One of the coaches I work with always says that we’re the CEO’s of our sport…we’re running the show. So when I ran across this article (Why Every Company Needs a Leadership Strategy), it made me think about all of us head coaches who work so hard to create a winning culture, environment, and winning expectations.
We know we need leaders. We know we should train them, but how? Beyond that, do our athletes know our coaching priorities? What will consider to be “success” at the end of the season? Is it only winning? Does winning without honor count? Do they know why they’re on your team instead of at another school? If not, we’ve got to create an information/training strategy that ensures that the same information is passed down year after year, team after team.
How about amongst your staff? Is everyone on the same page as far as what you’re looking for? Not just positions, but what about personalities? Do you need more gritty players? Or maybe enthusiastic players? How will you tailor your recruiting schpiel to increase the odds of filling your team needs…both tangible and intangible?
There are three requirements for an executable leadership strategy with our teams:
- A leadership selection system, to ensure the team gets the leaders it really needs. How do you pick your captains? Does the team vote? Do the coaches decide? Does the team understand the requirements of being a team captain? Are they able to opt out?
- Leadership development efforts that support leaders so they can adapt to the team’s needs. Once you’ve got team captains, what training is involved? How often do they meet with the coaching staff? Are they given decision-making authority? (It could be something as small as deciding where to eat after the game.)
- A succession management process that identifies, accelerates, and supports the identification and accelerated growth of the next generation of leaders. That’s super business-y sounding, but it’s true. We’ve got to identify future captains and groom them so they’re ready once they’re elected. What would that process look like? Would it entail formal or informal training?
Personally, I need to think a bit more critically about how me pick, educate, and cultivate leaders on our team. For many reasons: to make sure we’re being fair, to make sure the staff isn’t blinded by personal bias (sometimes you just love a player, but they’re not ready to be a captain), and to make sure the team buys in to their captains.
I’ll be back next time to discuss a communication strategy from this same article that will help us make sure the entire team is on the same page.
Sometimes social media gets a bad rap for being a time sucker, which it can be. But most times, I find good stuff there. Whether it be a good leadership article, a timely motivational quote, or (like this time) a great tweet from team building expert Jeff Janssen.
How can we be successful coaches? Or maybe a better way to put it is how can we measure, at the end of the season or school year, that we’ve been successful? Janssen has some ideas.
9 requirements of success:
- Purpose: Why do you coach? As I mentioned in my another post, loving the sport isn’t your purpose (it’s your passion)…why do you coach? Why do you have player meetings? And stress about your practice plans? Why do you watch so much film? What is my why? I believe that athletics creates better humans (I’m biased, I know) and I believe us coaches equip our athletes with the tools they’ll need to make the world a better place and I’m honored to have a part in it.
- Passion: Do you love your sport? Is there a fire in your bones for it? Then that will translate over to your players and they’ll be infected by your zeal.
- Perspiration: I feel like this is obvious, but you should be working hard, Coach. Like, really hard. You’ve got to work hard to create relationships with your players. You’ve got to work hard to know the different personalities on your team and how to motivate them. You’ve got to work hard to keep your team chemistry balanced.
- Plan: How will you handle the inevitable quarrels between teammates? How will you handle having to bench a starter? How will you prepare your team to be clutch at the end of a competition? How will you make sure they’re ready for post-season?
- Patience: Can you wait for your “potential player” to bloom? Can you try different ways of teaching your leaders how to lead? Can you trust the process?
- Persistence: I think it’s a great idea to write down your coaching goals. That way, when you hit the inevitable speed bump, you won’t be moved.
- People: Coaches don’t succeed alone. We need mentors and assistants. We need recruits to buy into what we’re saying. We need families who support the coaching staff in the background. We need an administration who’ll advocate for us.
- Principles: Do you want to be a win-at-all-costs coach? Do you want to sacrifice your values in order to win more games? I think a coach’s goal should be to win with honor.
- Perspective: My guess is our definition of success will change as we grow as coaches, as we gain a bit more life experience, and as we’re humbled by our profession.
It’s hard to feel successful. It requires a lot of work. Let’s get ready to put the effort in so that we can be whatever our version of success looks like!
Since I work at a small, Division III school, I wear lots of hats. One of them is Social Media Director for my team. Our latest series I’m doing with the team is one where they give me their favorite motivational quote. Everything they’ve given me has been varying levels of good. The most recent quotation I received made me think of our wonderful coaching profession:
“It never gets easier, you just get better.”
If that doesn’t perfectly sum up what we do, I don’t know what does! So many start off in this career and think, “I love my sport, I was good at it when I was a player, I want to coach.” I generally challenge new coaches with this mindset, because quite honestly, that’s not a good enough reason. Those are the coaches who fizzle out, get overwhelmed, and burned out.
There are a lot of things we do that don’t really have to do with why we enjoy our sport…but they are a part of coaching. So think about it. Why do you coach? Check out this post that talks about why knowing your “why” is so important. This knowledge is part of what makes things get easier as we move along in our coaching journey.
Take heart. If you’re new and feeling like you’re the worst coach ever, that’s probably not true. Keep learning, keep asking questions, keep getting better. For those of us who are oldies but goodies, the advice is the same. Getting better doesn’t just happen, we’ve got to be intentional about it.
“The most effective form of leadership is supportive. It is collaborative. It is never assigning a task, role or function to another that we ourselves would not be willing to perform. For all practical purposes, leading well is as simple as remembering to remain others-centered instead of self-centered.”—Great Leadership Isn’t About You
Teaching our athletes to lead is a big job. Failing to set the ground rules for what you want leadership to look like can lead to hazing, “mean girl” tactics, cliques, and ultimately ineffective performances. We can’t expect our athletes to know what we want if we haven’t explicitly laid it out for them. In the absence of a coach’s direction, the athletes are going to fill in the gap and I’m sure we can all agree that that probably won’t go well!
I believe our team leaders want to be taught and I know our teams want to be led by captains who make it easy to follow them. What leaders are easy to follow? The author listed some characteristics in the quotation at the beginning…those are a good start:
- I rely on my captains to be a go-between. They work closely with the team as well as the coaching staff. Ideally, they understand that they perform an important role in the team’s success. They should be close enough to their teammates that they know when things are going a bit sideways and they need to tell the coaches. But they should also know when not to tell the coaching staff. My most effective team captains squashed issues before I even knew what was going on!
- Our teams are faced with the conundrum of needing to be both collaborative and competitive. If you’ve got two players who play the same position, they will both benefit from in-practice competition, but surely they know that once the whistle blows at game time, they’re expected to support the team…whether or not they’re on the court. Collaboration should be built into our team cultures, our captains should always be looking to take advantage of opportunities to collaborate. Asking the younger players questions and not creating a “captain clique” will help create those collaborative feelings on the team.
- In the trenches. I don’t want captains who say, “Freshmen always do ________ (insert task here).” Freshmen (or newbies) shouldn’t always carry stuff, be expected to defer to upperclassmen, or be treated in a second-rate manner. That kind of behavior signals insecurity in the leader. It’s hard for players to follow a captain that lacks confidence and tries to raise themselves up by pushing their teammates down. Everyone pitching in helps to create good feelings among the players, regardless of how long they’ve been with the team.
- Other-centered. I’ve had captains who would stay after practice with a lesser skilled teammate and help them with skill work…that’s great. I’ve had captains who’ve told me about a teammate who beyond-the-norm homesick…that type of concern is necessary. And we’ve had captains who, after I’ve announced that perhaps an extended conditioning session would be more productive than working on skills, gather the team together to figuratively whip them into shape.
Of course I’ve had ineffective captains as well, but that’s not what this post is about! It’s about giving our team leaders the necessary skills that make them easy for their teammates to follow. If we set the standards high for our captains, they will rise to the challenge.
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“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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Coaches ask for a simple, but very hard, thing from our athletes: complete focus for a couple of hours each day. I think this is a difficult mental task for our players to manage…I also think it requires practice. I don’t know if it’s fair of us to ask our players to do these things without giving them the space to practice these mental skills. Here are fourteen ways are athletes can break “focus” down and take control of their mental headspace:
14 powerful ways our teams can build their mental strength
- Perspective. A great mental challenge of being on a team is putting the team’s goals first…even when those goals are in opposition to a player’s personal aspirations.
- Readiness for change. Athletes and coaches have to be nimble, flexible, and adaptable…that’s the only way to beat a savvy opponent.
- Detachment. This is a call to not take things personally, but to focus on what they can accomplish, not any perceived slights from the coaching staff.
- Strength under stress. This one is the name of the game, right? Competition is stressful and, ideally, we’ve equipped our athletes with the tools to manage themselves so that they can shine under the bright lights.
- Preparation for challenges. No season is without twists and turns, use the good times to prepare for the inevitable downturn.
- The right attitude toward setbacks. I want my athletes to embrace their personal setbacks, because that means they’ve tried to get better. If they never experience frustration/failure/setbacks, then they’re not pushing hard enough.
- Self-validation. Many times, I tell my players that only they know how hard they’re working. I can come up with tough workouts, but it’s up to them to make them as challenging as possible. Working hard is a mental exercise and it’s their opportunity to push when perhaps they could get away with not pushing.
- Patience. Every player on every team at every school wants to win on the first day of practice. Special players and teams have the patience to work every day over the course of a long season.
- Control. Is your athlete grumpy because you corrected them in practice? Are they disappointed they’re not playing with the first team? It’s our job as their coach to remind them that they, and only they, are in charge of the attitude they present at practice.
- Endurance in the face of failure. Quite honestly, our athletes’ goal should be to fail every day. I want my players operating at the outer edges of their ability—where failure is more likely—because I want them to challenge themselves to do what they didn’t think they could do.
- Unwavering positivity. We have to encourage our players to be a positive light on the team. There is always a Negative Nelly on the team, hopefully our athletes will have the guts to stop them in their tracks.
- Tenacity. Never give up. Come in early, stay late…be relentless about getting better.
- A strong inner compass. This is a great locker room skill. When others may be grumbling, this athlete challenges themselves to do the right thing and support the direction the coach is taking the program.
- Uncompromising standards. The standard is the standard, regardless of how hot it is, or how many injured players your team has, or how well other teams are doing. Our athletes shouldn’t bring the standard down, but rather rise up to the standard.
What if we challenged our teams to do a few of these each day? What if, when presented with a mental challenge, we reminded our athletes that this was getting them mentally tougher for a future opponent? What if we posted this up wherever we practice so that our teams have a powerful reminder of what is required of them…beyond the skill they’re trying to master? What if we framed our disappointment with their lack of engagement/focus/whatever with an opportunity to be mentally better than our opponent?
Check out this Inc. article, which served as inspiration for this post.
Coaching, much like parenting, is a thankless job. It seems that no matter what a coach does, there’s someone waiting in the wings to criticize the recruiting technique, in-game move, or the coach’s knowledge.
I’ll never forget being on a high after making it to NCAA’s with a talented team…only to have two players quit a few months later. Buzz kill.
What I’ve learned in my years of coaching is to be open to both criticism and praise, but to take them both with a grain of salt. So I was excited to read Leadership Freak’s blog post about handling a critic/critique.
He says that there are three possibilities for your critic’s actions:
- Some jerks are actually trying to be helpful, they just suck at it. As I look back at various parents and players that I’ve had to deal with, I think most fall into this category.
- The criticism has a grain of truth in it. My default position for criticism is to dismiss the person as illogical. Sooo, I run it by our assistant coach to see what he thinks.
- Your critic is a jerk. This is most definitely the smallest percentage of critic that I experience (at least, that’s what I tell myself) and I count myself lucky.
The beauty of being in charge is being able to control yourself and your reactions. While I may be cussing them out in my head, this cucumber stays calm and cool when faced with coaching’s sometimes unfortunate interactions.
4 Possible responses to a coaching criticism
- Thank you for your observation. Don’t know how I feel about this one. Seems like a blow off to me.
- What makes you say that? I like asking questions to start off what I think may be a difficult convo. That way, I respond to concerns directly from the horse’s mouth rather than relying on what I’ve heard through the grapevine.
- How might I address this issue? It’s easy to complain, much harder to problem solve. Involve your critic in brainstorming possible solutions.
- Wow! I hadn’t thought of it that way. Just because someone sees a situation differently, doesn’t necessarily make them wrong. If our conversation is fruitful, then I should have gained some insight into why they’re upset/critical/not happy. Ending with this sentiment gives both sides a chance to explain where they’re coming from.
If you don’t want to get wet, then don’t swim. If you don’t want criticism, then don’t coach. Hopefully, this gave you some ideas on how to effectively manage the critics in your midst.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you know I’m a huge fan of TEDtalks. I just watched a great one by a principle of an epically underperforming school. Linda Cliatt-Wayman’s talk gives details about just how bad the situation at the school was when she arrived…and it’s depressing.
But for those of you out there who are taking over a team that has historically underachieved or are looking to turn around the fortunes of the team you coach, her talk should be inspiration for you. Paraphrasing one of many awesome points from her talk for our purposes, low expectations from coaches play a major role in the destruction of a team’s culture.
So how do we fight the inertia of low expectations? Here are the three points to she said helped guide the amazing turnaround of her failing school.
3 Steps To Turn Around Your Underachieving Team
- If you’re going to lead, LEAD. First things first, assemble the best leadership team you can…assistants, captains, etc. Cliatt-Wayman emphasized the importance of not hiding from the problem and being able to change things that aren’t working. At their best, leaders make the impossible possible. She also discussed making sure her students knew what her non-negotiables were…what are yours? Mine are athletes who walk in the gym and don’t put their teammates first and don’t bring a competitive mindset.
- So What? Now What? Of her three main points, this one is my favorite. She says the primary responsibility a leader of an underperforming team has is to eliminate excuses. When I think of times when my team hasn’t reached their goals, there were always many excuses and not many players accepting responsibility. Cliatt-Wayman’s point is to challenge our athlete’s view of the problem…so what we have a lot of injuries, what are you going to do to step up? So what you lost your starting spot, how much harder are you willing to work to earn it back?
- If nobody told you they loved you today, remember I do. Our players need to know that we care about them as people and not just what they bring to the team. It’s our job to believe in the possibilities of our athletes. So whether you have organized meetings, text/call your players, or use your warmup time to chat with your athletes, taking time to get to know them will make everyone’s experience much better.
I certainly am not here to say that turning around an underperforming team will be easy, but it can be done. Have a plan, have high expectations, and care about your athletes.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
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:
- 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?
- 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.
- Figure out what doesn’t need to be changed. Similar to #2.
- Evolution. Slow, steady change. Probably best for a team you’re currently coaching.
- Revolution. Fast, radical change. Probably best for taking over a new team.
- Set the strategy. Where will you start first? Staff improvements? Recruiting? Increasing the skill base of your current players?
- Come up with a structure/plan. Implementing the strategy.
- 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.