Category Archives: Practice

Coaches Corner: Evaluating Drills For Effective Practices

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I’m a big fan of evaluating my program after each season. Everything from hotels and restaurants we used to game schedule and practice plans. I certainly don’t think that evaluation must necessarily lead to changes, though it should lead to comfort that you’re doing things in the best possible way given the tools (budget, staff, athletes, knowledge) at your disposal. As the tools change, you and your program may have to change…hence the evaluation.

While practice planning may sound an awful lot like an X’s and O’s conversation, don’t you worry, I plan to stay on the philosophical plane. When I talked to Becky Schmidt, head volleyball coach at Hope College, she talked about a change of philosophy she’s made in regards to practice.

She said she used to think every second of practice was important and needed to be planned, now she says she’s much more willing to experiment and not be afraid to waste time. As Schmidt evaluated her only practices and drills, she noticed many of her drills were old favorites from her playing days. She then had to challenge herself to innovate, because surely better (more efficient, more relevant, more applicable) drills have been created in that time span. And if not, she should create them!

This is something all of us can and should do. Drills that were great for one team may fall flat with another. Just as we have to modify our coaching styles for our athletes, we have to modify our coaching methods for our teams.

Join me in a series of interviews with successful coaches.  I believe what we learn from our coaching peers can be applied to our teams, our recruiting efforts, and how we behave as professionals. These interviews will be less Q & A and much more philosophical in nature, keep coming back to see who I’m talking to and what they’ve got to say!

On The Value Of Hard Work

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There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.—Coach K

The other day, I was speaking to another coach about her season and the different approach she decided to take with her team.  She said instead of yelling or punishing her players for what she perceived as a lack of effort, she decided to use those episodes as teachable moments where she would explain where the athlete was falling short.  Assuming, I suppose, that the athlete didn’t realize they were coming across as lazy or not giving full effort.

Effort is a doozy.  Some things are out of our player’s control, but effort and communication aren’t.  Even the very worst athlete on your team can perform those skills at amazing levels.  Working hard is not optional and is the only way to success.  Sometimes, though, our teams think they are working hard, but we know it will take much more effort from them to reach the success they desire.

That got me to thinking about redirection strategies coaches can use.  When an athlete or team is off track, for one reason or another, it’s our job to get them back…and there are many tactics we can use.

6 ways to help your team value and understand hard work

Yelling.  This is the easiest, I suppose.  I’m not a big yeller.  Mostly because it’s just not in my personality, but also because I think it signals a loss of control. I’ve got to model keeping my composure if that’s a quality I view as an asset within my team.

Physical punishment.  There are those who say that coaches should never use running or conditioning as a punishment…that you’re making something positive into a negative.  I understand the sentiment, but I disagree.  I would rather not have to be the motivation for my team, but sometimes teams are externally motivated and that’s one of the tools that can be used.  Used correctly, “opportunities for fitness” (as I call them) are very effective.

Talk to your captains.  Explain to them what you see.  Explain to them that your frustration with the perceived lack of effort is maddening.  Explain to them that opportunities for fitness are on the horizon.  Strong leaders will pull the team together and get them back on track.

Review goals.  Every team sits down at the beginning of the year and comes up with goals.  They want to win conference or beat a rival they lost to the previous year, whatever it may be.  As you go through those goals with them, you ask if not giving full effort in each practice is going to get them there.

Watch film.  There are certain plays in every sport that are hustle or effort plays.  Usually it’s something that no one in the stands will notice whether you’re doing it or not, but it’s a critical skill that is important to the team’s success.  Show your team the film.  Show them not doing that thing that is essential to your team’s success.  I usually show them each instance in a game—it can end up being ten or twenty times of the same mistake—and then ask them how we’re supposed to be successful if we’re not willing to do the hard stuff of our sport.

Visualize.  Have them think about the last game of the season and what they want that to feel like.  Will they take the final shot?  Or win the game on an ace?  Or pass an opponent on the final curve to win the race?  Walk them through it and then ask them what they’re willing to do to experience those feelings in real life.

What strategies have you used with your team to get them to work harder and go beyond what their perceived limits are?

Visualization Could Be The Key To Your Success

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I’m back people! My blog vacation is over and I’m back at it…enjoy!

When I was a high school athlete, I had a track coach who was big into visualization.  He would take the entire team into a room, turn down the lights, make us close our eyes, and he’d walk us through what the next day’s meet would look like, feel like, and sound like.

I loved it.  In my mind’s eye, I could feel myself getting into the blocks, I could hear the starter giving his commands, I could even see and hear my teammates lined up around the track cheering for me.  Visualization is a skill that I use to this day.  Now I’m sure every athlete in that room wasn’t locked in on what our coach was saying.  I’m sure some of them thought it was hokey.  I’ll even bet that some folks fell asleep.  But for those of us who opened our mind to the idea, we reaped the benefits.

There’s all sorts of information out there about visualization, but the fact that resonates with me is that our body reacts physiologically the same whether we’re actually doing an activity or if we’re actively imagining it.  Our heart races, we may break out in a sweat, our breathing increases…crazy!  That fact alone shows our brain could be the key to our success.

Over at the Talent Code blog, Daniel Coyle has four keys to help us visualize properly.  Check out the article, it’s got a couple of very cool examples of how visualization has led directly to success on the court/field.

4 steps to powerful visualization

  1. Highly specific and detailed.  He calls it visualization in HD.  Your players should visualize everything about game day.  Getting to the locker room, the music that’ll be playing in there, going to the training room to get taped, putting on their warmup clothes…there’s no detail that’s too small.  I hope it goes without saying that they should also visualize themselves being successful in all facets of their game.
  2. Two-step process.  As they go from scene to scene in their memory, they should think about how to correctly perform the skill…then see themselves executing.  How many times have we heard the winning Super Bowl quarterback talking about how many times he’d won the game on a hail mary…in his mind?  They see themselves performing the skill: receiving the ball, releasing the ball, the amazing catch in the in-zone, and the celebration that follows.
  3. Solitary.  While this goes against what my high school track coach did, he always encouraged us to go home and finish the visualization process on our own.  So before you say, “See Dawn, I shouldn’t do this with my team, they’ve got to do it on their own”, I’d say that they may not do it if you don’t introduce it to them.  Send them home and encourage them to feel the game…to feel their success.  Visualization isn’t remembering an amazing moment from the past, but “remembering” an amazing moment from the future.
  4. Combine with intense practice.  I speak to groups a lot about motivating female athletes and every now and then someone will say, “But Dawn, don’t all kids need good coaches?”.  To which I generally answer that that’s an assumption I make…we’re all starting from the viewpoint of wanting to be the best coach possible.  And I’d say the same is true for visualization.  Someone could say, “Well Dawn, just thinking about something doesn’t make it happen.”  I’d agree and say that I am under the assumption that we’re all getting after it with our teams to give them the tangible skills they need in order to dominate the competition.


Visualization could be that missing ingredient that your team is missing to move up to the next level…try it out!

9 Ways To Value The Game

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What does it take to be successful?  How can we teach our players to value everything it takes to win consistently?  Check out these nine traits I believe our athletes need in order to contribute to a team’s success.

  1. Work ethic.  I would hazard a guess that most athletes playing at high level collegiate programs are naturally talented.  I would also guess that those same athletes were able to get by without giving full effort at some point in their career.  But those athletes who are internally motivated to get better, will work harder.  They understand that they may be talented, but they want to see just how talented they can be.
  2. Proper execution.  This requires focused practice…no one can perform a skill correctly without practicing diligently.  Every now and then, I’ll run into a player who thinks they can mess around in practice and just turn it on in games.  Proper execution begins in practice and ends in games.
  3. Fortitude.  Players with fortitude have strong minds and are resilient.  They understand that ups and downs are embedded within athletics.  I can’t think of a team I’ve coached that hasn’t ridden that roller coaster.  Whether those teams won it all or didn’t win much at all, the players that fared the best were resilient.
  4. Tenacity.  If fortitude is strength of mind, tenacity is toughness of mind.  In my opinion, working hard each and every day (even when they’re tired, even when they’ve got exams, even at the end of the season) requires a high level of mental toughness.  Also, to properly execute a skill requires toughness…it’s just too easy to slack off in practice.
  5. Taking responsibility.  I coached a player at a camp once who was full of excuses.  Each mistake she made was someone else’s fault: she’s never played that particular position before, Susie was distracting her, Becky wasn’t communicating with her.  *sigh*  I kept waiting for her to say, “my fault”…those are powerful words.
  6. Enthusiasm.  If you’ve been reading for a while, you know about my coaching crush on John Wooden and his Pyramid of Success.  The cornerstones of his Pyramid are hard work and enthusiasm.  Without passion and enthusiasm, I don’t believe our players will do the rest of the things required to be successful.
  7. Competitiveness.  I used to think that all athletes were naturally competitive, and I think most are, but I’ve started to see that sometimes they need to find a higher purpose from competition…not just competition for competition’s sake.  Some of our athletes need to know how they matter in the grand scheme of things.
  8. Preparedness.  It’s practicing well and executing in competition.  The purpose of practice is to prepare our athletes to compete.  Not to drill, not to practice, not to play…but to compete.
  9. Rest.  This is probably the most underrated of all of these…by athletes and coaches.  Our teams have a lot on their plates.  They’re studying for classes, working, practicing, lifting, trying to have a social life, maintaining friendships…that’s a lot.  Sometimes they need to just chill out and do nothing.


The inspiration for this post came from a post over on Hoop Thoughts, Values To Playing The Game.

Teamwork Is The Secret To Success

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A lone cook in a kitchen can come up with a delicious combination of flavors, but to win big, you need to excel at teamwork.–The Secret Sauce of Teamwork

There are a couple of things I love as much as I love talking about coaching: gardening and cooking…especially on the grill.  So when I saw that Harvard Business Review’s blog had an article that combining barbeque and teamwork, I knew I’d bring it on over here.

Putting a different twist on the quotation above:  A lone player can be magnificently skilled and a joy to watch, but to win big, we’ve got to excel at teamwork.  This thought process has played itself out time and again on every successful team I’ve coached.  On paper, we may not be better than the opponent.  Maybe even in warmups, we look like we’re going to get creamed…but something magical happens when the right mix of team chemistry combines the right mix of players.

The secret sauce.

3 keys for turning our teams into great teams

Come together.  The whole purpose of a team is to do something that couldn’t be accomplished by one person alone.  That’s why we come together.  Beyond that, we’ve got to define what we want to accomplish…those are our goals.  Our teams need goals when they come together at the beginning of the season and believe it or not, our teams need goals to stay motivated to come together each day for practice.  Our job as coach is to give our players a reason to come together over a series of weeks and months.

Stay together.  There are many reasons teams stay together.  The aforementioned need for others in order to complete a specific goal is one reason…but that could be any soccer/volleyball/lacrosse team at any institution.  Why should your particular team stay together?  I’ve talked about this before but making sure each person on the team has a defined role is crucial.  Each player on our team has to believe that they’re part of the secret sauce of our team…that no one else could perform their role as well as they can.  This creates players who are invested and teams that stay together.

Work together.  Practice after practice, day after day, week after week, and month after month…we ask that our teams work hard.  It’s part of that ten thousand hour theory that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Outliers.  As our teams get used to one another, they learn each teammate’s strengths and weaknesses (as well as their own), they learn how each player is motivated, they learn to test the edges of their ability.  And eventually…they learn how to work together in order to become a successful team.

The secret sauce?  It’s just understanding that individual talent cannot trump team success.  Once our teams understand that, they’re on their way to winning big.

Book Review: Outliers

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“The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That’s it.  And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder.” –Outliers

The tagline of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is: The Story of Success.  I think that’s a topic of interest to most folks and coaches in particular.  I’ve got a story about a teammate of mine who is the definition of the opening quotation.

My teammate, let’s call her Susie, was an all-American at the University of Wisconsin, which was a top twenty-five team at the time.  She was the best, most skilled, and hardest working player that I knew.  She had aspirations beyond collegiate volleyball…Susie wanted to represent our country in the Olympics.  She talked to one of our assistant coaches who’d played on the national team about what she should do…and the coach told her to work harder.

I’m telling you, Susie was already the hardest working player on a nationally ranked team!  She was our best player, she was the undisputed leader, she was a baller.  But if she wanted to move to the next level, Susie needed to work harder.

And if we want to be better, we’ve got to work harder as well.  And so do our athletes.

The rundown:  Like Daniel Coyle talked about in The Talent Code, Gladwell identifies ten thousand hours as the magic number for success.  It’s not just ten thousand hours of casual practice…but motivated, focused, persistent practice.  We’ve probably all coached the athlete who gives up about twenty seconds after we’ve tried to teach her a new skill.  We’ve got to let her know that “success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.”

Recommended for:  Coaches who want to get better and who want their athletes to get better.  I believe we all want to put ourselves and our players in the best position to excel and reach our highest potential.  This book will motivate us all to put in the work necessary to never have regrets about our achievement level.

Not recommended for:  Coaches who believe that hard work is all it takes to be successful.  While Gladwell talks about the ten thousand hour rule, he also mentions things that are out of our control that influence success.  Things like the month and year we’re born, the era in which we’re born (if I were a woman fired up about coaching a hundred years ago, I’d be out of luck), affluence or lack thereof, etc.

So, Susie didn’t make the Olympic team.  As I think back, I wonder what would have happened if she’d stuck with it, because she was almost at her ten thousand hours.  Gladwell says that it takes about ten years to reach that threshold…Susie stopped playing in year eight.  We didn’t know about this kind of stuff back then.

But we do now…let’s make sure we’re using the information that’s available to us.

If you love to read books, keep checking back as I talk about three books that are great for coaches, but not made for coaches:  The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, How to Grow Leaders by John Adair, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

How To Max Out Our Athlete’s Potential

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One of the things I loved about my collegiate athletics experience is that I don’t think I could’ve gotten any better.  I squeezed all the juice out of the lemon.  There was no meat left on the bone.  I licked the plate clean.  I left it all on the floor.  What other cliché phrases can I come up with to state that I maxed out my potential?

I want that same feeling for my current athletes.  I don’t want them thinking, in the year after they graduate, that they should’ve worked harder when they had the chance.

What if there was some sort of rating system for effort?  For focus?  For investment in individual and corporate betterment?  According to the article, The 3 Levels of Effective Practice, there is!  As the saying goes, you get out what you put in…let’s show our athletes how to monitor what they’re putting in.

3 different athletic mindsets

Bronze:  They come to practice, do what the coach tells them to do…nothing more, nothing less.  By virtue of coming to practice, this player will get a little bit better, but there won’t be any a-ha moments.  To me, this athlete isn’t very invested.  Just coming to practice and doing what they’re told is the very base level of being on a team.  I’m not impressed.

Silver:  These are your hard workers.  These are the athletes that look their coach in the eye when receiving correction and immediately apply the change.  They want to get better and are willing to put in the time to get there.  When their coach suggests they come in ten minutes early and stay ten minutes late, the athlete jumps at the opportunity.  This player is going to get a lot better because getting better is important to them.

Gold:  These guys are Silver Plus!  They do all of the stuff that the silver folks do, but they add reflection and analyzation to the mix. This player may set up a meeting with their coach to find out what they should be working on and then they sit down and come up with a plan of what they should do outside of practice to accomplish their goals.  It doesn’t always have to be skill work.  It can be watching video and keeping notes of what they need to improve on.  It can be writing down a list of goals that need to be accomplished at practice that day.  It can even be giving themselves a pre & post survey on effort & focus in practice.  This is what will take them from getting better to getting better by leaps and bounds.

The idea of reaching the Gold level is to plan for success.  We all know that success doesn’t just happen.  What if we asked our players to write down the feedback they receive at the end of each practice and to review those notes weekly?  What if they had to rate what level (bronze, silver, gold) they thought they practiced at each day?  I think they would get better and they would max out their potential.

I’m not going to lie to you and say that I’ve been doing this in my gym…but I’m going to start.  It’s a great reflection piece to get our athletes more invested in their own development.  Furthermore, it eliminates the confusion about what “hard work” means…no more excuses!

Best Practices: 4 Principles Of Perfecting Performance

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First, the cliché phrase was “Practice makes perfect”.

Then the cliché evolved to “Perfect practice makes perfect”.

I don’t aim for perfection in my gym, but rather a perfecting attitude.  In my mind, perfection is finite whereas perfecting means that we’re constantly working toward getting better.  As a coach, I understandably put a lot of thought into the merits of practice: are they working, is the team getting better, what can the coaches do better?  According to this article from Psychology Today, Some Ways to Practice Are More Perfect Than Others.  Here are four ways we can make sure are practices are perfecting our players.

4 requirements of purposeful practice

  1. More practice yields more learning.  It sounds simple, but for those players who want to be really good at what they do…practice is the key.  Getting to the upper limits of a player’s ability will require time and patience…but mostly time to get those reps in.
  2. Mindful repetitions.  These days, age group sports are an economic force…with parents paying big bucks to make sure their child gets better and gets seen and (hopefully) gets a scholarship.  While I’ll stand by the idea that more practice is better than no practice, I believe that mindful practice is much better than unfocused practice.  It’s not just getting touches on the ball/reps in the pool/intervals on the track, it’s understanding where corrections need to be made and making each rep better than the last.
  3. Top notch coaching.  That’s us!  Again, I believe that age group sports are great…in theory.  If the coach is just letting the players drill without correction, that’s not the best situation.  And if they haven’t figured out how to effectively give coaching cues, that’s also not the best situation for player development.  Without proper coaching, the players are left to repetitively perform the skill incorrectly.  But with top notch coaches, a player can get immediate corrective feedback, which will hopefully result in their becoming a better player.
  4. Learn to self-coach.  All of this leads to the player being able to self-correct.  My ultimate goal with each class is that I become less and less important.  When they come in as freshman, my players are pretty reliant on me…but as they progress through their careers, they become more autonomous.  More able to recognize what to do in each situation and more able to process through the appropriate response to what an opponent is presenting.  It’s not that I stop coaching my older players, it’s that the coaching can become more and more complex.


Saying all of that, I guess the new cliché phrase can be “Practice makes perfecting players.”

If you found this post interesting, you should check out The Secrets To Greatness Are Within Your Control.

These 2 Little Words Will Break Your Team Out Of Its Rut

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Practice better.

I’m sure when you read that title, you were thinking I had some brand spanking new technology or something that would catapult your team to greatness.  That’s not what I’ve got…I’m telling you to practice better.  But what does that mean?

According to Daniel Coyle, the author of The Talent Code, on his blog…practicing better is just a matter of following a four-step process.

How to practice better

Reaching & repeating.  Reaching means stretching our athletes to the outskirts of their abilities and repeating those reps…no “mindless” reps where skills are performed incorrectly or halfheartedly.  We’ve got to continually challenge our players to want more.  If they reach for a skill, even for just a portion of practice, then we’re making our team better.  If we sit down with our coaching staff before practice and make a point of demanding only correct actions from our teams, their brains may hurt…but they’ll be getting better!  I don’t know if you can ask for that kind of focused intensity for the entire practice, because I believe that scrimmaging and playing is a wonderful teacher as well.

Engagement.  Which is better?  Team A warms up at the beginning of practice and while they’re playing, they chat about their day, they connect with one another after being apart all day, and maybe even tell a few jokes.  Team B, on the other hand, gets half as many touches on the ball because their coach is roaming the gym, stopping and correcting as everyone plays.  Coyle would say Team B is going to get better quicker because they are getting multiple quality touches (and quality corrections) during the course of their warmup.  This will require that the coaches are engaged just as much as the athletes.

Purposefulness.  This means we can’t always practice a skill in a vacuum.  We’ve all had the player who’s a rock star in practice…she’s the queen of the drill.  But put her in a game/scrimmage situation (where she’s got to react to external influences, communicate with teammates, and make snap decisions) and she completely fades away.  We’ve got to have a sense of purpose to each drill.  That purpose isn’t just to get better at a skill, but to get better at what they’ll actually be doing…playing the sport!  Our practices should entail skill building, of course, but those skills should include learning to compete, learning to communicate, and learning to perform under pressure.

Strong, direct, and immediate feedback.  I’ve always seen my role as coach as one of diminishing importance…if I’m doing my job correctly.  When I first take over a team, or have a bunch of newbies, I’m constantly yapping because my goal is to equip them with answers to team problems.  Whether that problem is lagging team energy, not controlling the ball properly, or difficulty handling the pressures of the game.  As I’m with a team for a while, they start to self-correct, because they’ve been in that situation before and they can remember what I told them the last time.  My goal is that my teams are never confused about why things aren’t going according to plan.  They may not yet have developed the skills to properly affect change, but they know what needs to be done.

We spend most of our time in practices, let’s be sure to use them to our advantage!

Want to read more about The Talent Code?  Check out these posts:
The Secrets To Greatness Are Within Your Control
How To Start A Revolution (Or Motivating Your Team For Success)
Crafty, Smart, And Experienced: Follow The Ways Of The Master Coaches

Find Out Why Better Listeners Are Better Players

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We spend sixty percent of our time listening…yet we only retain twenty five percent of what we hear.  This is according to Julian Treasure in his TEDtalk, 5 Ways To Listen Better.  Treasure is a consultant to businesses that want to learn to listen better, he’s written a book about listening, and writes a blog devoted to listening called, Sound Business.  I’m not going to lie to you, I had no idea that listening was such a big deal.  But if businesses are spending money to train their employees to listen, it must be important.

In his talk, Treasure gives five suggestions for becoming a better listener, though I’m only going to elaborate on three.  As he says, “listening is our access to understanding”, so let’s figure out how to put our teams into the best possible position to understand what we’re teaching.

3 ways to make our players better through more effective listening

The mixer.  Using my sport (volleyball) as an example, noise and sound is built into the game.  There are coaches shouting things from the sideline, players communicating about who should pass the ball, hitters screaming at the setter for the ball, the setter is cheering on her hitters, and then there’s the group celebration of the point.  And that happens again and again and again over the course of a match.  We have to teach our players to actively listen.  There are so many levels of sound in a gym during a game and our teams should be able to filter our sounds from the opponent’s sounds and from the crowd.  I think this is something that’s worth practicing in our gyms.

Listening positions.  This one is huge!!  Listening positions are the vantage point from which we hear things.  Are we bored? Are we excited? Are we tired? Are we annoyed?  A person could hear the same information from each of those listening positions and respond differently each time.  I believe one of the toughest things to teach teams is to give each other the benefit of the doubt.  The teams with bad team chemistry are the ones where the players don’t believe the best about one another.  You know what I mean: one player gives another a basic correction on the court and the corrected player gets super offended and now there’s a problem.  I ask about the benefit of the doubt in our gym a lot, because mood affects things so much.  If a player woke up late and missed class, received a D on a test, and got in a fight with their best friend…then they’re much more likely to get offended than a player whose first class got cancelled so they could sleep in, aced their test, and went for a cup of coffee with their best friend and had a great conversation.

RASA.  This stands for receive, appreciate, summarize, ask.  This is the nitty gritty of listening…and something tangible that we can teach our teams.  Receive what the person is saying (I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell players that I need them to make eye contact with me when I’m giving instruction), appreciate what they’re saying (instead of planning what you’re going to say in response). This next one reminds me of Starbuck’s when you order and then the person making the drink repeats the same thing…then there’s no confusion.  So, summarizing seals the listening process because we get to rephrase things in a manner that makes sense in our heads.  After we summarize, then we make sure that we’ve got it right by asking the other person.

I can already hear my team giggling as we go through this and I tell them to “appreciate” what their teammates are saying.  That being said, if we want our teams to be effective listeners—an essential quality in sports—then we’ve got to show them how to listen so that there is understanding.