Category Archives: Team chemistry

Creating Brave Players

“Fear is the reason today is like yesterday.”—Leadership Freak

That quotation sucker punched me!  Our goal as coaches is to create an atmosphere where our athletes feel comfortable taking risks and are brave in the face of fear.  Those who aren’t involved in athletics may scoff, but the fear is real when the bases are loaded and coach doesn’t have another pitcher warming up.  The fear is real when it’s game point and the server is walking back to the endline in volleyball.  And the fear is real when the fourth runner in a relay receives the baton at the same time as an opponent.

Here are three things we can do right now to crush fear on our teams:

  1. Stop saying crunch time is the same as the beginning of a competition. One of the reasons we believe certain players are “clutch” is that they execute late in the game, in pressure filled situations.  Yet we, as coaches, continue to say things like: the scoreboard doesn’t matter.  Yet…it does! Our players are watching time tick away and their heartrates are increasing.  Our players are watching the opponent create a bigger and bigger gap in the score…and it’s starting to feel like the game is getting away from them.  I think it’s better to acknowledge that pressure and not be afraid of it, but welcome it and give your athletes tools to handle what the scoreboard is saying to them.
  2. Celebrate effort. Each day we have an opportunity to fill our athlete’s reserves with success.  I know Yoda says, “do or do not, there is no try”, but I believe in applauding the process, not necessarily the result.  So if a player hustles to close a block or dig a ball—even if they aren’t successful in their attempt—I’m going to get fired up about the effort.  It’s risky to go all out (what if they fail?), so we need to cheer those players who are willing to flop…because they believe they’ll eventually succeed.
  3. Be intentional about making our yesterdays. Today is tomorrow’s yesterday.  What are you going to do today to put your athletes in a position to draw on their bravery reserves?  Decide what your focus of the day/week/month is going to be and make it happen!  If your focus is tangible (we need to convert more turnovers into points), then devote the majority of practice time to it.  If your focus is intangible (your team needs to be teamier), then design drills that bring that skill to the forefront.

I can’t think of a sport that doesn’t require its athletes to be willing to take risks. Those risks could be failing in front of their friends and family, it could be letting their teammates down…but it could also be succeeding when they weren’t entirely confident they would.  There’s a saying that says, “fortune favors the brave”.  Sure, our athletes could fail, but they certainly won’t succeed if they’re unwilling to be brave and take a risk.

Coach Dawn Writes is back writing helpful articles.  Did you know that you could get the articles emailed directly to your inbox?  Well, it’s free and easy.  Just click here and you’re all set!

Being On A Team Isn’t Always Fun…And That’s Okay


There was a time when I felt frustrated by my lack of voice at a particular place of employment. Those two things (frustration combined with lack of voice) are tough to overcome and can lead to malaise, a bad attitude, and a desire to look for greener pastures. Those things, in turn, can then lead to team-wide discontent…and that will inevitably lead to less success in terms of team dynamics, as well as fewer wins and more losses.

This, of course, leads me to think of my team. Is there a way to make sure they know how to handle these kinds of feelings? I wanted to think of ways to help them push through this normal life situation. How can coaches guide their athletes through the process of not being in charge/knowing your role/blooming where you’re planted?

I read a great post over at Leadership Freak, where he gave fifteen ways our players could lead themselves. I like the idea of helping them find ownership in something of their athletic experience, because a lot of it is out of their control.

5 Ways To Control The Controllables

  1. Remember what matters to you. During the low points of the season, whether it’s because they’re not seeing as much playing time as they’d like or just because their school work is kicking their butts, it’s good to remember why they love the game.
  2. Evaluate yourself with greater rigor than you evaluate others. This one really stands out to me…I probably should have written it first. Too often, players who are in a bad mental cycle spend all of their time tallying up their teammate’s flaws rather than looking in the mirror. Remembering that they can only control themselves will help them feel more in control of their lives.
  3. Build transparent relationships that strengthen your soul. I’m not one of those coaches who feels their team should all be BFFs, but I do think they should have a friend or two on the team who aren’t afraid to tell them the unfiltered truth.
  4. Reflect on your journey. Try keeping a journal. I’ve heard this advice from quite a few coaches who have their teams write reflections in journals. Some teams do it daily, after practices as well competitions. Others journal at set points during the season. Questions like: What am I learning? Who am I becoming? Am I being a great teammate? Would I want to coach myself?
  5. Extend second chances to yourself. Probably a lesson all of us could learn, huh? They’re probably going to fail at some or all of these things during the season. They may fall into a funk where they have a bad attitude or even think of quitting the team or transferring. That’s when they’ve got to find their positive headspace and remember that they love the game.

Having these conversations with our athletes can help them frame their feelings of discontent as normal rather than a sign that they aren’t where they’re meant to be.

Why Collaboration Trumps Cooperation On Teams


“Collaboration is hard.” –The Science of Teamwork

When I was a student, I greatly disliked group projects.  There were many reasons, mostly stemming from my big-headed idea that I could do better all by myself.  Then I figured out that everyone in the group was thinking the same thing!  What we were really doing, according to the article I linked above, was cooperating, not collaborating.

What’s the difference?  Cooperating means identifying a common goal and proceeding on an individual path which fits under the umbrella of the goal.  Cooperation means the goal can be accomplished singly and then fit together neatly at the end.  Cooperation, according to the article, means that each individual can be praised for their particular effort.

Collaboration is hard, but necessary, if our teams are to accomplish anything great.  Collaboration is messy and sometimes emotional because it necessitates that give up their personal desires for the greater good of the team.  So how do we take our teams from cooperating to collaborating.

3 ways to encourage collaboration on our teams

Give up individual goals.  I know that we all talk to our players about their particular goals for the season…and that’s a good thing.  But it’s not the first thing.  If the team wins a national championship, but that player didn’t accomplish all of her goals, I’d hope she would see the season as a resounding success.

Emotional give and take.  When I was a player, me and a friend (who also happened to be a teammate) where fighting for the same starting position.  Both of us had to be adults about the decision that was going to be made…one of us would start and the other wouldn’t.  And it would be for the good of the team.  As hard and emotional and challenging as the situation was, it was worth it because it wasn’t about us, but about the team.

Work in new ways that may not be comfortable.  I would guess that all coaches are in the business of challenging our players.  We challenge them to try different skill techniques.  We challenge them to be vocal leaders.  We challenge them to think more critically about our sport.  And all of that challenging isn’t comfortable for them…but they do it (or at least they should) for the good of the team.  They understand that their coach wouldn’t ask them to do anything that wouldn’t also greatly benefit the team.

While it’s harder to receive individual accolades using the collaboration method, it’s crucial for our teams to embrace the challenge.

How To Motivate Our Teams


Daniel Pink focuses on how we’re motivated in a TEDtalk called, “The Puzzle of Motivation“.  He spends a lot of time going into why we’re going at motivation all wrong and in an outdated way.  In example after example, he shows us that offering up rewards (or delivering the promise of punishment) doesn’t work in today’s world.  The talk is about eighteen minutes long…check it out!

His talk is coming from a business point of view, so certainly a lot different than the world of athletics.  The athletic “business model” allows for some behaviors that would be outside of the norm for an office setting, but I think we can learn from a lot of what Pink says.  Our athletes are growing up in this world where they want to be internally motivated and I think most of us can agree that a motivated athlete is an engaged athlete.

Pink says that traditional ideas of management (you get more money if you perform a task quicker, etc.) are great if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, self-direction works better.  And this is where I see the athletic world as being a bit different…because sometimes coaches do just want compliance.  If we see a weakness in our opponent that our team can take advantage of, we just want to players to do exactly what we say and not ask questions.

On the other side of the coin, we need our athletes to be able to identify trends within a game without us telling them every second.  Most sports don’t have tons of timeouts where we can relay information, so we rely on our players to understand what they’re seeing, remember the scouting report, and react to those things in an appropriate manner.

So how do we create this engaged (passionate, hard-working, accountable), yet compliant, player? If I knew, I’d be a gazillionaire! But I have some ideas.

  • Create trust.  And not just that the coaches know what you’re talking about, but that you care about your players and want the best for them.
  • Build in autonomy when possible.  We’ve done 30-day challenges in the off-season where each player was responsible for their own work.  As coaches, we focused on why this was important and how each person’s contribution was vital to our success.  Pink says we all have an urge to direct our own lives.  I think this is a great way to give them autonomy, but within a team construct.
  • Have amazing team chemistry. Huge!  If you don’t got it, go get it.  If you got it, fight like heck to keep it.
  • Empower leaders.  Pink talked about self-direction within the business world and I think a great way to bring that to athletics is a captain-led practice.  It teaches your captains how to lead, plus you’ll find out what drills the team likes and what things they think they need to work on…a win-win.

There you have it!  Let’s all get out there and motivate our teams.

Coaches Corner: What Is Advanced Teamwork?


Becky Schmidt is the head volleyball coach at Hope College and has had an amazingly successful run. Consistently in the top five of Division III, she’s figured out what it takes to put winning teams together. In talking to her about some strategic moves she made within her team, she used a term I’d not heard before: advanced teamwork. She talked about managing a larger than normal team and how she went about creating “a team” within that construct.

What is advanced teamwork?

  1. Hold one another accountable. This one is a doozy. The only, and I mean only, teams I’ve had that have been successful have been able to effectively navigate the world of peer management.
  2. No cliques. Another tough one, because teams have natural divisions within them…most notably, classes. Generally, your freshmen will hang out together, your sophomores, you get the idea. Part of this should be handled by the captains, they’ve got to build bridges within the team. The other part is on us, as coaches, to stay on top of our team’s chemistry.
  3. Respect one another. I think this could be underrated by our players. How many times have you had issues on your team because one player thinks another isn’t working hard? Or thinks a teammate didn’t do something they were supposed to do? Or isn’t performing up to their potential? All of those problems have respect as a root cause.
  4. Seek out greater relationships. I really like this one, it may be my favorite of all of Schmidt’s advanced teamwork tips. For players and coaches alike, we’ve got to step out of our comfort zones and really get to know one another. Not just the surface, “Susie is a senior nursing major”…you can learn that from the media guide. Let’s seek to really learn about one another.

Creating “a team” is the biggest challenge and most important duty of a head coach…and the bigger the team, the bigger the challenge. Hopefully, you learn some good tactics to help your team become closer to the coaches as well as one another.

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!

Coaches Corner: Creating A Successful Team Culture

team culturesource

“Winning becomes the byproduct of doing all of the little things right.”
—Melissa Wolter, University of West Florida

Melissa Wolter has a very clear idea of what that quotation above means. It turns out that they’re not necessarily little things, but certainly not X’s and O’s things. Many times, I’ll chat with a young coach and they’re all fired up about their sport and can’t wait to impart knowledge. Which is a good thing…but they don’t always understand there is so much more to coaching than stepping between the lines.

Are you going to have a book full of team rules or a few core principles? What values do you want your program to be known for? How will you use your coaching staff? How will you empower your players to be leaders?

Here are Wolter’s three areas of importance when creating a successful team culture:

Team rules

  • Be on time. Being on time is a sign of respect: for your teammates and for your coach. Beyond that, it’s upholding a commitment…a great life lesson.
  • No swearing. Knowing Wolter, this is a personal value that she holds dearly. If you’re a coach out there that doesn’t mind your players swearing, just remember that part of our job is to prepare them for the real world and at the very least our athletes should have enough control over themselves that they can turn the swearing on and off when required.
  • Always give full effort. If you want to see any coach lose it, don’t work hard. Effort doesn’t require skill. An athlete may have a ceiling on their skill level, but never on their effort level.
  • Communicate. In my opinion, this is the most important of Wolter’s rules. Everything hinges on communication. Think about any problems you’ve had with past teams…I’ll bet they all stemmed from either a lack of communication or miscommunication.


  • Self.
  • Institution.
  • Team.

Encompassing all of these bullet points is doing the right thing: go to class…be active in class, work out on your own, work hard in practice, do the right thing when it would be easy to do the wrong thing. If our athletes do those things, they’ll respect themselves, the school, and the program.

Coaching staff

  • Players have input. Even the most control-freaky of coaches can do this one. Years ago, I heard a coach say he gave his team input over where they went out to dinner after a game. He really didn’t care and the players appreciated having a say…a win-win!
  • Connect on and off the court, gain trust. This is player to player, coach to coach, as well as player to coach. Wolter says that once you gain trust, your players will run through walls for you.
  • Encourage problem-solving among players. Rather than coaches always stepping in, Wolter empowers her players to stretch their leadership wings.

Want more articles about creating a culture? Here you go!

Creating A Connected Culture
Creating A “No Excuses” Culture On Our Teams
6 Steps To Creating A Passionate Team Culture

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!

Coaches Corner: Keeping Your Team Motivated During The Off-Season

hard worksource

“Championships are won between January and August.”—UWF volleyball

When I spoke with Melissa Wolter, head volleyball coach at the University of West Florida, about creating a winning culture, it was pretty insightful. I’d watched a video she’d put up on Facebook showing her team getting after it in the weight room in the off-season. It stuck out to me because I’ve been on a personal mission to relay the importance of off-season work to my team. The quote at the beginning of the article is based on a fall sport’s schedule, so you can adjust it accordingly.

I wanted to know what Wolter does, besides scholarship monies, to keep her team motivated during the off-season. I was floored at how intentional she and her staff are with keeping the off-season fun while the team works very hard. It’s easy to see why she’s had, and sustained, so much success over the years.

6 ideas to help keep your athletes motivated during off-season workouts

  • Minute to Win It games.
  • Random Act of Kindness video.
  • Karaoke contest.
  • Thank team for their effort.
  • Leave motivational notes in their locker.
  • Text players after a good practice.

As you can see, some of the things are for the entire group, while others are for individuals. Wolter says she introduces new ideas every couple of weeks in order to keep things fresh. For me, motivation is such an interesting topic and something we should always be on the lookout for…even adding one more thing to your repertoire could make a big difference.

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!

Coaches Corner: Turning Around A Losing Program


Ron Sweet, the head volleyball coach at Wofford University, is used to winning. His current team is not. So why does a coach, who has won national championships and many coaching accolades, become the head coach at a perennially losing team? Because he enjoys a challenge.

Surely, there were tangible things that he changed about his team: harder practices, tougher off-season conditioning workouts, and more recruiting visits. But an equally important facet of Sweet’s change was intangible. Not to be measured by stats or numbers.

Two criteria for turning around an unsuccessful program

  • Passion for the sport. Sweet is confident that all good coaches, including himself, are passionate about their sport. His goal when taking over the program at Wofford was to have his players match his enthusiasm level. He wants his athletes to want to come to practice rather than having to go to practice.
  • Change team culture. Like many teams in a vicious cycle of losing, the team Sweet inherited was used to losing. They worked hard, they were skilled, but they didn’t quite believe. Like Vanessa Walby talked about in the article about turning her team around, sometimes teams just need a big win. Sweet believes those wins are in his team’s future.

It seems simple: get on board and be passionate about the sport or get left behind. Not only does he want his player’s energy to match his, he expects it.

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!

Coaches Corner: Building Trust With Your Athletes

build trustsource

Trust is built over time. A coach can’t sit down with a player and say, “I need you to trust me” and have it be done. Trust is built on actions, follow-through, and honesty. I talked to Christy Johnson-Lynch, the head volleyball coach at Iowa State University, about how she manages to have great relationships with her players.

3 tips to build trust with your athletes

Formally.  It’s a given that you should have individual meetings with your players. I usually meet with my players at the beginning, middle, and end of the season.

Informally.  Maybe some days you grab a player after practice. Or you send someone a text and tell them they did a good job. Or maybe you’re able to eat at the student dining hall and chat casually with your players in that setting.

Be authentic. When I introduced Johnson-Lynch, I commented on her humble nature. If I didn’t know her and I hadn’t seen her incredible success, I’d be skeptical that someone with her temperament could win in big-time athletics. I asked her how she handles competing against much more “in your face” coaches and she said she’s learned that confidence comes in different shapes and she just needs to be herself. Clearly it’s working for her!

These three tips are great starting points for any coach…be yourself and build relationships.

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!

Coaches Corner: On Changing A Culture


Vanessa Walby is the new head volleyball coach at Washington University in St. Louis, but before that, she was the head coach at the University of Chicago. A perennial loser, Chicago had never even finished in the top half of their conference, let alone achieved a national ranking. So you can understand that folks were probably skeptical about Walby’s quote immediately after being hired:

“My vision for the program is within the next four or five year to have them compete competitively at conference and competitively nationally. My goal by the time the incoming freshman are seniors is that we’re ranked in the top 25 in the Division III NCAA poll.”

As crazy as it sounded then…she went out and did exactly what she said she’d do. Here’s how:

5 keys to changing a losing team culture

  1. Support from her administration. Walby was able to get a full-time assistant and a great recruiting budget. None of us operates in a vacuum and we need our administration to support our program’s path to success.
  2. Tougher scheduling. Like many teams that are used to losing, her team didn’t understand what it took to compete at a high level. Scheduling Top 25 teams helped show her team where they wanted to be and also helped prepare them for conference play in one of the toughest Division III leagues in the country.
  3. Changed the practice schedule. This was a two-fold change. First, she changed her practice times so that they made more sense for athletes at a highly academic institution. Secondly, she used her preseason for individual practices in order to instill technique and skill.
  4. Seniors were hungry for success. Whenever you take over a new team, the returners (especially the upperclassmen) need to buy in so that the path is smooth for whatever the new coach has in store.
  5. Winning a big game turned the tide. We coaches can say that we believe in our teams until we’re blue in the face, but sometimes they need some proof. Beating the team they’ve never beat or taking down a nationally ranked opponent can do the trick.

Changing a negative team culture isn’t easy, but it can be done. Hopefully these tips can help you!

The Vanessa Walby series

Coaches Corner: Vanessa Walby
Coaches Corner: The Power Of Female Mentorship

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!