Category Archives: Team chemistry

Coaches Corner: What Does Enthusiasm Look Like?


Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Maybe in your life, you get a chance to chat on the phone with incredibly successful Big Ten coaches, but it is quite the thrill for me.  Speaking to Kelly Sheffield, the head volleyball coach at the University of Wisconsin, was awesome.  He made me want to be seventeen years old again, so that I could pick the Badgers all over again.  He oozes enthusiasm.  For the sport.  For our profession.  For his athletes.  And for his institution.

I’d read an interview of his where he talked about his team practicing with intensity and enthusiasm.  So I asked him, what does that look like?  If I were to walk into his gym, what would I see that would make me think of those two qualities?

If you’ve been a reader for a while, you know that my man John Wooden was big on enthusiasm.  In fact, it was one of the cornerstones of his Pyramid of Success.  I’ve been on the enthusiasm bandwagon for a while now and it was nice to have a big-time coach affirm that I’m on the right track.

What tangible qualities does enthusiasm produce?

  • From the players: Connection.  He’s not just talking about hanging out and having fun with one another…it’s more than that.  It happens when there’s a mistake in a drill. The players must immediately connect so that it doesn’t happen again.
  • For the fans: Inspiration.  I went to a major Division One volleyball game a few years ago and the place was electric.  The students were fired up, the band was rocking, and the teams were playing at an absolutely amazing level…the energy was palpable.  A few years later, I went to watch that same institution play and it was crickets in their gym.  The players were flat so, in response, so was the crowd.
  • From the coaches: Passion.  I’m going to talk about this in the next post, but coaches have to bring consistent energy.  If I walked into Sheffield’s gym, I’d see engaged coaches who are actively working with their athletes, not just standing there observing.

Clearly skill and knowledge are important, but enthusiasm can unlock the door to bigger and better things for our athletes.

Check out the Sheffield series:
Coaches Corner: Kelly Sheffield
Coaches Corner: Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Coaches Corner: The Roles Of Player And Coach
Coaches Corner: Four Things To Think About When Considering A New Job

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!

The Two Sides Of Every Coach

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Over the years, the image of VanDerveer has taken two forms, one warm and engaging, one not so much.  Her defining yin and yang appears to be toughness and tenderness. She demonstrates the former as needed; it’s the latter that people close to her often mention.—Game On

Tara VanDerveer has won over 900 basketball games, Pac-10 conference coach of the year ten times, and two national championships.  So she’s pretty good.

The quotation above highlights the necessities of coaching, whether you coach men or women.  You’ve got to be able to bring the hammer, but you’ve also got to care.  I’ve seen young coaches miss the boat on this one, trying too hard to be their player’s friend that they are unable to effectively coach their team.

3 types of young coaches

  • Young coach ignores obvious problems in order to be “fun”, “cool”, or whatever.
  • Young coach is sometimes super “fun” in practice and other times oddly strict…their teams don’t know what to expect.
  • Young coach is distant with players, not worried about being “fun”, but not able to connect with players on a personal level.

I’m pretty sure when I was first starting out, I chose the last of those options.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve never been burdened by the desire to be perceived as “fun”, so I didn’t care that my team thought I wasn’t “cool”.  In my opinion, that’s the best option of those available, but I do think I could have worked harder to show my team I cared about them off the court.

3 qualities of tough coaches

  • Demand consistent effort levels from their athletes,
  • Set a high bar for excellence within their program,
  • Challenge their athletes to embrace the discomfort of getting better.

3 qualities of caring coaches

  • Let their players get to know them,
  • Take an interest in their players personally,
  • Stay in touch with former players.

Both sides of a coach are necessary.  You don’t want to be a soft touch whose athletes take advantage of them, but you also don’t want to be so hard on them that they don’t enjoy their sport anymore.  Finding the right balance is the key to a successful coach-player relationship.

Is Your Best Athlete Your Best Leader?

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When your best players are your hardest workers, you have the chance to be very good.
—Tara VanDerveer

When your best players aren’t vocal leaders.  This is a common problem.  I don’t know how many times I’ve commiserated with another coach about a player who has out-of-this-world talent, but won’t speak up in practice or games.  I’ve tried telling the player that the team needs them to speak up, I’ve tried explaining that the burden of being the best is that their teammates look up to them, I’ve tried it all.  Usually it doesn’t work.  If that person gets picked as a captain (which they usually do), I try to pair them up with someone who will actually talk.

When your best players undermine you.  This one is rare…but it happens.  Your best player smiles in your face, “yes, Coach” and all that, but is tearing you down behind your back.  I’m not talking about the regular, “It sucks that Coach made us run today, that’s crap!”, all players say things like that.  I’m talking about the player who questions your coaching technique, coaching moves, or coaching decisions.  As annoying as it is for players to come to us with questions about those things, it’s catastrophic when they do all of those things in secret.  Even worse, we usually don’t find out about it until it’s too late.

When your best players are lazy.  This is the rarest of them all.  Can they really be your best player if they’re lazy?  Semantics.  Your best player (stats leader in important categories) doesn’t go hard in practice or games, but still manages to be better than her teammates.  You can try to guilt them into working harder by telling them their teammates look up to them.  You can try to force her into exertion through physical punishment, but if they’ve gotten this far by being lazy…they can trick you into thinking they’re working hard.  No matter what your captain policy is (you pick, the team picks, combo), this person most definitely can’t have a leadership position on your team.

When your best players are your hardest workers.  Heaven has opened up and shined on you and your team.  Effort is catchy.  Hard work is catchy.  Desire is catchy.  Belief is catchy.  These players, these high energy/hard working types, infect the rest of the team with their energy.  Their teammates may walk into the gym after a tough day of class wanting to slack off, but this player just won’t allow it.  The team may be losing late in the game, but this player won’t let their teammates stop believing.  These players earn their teammates’ respect by the way they carry themselves each and every day.

Your best players are leaders, no matter what.  They may lead negatively or they may lead positively…but they are ALWAYS leading.  Be sure to have high-quality players in leadership positions on your team.

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.

5 Qualities That Make Every Team Great

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“There are five fundamental qualities that make every team great: communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring and pride. I like to think of each as a separate finger on the fist. Any one individually is important. But all of them together are unbeatable.”—Mike Krzyzewski

Coach K has been tremendously successful on many levels: spanning decades, working with collegiate athletes, working with professional athletes during the Olympics…you name it, he’s done it.  So when someone with that sort of resume tells us what the fundamental qualities of effective teams are, we should listen!

5 traits of great teams

Communication.  We all know it’s great to encourage communication within our teams…I’m sure that is something you already know.  That’s not where it stops though.  Of course we need to have effective communication between coaches on staff and also between coach and player.

Trust.  Our athletes need to trust that we have their best interest at heart, that we’ll be fair—not equal—but fair.  We, as coaches, need to be able to trust that our athletes are working to the best of their ability.  That’s part of the coach-player agreement, right?  We’ll do our best to turn them into the best version of themselves (in terms of our sport) and they’ll do their best to believe in and follow our plan for them.

Collective responsibility.  This is the old “there’s no I in team” idea.  I believe one of the fundamental truths of team is that the individual has a responsibility to the team.  That responsibility is to put team first.  Putting team first can look like a lot of things: off-season workouts, excelling in the classroom, etc.

Caring.  About one another, about the team, about the program.

Pride.  In their personal effort, in their team, in the collective struggle to maintain excellence over a period of time.

The last sentence of the Coach K quote is interesting.  Is it hyperbole or is he saying it with conviction?  I’d lean toward the latter.  Whenever I’ve had a poorly functioning team, they have fallen short in one of these areas.

Clear The Way For Excellence


“It’s not enough to accentuate the positive. You have to eliminate the negative.”
Bad is 5X Stronger Than Good

How is your team doing?  Are you stuck in a rut?  Can’t figure out why you aren’t moving forward?  What if you’ve got negativity going on? What if a select, but powerful, few of your players are sabotaging the success of the group with their Debbie Downer view of the world?

What to do?

Face it head on.

4 things we must eliminate from our teams to experience success

  1. Bad practices.  This was from a business blog, so I don’t think he meant sports practices.  Poor team culture and ineffective norms will hold even the most talented teams back.
  2. Nasty people.  I strongly believe that our role as coaches is to help guide young people as they’re navigating the world of adulthood.  That being said, there have been a couple of times in my career where I’ve waited too long to get rid of the bad apple.  One rotten apple truly can spoil the bushel.
  3. Destructive attitudes.  “Quickly deal with lack of cooperation, rudeness, laziness, or self-serving behaviors. When you see bad, shine a light on it.”  Sometimes we coaches chicken out and take the easy road rather than having that uncomfortable conversation.
  4. Negative beliefs.  Does your team really believe in your vision for the program?  If they don’t, it’s time to figure out how to get them on board or how to replace them.

Negativity breeds negativity.  One player quits, it opens the door for another.  One teammate complains about the coaching, the rest suddenly think the coach is the real problem.

Eliminate the negative attitudes and people and clear the way to success.

Can Commitment Be Measured?


As coaches, we think we have all the answers, right?  That’s great, because I have no idea how to answer the question I posed in the title.  There are some things that look like commitment, but they could easily be other things:

  • A player that comes to practice early.  Could also be avoiding doing homework.
  • An athlete comes in regularly to get treatment in the training room.  Everywhere I’ve been the training room is gossip and hangout central, maybe they’re just being social.
  • One of your players always finishes first when you have your team run.  Some folks are gifted runners and the fact they finish first is more a result of genetics than effort.

I’m sure we could all come up with other scenarios that look like commitment…and maybe they are, but I’m convinced I can never be sure.  I’ve been wrong on both ends of the spectrum.  I’ve had athletes I was sure were committed, only to be wrong, wrong, wrong.  I’ve also had athletes who I wasn’t convinced were in it for the long haul, only to realize I’d mislabeled them.

So what does commitment look like?

  • Is it being at practice every day?
  • Is it doing all the lifting?
  • Watching film?
  • Helping with recruiting?
  • Is it holding a leadership position?
  • Is it doing the off-season workouts?

Honestly, I don’t know.  I think everything on that list is just a requirement of being on a team…nothing above and beyond there.

Is commitment a consistency of doing the right thing all the time?  After all, the bare minimum of being on a team is a huge time commitment.  Or can commitment be measured by the result?  Is a mightily transformed athlete the result of a commitment to get better?

I think the essence of the answer to the opening question is in the heart of the athlete.  Are they working to improve at each practice or just showing up?  Are they watching film with a critical eye or just enjoying watching a game?

Perhaps we need to think of commitment on a continuum…

What do you think?

10 Essential Characteristics Of Winners


“I want winners!” –Mike Singletary, former Head Football Coach, San Francisco 49ers

Recruiting is any team’s lifeblood.  You need new people for different ways of looking at things, different skill sets, and to take your team to the next level.  Beyond the measurables, what makes one player a winner and another fall short?  If I knew the definitive answer to that one, I could retire in the south of France!  I’m sure most coaches and leaders believe that there’s more than just skill that contribute to making someone a winner.  Let’s use the book Values Of The Game by Bill Bradley to help shed some light on the intangibles that separate those who are just highly skilled from those who carry the qualities of a winner.

1.       Passion: A winner loves to play and they have fun playing, they’re what some coaches call gym rats.  No one to play with?  They’ll play alone…the opportunity of playing the sport brings them joy.

2.       Discipline: Winners follow the game plan.  Think about the running back that has to patiently wait for the offensive line to open up a hole…that’s discipline.  Winners understand that they need to not only discipline their bodies through practice, they also know that their minds need to be reined in through that same practice.

3.       Selflessness: Winners know their role on the team and are inwardly and outwardly happy with it.  You won’t find them grumbling in the background or trying to get others to be disgruntled with them, they put the team first.  If you’ve got a team full of folks willing to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team, then you’re well on your way to a close-knit team and a team of winners.

4.       Respect: Winners respect their coaches, their teammates, the department’s support staff, the officials.  Beyond that, winners are students of the game.  They love watching video, studying up on the next opponent, and working on any weaknesses within their own game.

5.       Perspective: Winners know two very important things.  They know that they need to practice…no matter how good they are and they know that they need their teammates…no matter how good they are.

6.       Courage: Winners have the courage to give 100% for their team, to risk failing or falling short.  They courageously play through the times when their game is “off”, because they know that the team is counting on them.  Winners are willing to take chances.

7.       Leadership: A winner knows that it’s their job to get their teammates to truly believe in their team goals.  Beyond that, they’re usually your most prepared players…for preseason, for practices, and for games.  Finally, and most importantly, winners are respected by their teammates…after all, can you really be a leader if no one follows?

8.       Responsibility: Winners know that they owe it to their team to complete their off-season workouts, to follow the rules, and to be a friend…not just a teammate.  They also understand that it’s their responsibility to stay mentally and physically focused at practice.

9.       Resilience: Defeat, bad games…winners know how to let those go.  As a matter of fact, the game right after their disappointing performance is likely to be one of their best.  Winners know how to bounce back.

10.   Imagination: Winners are winners in their minds way before they win on the court.  They visualize their success and then go about the hard work of making it happen.  Winners imagine themselves as great.

There you go coaches…now go out and find some winners!  (Click here if you want to recognize a loser when you see one!)

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10 Traits Shared By Losers…and Feared By Coaches


When you hear the word “loser”, you think of awful people with no ambition in life.  But that’s not always the case, sometimes they are incredibly talented, charming, and fun people to be around.  Sometimes they’re your captains, your leaders, and the people of influence on your team.  They’re tricky, those losers.  They can sometimes even look like winners…until you delve a little bit deeper.  Both winners and losers are skilled, but losers have an innate quality that will eat away at the fabric of your team.  Want to learn how to stay away from those losers?  Well, read on!

10 Traits Shared By Losers…and Feared By Coaches

1.       Indifference: While winners are passionate about their sport and getting better at it, losers are just “meh”.  They’re the folks you look at and think, “if only they would work hard, they’d be so good.”  But they won’t work hard, because they’re fine with just getting by.

2.       Disorder: Winners thrive on discipline…of mind and body, while losers are free wheelers.  You may think that your player is a winner because you haven’t done anything that negatively impacts them.  But bench them for a play or sub them out of a game and you’ll see that they are unwilling to follow the game plan…which will of course lead to disorder.

3.       Selfishness: Losers are selfish, it’s all about them.  If they do something great in a game, they’re excited and seeking out high fives.  But if they make a mistake, they withdraw and reject any efforts by their teammates to console them.  These are the players that make it difficult to maintain any sort of team chemistry.

4.       Disrespect: While winners spend tons of time studying film and finding out how to be a better athlete, losers slide by on natural talent.  As the rest of the team is scouring over their scouting reports pre-game, the loser sits in the locker room texting their friends…they don’t respect the game or the effort that is essential to become good at it.

5.       Narrow focus: You can tell a winner that their teammates are essential to the team’s success and they’d agree, but a loser?  They’re so focused on themselves and what they need that they may have forgotten that they even have teammates!

6.       Fear: Winners take chances while losers hold back.  Losers are afraid to take risks, so they do things that they’ve always done that have always worked…they are firmly entrenched in their comfort zone.  Their coaches will scratch their heads wondering why the player hasn’t gotten any better, but unfortunately they will be the dreaded player with “potential” that is never realized because they’re afraid of making mistakes.

7.       Weakness: Sometimes losers can camouflage themselves as winners…until crunch time.  While winners will rise to the occasion, losers inevitably shrink under pressure.  They don’t mind being “the man” when everything is great, but when you need them to make their free throws…you can’t find them.

8.       Freedom: Leadership is something that winners willingly take on, but losers will shirk this responsibility.  Don’t get me wrong, they may be a captain, but that certainly doesn’t make them a responsible leader.  Losers want the freedom to slack off on their summer workouts, go halfway in the weight room, and be contrarian in practice.  With all of that freedom, who has time to be a leader?

9.       Defeatism: As we talk about these losers, I don’t want you to think that these are bad people.  It’s probably quite the opposite, you probably really like them.  Sometimes a player becomes a loser because they’re soft-hearted and can’t let go of a mistake or a loss or a criticism.  They ruminate, they play it back in their heads over and over…they’re so stuck in the past that they’re of no use to your team in the present.

10.   Reality: Losers can only see what’s in front of them.  The winners on your team can close their eyes and see their goals coming true in the future.  Losers only see what is instead of what could be.

There you go coaches…now stay away from those losers!

Keeping Our Players Engaged With Their Teammates


Over the course of a season, we have the opportunity to deal with lots of personnel issues.  Some of them are easy, some of them are quirky, and some of them are tough.  One of the tough ones, in my opinion, is when a player suddenly withdraws from the team.  I saw a great article called, Shutting Others Out, that talked about the reasons that this could happen.  Read on for three of the reasons that a player could isolate herself from you and her teammates.

3 reasons a player may isolate herself from her teammates

1.      They may want something. Some of our players will be passive aggressive by nature.  They’re afraid to come directly to us, so they stew.  In the personality assessment that I use, they’d be the S…resigned that no one wants to hear what they have to say anyway, so what’s the point?  Action item: Reach out to them.  They have things on their mind that are very important to them, but don’t know how to properly assert themselves.  And when you talk to them, reassure them that they don’t have to be nervous about talking to you about anything.

2.      They may have something to hide. If your players think they’ve let you or the team down, they may withdraw.  They’re probably embarrassed at doing whatever it is they did…and they’re surely afraid of the consequences that may follow.  This player is of the “why do today what I can put off until tomorrow” mindset.  They know they’ve screwed up, they know they’re going to get in trouble for it…so they’re going to let you find out any kind of way except from them!  Action item: Get behind the scenes.  Someone on your team knows what’s going on.  So talk to your captains or talk to her bestie on the team to find out what’s happening in her life.  That way you can approach her and come up with a plan of action so that she can be herself again.

3.      They may be hurting. Something happened to them.  Whether it’s a bad grade, a fight with a good friend, or a sick relative…they’re sad, but they really don’t want to talk about it.  These are your independent players who are used to doing everything themselves…and usually they do it pretty well.  They have a tough time admitting that they’re having a problem that they can’t solve…this player will say they’re “alright” if you ask them how they are doing.  Action item: Ask once and then step back.  Alert your captains, have them keep an eye on her and chat with her.  You’ll check in with your captains about how this player is doing, because they’ll just get annoyed if you keep asking them what’s wrong.

We’ve got to keep our eyes peeled for these things…and also know our players personality type so that we can correctly address the situation.