is their role in squashing “girl drama”.  I don’t believe a leader should be involved in “girl drama” and they should be active in shooting it down if they see it.  And of course the typical captain stuff: liason between coach and team, hold teammates accountable, etc.
  • Off-season.  At my level, we don’t get much of an off-season because it’s against NCAA rules.  And my team is from all across the country, so getting together in the summer for pick up games isn’t a realistic solution.  So I talked to the players about being accountable for their workouts.  We’re only in season for three months…the rest of the time is on them.



I also addressed recruiting, our non-traditional season, and having high standards in the classroom.  It all culminated with my asking them to begin with the end in mind.  I asked them what they wanted to say about our season in November, when it’s all over.

To think winning happens in the small amount of time we have with them during the season is hopeful at best, delusional at worst.

If you decide to come up with your own Play to Win curriculum, shoot me an email so that I can check it out!

Feedback That Gets Results

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“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” —The Simple Phrase that Increases Effort 40%

That’s it.

That’s the magical feedback.

4 reasons this works

  1. Authentic.  We can’t give this particular feedback to every player on our teams, just the ones we really believe can help the team achieve its goals.  I’d imagine we would lose our credibility if the impact players heard us deliver this line to a teammate who was clearly not a player of influence.
  2. Crystal-clear signal of social trust.  It makes the receiver a part of a group (impact players) and shows them they are special.
  3. Belonging.  This phrasing shows the player that they not only belong to the group, but are an important piece.  Beyond that, it shows them (and their teammates whom they’re bound to tell) that the coaches have high standards for the team.
  4. High expectations.  Plain and simple, if you say this phrase, you’ve got to make sure you give the player a task that can be accomplished.  Challenging, but realistic.



Check out the article, it’s very good.  As coaches, we’re always looking for ways to connect with our players and to show them we care about them.  This seems like a good place to start.

Leading The Resistant Player

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I’m sure we’ve all coached a player who has been tough for us.  It can be for many reasons.  It could be because they’re not friendly with their teammates.  It could be because they’re only concerned with how the team can help them. Or it could be because no one has taken the time to point out how their actions impact the team.

I always fall on the side of the last explanation.  I like to think that players aren’t being bad teammates because they’d rather be bad teammates.  I like to think that they don’t understand they’re driving everyone crazy and it’s my job to guide them along the way to being a great teammate.

Don’t know if you’ve got a resistant player?  Check out these scenarios:

Coach: Let’s go over our new offense for the season.
Resistant player: My high school coach ran a different offense and we always won.
Coach: *sigh*

Coach: I need everyone to sign this birthday card for Susie.
Resistant player: Me and Susie don’t get along, do I need to sign?
Coach: *sigh*

Coach: The sky is a beautiful blue today!
Resistant player: Technically the sky isn’t really blue.
Coach: *sigh*

These resistant players not only represent gray hairs on our heads, but also opportunities to mentor a young person.  I like to think of players as flowers.  We don’t know if we’re planting the seeds of teamwork in them (and therefore much less likely to benefit from the beautiful flower in their future) or if we’re weeding an already well-tended garden.  The earlier we are in the process, the more frustrating that player will be.

4-step intervention process for the resistant player

First: talk to them.  It could be that they don’t understand how they’re coming across to teammates and coaches.

Second: take something away from them. If you’ve talked to them (and talked to them), maybe you’ve got to take away playing time or a leadership position to show them you mean business.

Third: empower them to stay or go.  You can present it to them like this: Look.  I know you’re sick of me talking to you about this and, quite frankly, I’m getting tired of saying the same thing.  Do you really want to be on the team?  If they say yes, give them parameters for remaining in good standing with the coaching staff.  If they say no, well, that’s the downside of giving them the choice.

Fourth: don’t let them off the hook.  It’s easy to think that your job is over after step three, but if you don’t stay vigilant, you’ll be back to step one again.

We don’t manage the resistant player with tough love because we like confrontation or being grumpy.  We do it because we believe it’s what’s best for them in the long run.  I’d go as far as saying we’d be hurting their player development if we didn’t stay on them.

1 Thing A Coach Can Do Each Day To Make Their Team Better

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Recruiting.  Most coaches have a strong reaction to that word.  It’s either something like, “Yippee!!” or an expletive that can’t be written in this blog.  I tend toward the yippee crowd, because I understand what recruiting is…but before I get into all of that, check out this post I wrote a year ago when I started this blog, The 1 Thing You Need To Be A More Effective Recruiter.

I believe when we understand what recruiting is, we take a more active and engaged interest in potential student-athletes.  Recruiting is our chance to make an impact, to teach young people leadership, team building, goal setting…more on that in the next post.  And if we’re lucky enough to coach female athletes, we have the added opportunity to show them that girls and women can not only get along in groups…they can achieve great things together.  We don’t get the chance to teach these lessons if we don’t get our recruiting on!  That’s why I’m talking about recruiting during “I Love Coaching” month.

Now that we can agree that recruiting is more than putting together a bunch of folks with an array of skills that will benefit the team (though that’s certainly important!), let’s talk about the four quadrants that make up a successful recruiting class.

  1. Scout. This is the beginning of the process. The most obvious way to scout is to attend recruiting events.  I won’t talk about how much I love the first view when I walk into a convention center and witness volleyball courts as far as my eyes can see…it’s glorious and it never gets old.  More important than scouting is being connected.  If we have contacts with club/AAU teams, high schools coaches, even other college coaches, we can maximize our efforts.
  2. Contact. Once we’ve got athletes that we’re interested in, then it’s time to get in touch with them.  Whether that’s going to see a practice, watching a game, calling, emailing, talking to their club coach, home visits…whatever you can do within the rules of your league is fair game.  If you’re not doing it, someone else will.
  3. Visit. Any Admissions professional will tell you that your odds increase dramatically if you can recruits on campus.  Sooo, we’d better make sure we get them on campus!  Not only do they see campus, they get to sit in on a class, meet your team, and generally see what campus life would be like if they were to attend your college.  I know some coaches who threaten their team with copious time on the bench if they’re negative with a recruit.  I’d prefer to remind them that someone took time with them when they were still making their college decisions and now it’s their time to return the favor.  Also, they don’t want the team to be awful when they leave…the only way to ensure that the level of play stays high is through recruiting efforts.
  4. Retain. Plain and simple, we’ve got to keep them on the hook.  We don’t want to spend months and months on an athlete, only to have them snatched out from under us because we thought we had them wrapped up.  Use your team, have them send your recruits emails or hook up with them on Facebook.  Of course, we should stay in touch with them and remind them of why they fell in love with our team and our college all those months before.  In the last few weeks before I got married, my brother advised me to “not screw it up now”.  Great advice!  Basically he was warning me not to become Crazy Wedding Lady and forget to show my hubs why we were doing this in the first place.  Coaches, we’ve metaphorically “wooed” these recruits…let’s not screw it up by not closing the deal.


Recruiting is any team’s lifeblood.  I think remembering that our job as a coach is to teach life lessons through our sport will make recruiting more meaningful and less of an obligation.

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Transforming Your Team Through Storytelling

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I’m fascinated about the ins and outs of creating successful teams.  And I think, whether you’re interested in sustaining a streak your team is on or you’re trying to create a new norm of success, we should all try to use whatever means that are available to us to reach that end.

Storytelling should be one of the tools in our toolbox.

One of the things I always say to my team is that my job is to get the ideas I have about volleyball out of my head and into theirs, because after all, I’m finished playing…what use are they to me now?  If I can get them thinking strategically about our sport the way I do, we’re going somewhere!  I think it’s the same with motivation.

As Nancy Duarte says in her TEDtalk titled, The Secret Structure of Great Talks, ideas are the single most powerful tool known to man…but they’re powerless if they stay inside of us.  I believe using stories can motivate our teams to move from where they are now to where we, as coaches, see them going in the future.

But how do we tell a story that resonates with our players?

Duarte talks about the simple structure of a story and I’ve related it to coaching:

  • First, you have the likeable hero.  For us, that’s our team.  If our season were a movie, we’d hope that the watchers would be pulling for our team to pull out the big win.
  • Second, our hero (the team) encounters road blocks.  Those road blocks could be an arch rival they haven’t beaten in years, it could be a long losing streak, or it could be a crisis of confidence in their star player.
  • Third, our team emerges transformed.  They’ve faced the beastly road block and conquered it.


We can all imagine telling our team this story, right?  We’d sit them down and talk about how hard they’ve worked and how much potential we see in them.  And that the road ahead is going to be difficult and not for the faint of heart…but we believe in them and believe they’ll come out the other side a more united and prepared team than they were before the crisis.  It’s a great and, I believe, motivating story.

The secret is to be genuinely excited about the team and the possibilities of their greatness…we can’t fake the funk.  Also, we have to be honest about the challenges the team will face, our players can sniff out dishonesty in about .02 seconds.  If our story can juxtapose the challenge against the joy they’ll feel once they’ve reached their goals, then we’ve successfully motivated our team to keep fighting and plugging away in practice.

I get excited just writing about this, because I believe we have the power to frame our seasons for our players and give them the motivation they desire to keep pushing on.

Want to hear more about using storytelling as a motivational tool?  Check out How To Use Storytelling To Motivate Your Team.

How To Use Storytelling To Motivate Your Team

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Not to toot my own horn (but toot! toot!), but I can tell a mean story.  I remember a time when my team was winning games, but not in the dominating fashion that we should.  I gathered the team around and told them about my childhood love of the video game Mortal Combat and how when you’d beaten your opponent, you had two choices.  You could merely hit him and advance to the next level or, knowing a special code (which I, of course, knew) you could reach inside your opponent’s chest and literally rip his beating heart right out.  I’m sure you can imagine that the next team we faced got crushed.  Moral of the story:  Don’t just beat the opponent…crush them.

So when I saw this TEDtalk called, The Clues to a Great Story, by Andrew Stanton, I knew I’d bring it on over here because I believe storytelling can be the secret sauce to successfully motivating our teams.

How many times have you and your coaching staff lamented having to say the same thing over and over again to your players?  If you’re like me, a lot!  I’ve found that telling a funny, yet relevant, story goes over better than repetition.

Not a natural story teller?  Check out Stanton’s keys for telling a good story:

  1. Story telling is joke telling.  He opens his TEDtalk with a very funny story about a man and his unfortunate encounter with a goat.  Not only was it an amusing opening joke, but it also proved his point that jokes and stories should be engaging.  I’m not a naturally funny person, but I can tell a decent story and I know my team is into it if they’re laughing out loud.
  2. Know the end from the beginning.  Just telling the story can’t be the goal.  What is your goal?  Is it to encourage toughness?  To promote camaraderie?  To beat the previously unbeaten foe?  Whatever it is, I’ll bet you’ve got a personal story that will resonate with your athletes.  In my opinion, the more personal, the better.  I’m not talking bearing-your-soul personal, but I-didn’t-know-coach-liked-video-games personal.
  3. Build anticipation.  The Seinfeld show was successful because they could make an interesting story out of everyday occurrences.  My most meaningful (funny, but relevant) stories have been about small moments in time that I describe with great detail.  I draw the team in and then show them how our team fits into the story.  Stanton says that we have to make our listeners want to know how it ends.  Give them just enough to keep them engaged, then make the connection…they’ll love it.


If you haven’t tried storytelling with your team, I highly recommend it.  Give it a try and let me know how it worked.