Tag Archives: Coaching philosophy

Challenging An Athlete’s Beliefs About Their Limits

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We can never know that we can’t do something;
we can only know that we haven’t yet done so.
—Ellen Langer

I watched an athlete perform during the Olympics and after winning a gold medal, she revealed that she listened to the song, I Know I Can, before every competition.  Here’s the chorus, which is sung by kids:

I know I can
Be what I wanna be
If I work hard at it
I’ll be where I wanna be

It’s a great song, positive and empowering.  As is the quotation at the top, from 5 Mindfulness Steps That Guarantee Increased Success And Vitality.  Often, our athletes are too quick to say what they can’t do and what Dr. Langer found out is it’s an impossibility to know you can’t do something.  How about that?  It’s a powerful message.

Of course, poor mindset—like thinking and verbalizing you can’t do something—can create an environment where success will be difficult.  So that’s where we coaches come in to save the day.  For an athlete to say they can’t perform a skill or a team to say they can’t find the success that’s eluded them is a falsehood.  So how can we intervene to stop the negative self-talk and help our teams test their limits.

2 ways mindfulness will help our athletes challenge their limits

  1. Encourage dreaming.  What if our athletes went beyond setting goals?  Goals are great and motivating, but can be limiting.  Perhaps they can be separate categories.  Your team can set goals but also have “why not us?” sessions.  Dream big.  Why not?
  2. Redefine failure.  I had a team that had a goal of winning the conference championship.  We didn’t win, we lost in the finals and we were all devastated.  We set a goal and we failed.  I can tell you something, I’ve never had a more motivated team in the off-season.  We won the championship the following year, in no small part, because of our failure the previous year.

Mindfulness means being present.  Mindfulness means being aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

Saying, “I can’t”, isn’t mindful because it lives in the future.  We should encourage our athletes to stay present.  Worrying about the mistake they’ve just made isn’t being mindful because it lives in the past.  We’ve got to help our athletes fight and battle to stay in the moment…it’s the only thing they can control.

If we consistently challenge their mindset and mindfulness, our athletes will blow through any limits they think they may have.

3 Reasons Why Making Mistakes Is Vital To Your Team’s Success

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Trust me, if you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not learning — or, at least, you’re not learning enough.
The Miracle of Making Mistakes

I enjoyed this article because it has been my mantra as a coach for as long as I can remember and I can’t imagine that there are too many coaches out there who want the sort of timidity that comes from playing it safe.  That quotation above is from an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), which I’d highly recommend you read by following the link.  The fun part of my job is getting across to my players that there is joy in making mistakes and that those mistakes are the best way to get better and here’s how you can teach the same lesson.

First:  Learn to take risks
The opening of the HBR article talks about our obsession with perfection:  from getting A’s in the classroom to avoiding getting in trouble with mom and dad…we’re hard wired at a young age to not make mistakes.  So it’s our obligation as coaches to explain that mistakes are a part of the game and that neither you nor they should expect perfection.  I usually tell my team that if they make twenty five different mistakes, that’s great!  But making twenty five of the same mistakes?  Not so great.  They should take risks and make new mistakes every day.  As the German proverb says, “you will become clever through your mistakes.”

Second:  Learn to manage their emotions when taking risks
Using volleyball as an example, how will your players learn that their heart will be pounding out of their chests when they’ve got the serve and it’s match point?  How will they learn to manage their breathing, their thoughts, and their self-talk if you don’t put them in those pressure situations (in practices and games) and coach them through it?  And that’s the key.  It’s our jobs as coaches to equip them with the tools that they need to successfully navigate risk-taking.

Third:  Learn how to turn failure on its head
This is where your athletes learn that making mistakes will pay off for them.  If they’re challenging themselves to master new skills, they’re going to fail because it’s new.  But if they keep at it, they’ll fail themselves forward and acquire a new skill that they can use to challenge competitors.  Imagine if a baby decided that it could do everything it needed to do by crawling everywhere…how limited would their lives be?!  The same is true for athletes!   It’s our jobs as coaches to challenge our athletes and to give them enough knowledge in practice that they can self-correct mid-competition…and I believe that knowledge is the key to taking smart risks and making smart mistakes.

How do you encourage your team to make mistakes?  Do you think you create an environment where your athletes feel comfortable making mistakes?

Why Weakness Unlocks The Strength Within Teams

If you’ve got fifteen minutes, I’d highly suggest you listen to Caroline Casey’s TEDtalk, Looking Past Limits.  Not only is that an intriguing topic for those of us in the coaching field, Casey is also a fabulous storyteller.

A quick rundown of her story: She was legally blind since birth, though her parents never told her, but rather let her toughen up through battling past road blocks.  She excelled in life, eventually achieving a high profile job where her coworkers never knew her secret.  But that’s not the heart of the story, it’s what happens when she couldn’t hide her blindness anymore.

And that’s where my interest in her story begins…because I believe it can help us with our teams.  It’s a story of belief and vision.  We’ve got to believe in ourselves and combine that belief with a vision that is bigger than us.  Ignoring the obvious irony of a blind person talking about vision, let’s look at how vision is sometimes restricted and how we can free it up…and watch our teams soar!

The first title I came up with for this post was, “Why Vision And Belief Will Make Your Team Great”.  I liked that one a lot and think that it would have been good, but this one is closer to the heart of the story.  Once each team member is willing to admit their weaknesses, they’re on their way to becoming a strong and successful team.

 

When To Bench An Athlete

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“The bench screams.” –Ron Wilson, former head coach, Toronto Maple Leafs

My general philosophy in life is to say what you mean and mean what you say.  But how long is too long to keep saying the same thing to a player?  You’ve told her for an entire season that she’s got to square up to target or keep her elbow high…whatever the correction, she’s just not getting it.  And if she is getting it, she surely isn’t making the changes that you’d like to see.  So when your throat is sore from yelling and your eyes tired from rolling…maybe it’s time to let the bench do the talking.

3 reasons to bench a player…short term

  • Give them a breather: Maybe it’s a freshman who’s freaking out at her first conference match or a senior who’s emotional during senior night, sometimes a player just needs to take a deep breath and refocus.  It may only take a couple of points for her to calm down and come back to herself.
  • Get a spark from your reserves: If your team is stuck in a skill and/or energy rut, a reserve player can be just the ticket!  You’ll probably go back to your original lineup, but it’s nice to know that you can count on your entire team to contribute to your success.
  • Light a fire under them: Hopefully after you’ve taken that starter out to get a spark from the bench, they begin to realize that they need to step their game up.  The ideal reaction would be for that player to come back onto the court and be an absolute monster out there.  She should want to erase any sort of doubt you may have about her ability to positively contribute to the team.

3 reasons to bench a player…long term

  • Lack of effort: She’s just going through the motions in practices and games.  If your team has always prided itself on having a “whatever it takes” attitude to their play, lack of effort is a slap in the face to you, as their coach, as well as their teammates who expect their effort level to be matched.  A player can only control their skill level and playing time to a certain degree, but effort is completely within their control.  Lack of effort is a choice…and a bad one, in my opinion.
  • Not continuing to get better, getting passed up: During preseason, you can always tell the folks who worked their tails off in the off-season.  Typically because they’re in such good shape, their skill level is higher at the beginning of the season.  Then slowly, but surely, the rest of the team catches up and eventually blows right by them.  As coaches, we want to reward the player that worked hard when no one was looking, so we pull her aside and let her know our concerns…and nothing.  She’s gotten passed up and it’s time to sit her down.
  • Your starters are awful: There’s a point in the season where it’s time to look to the future.  Your team’s shot at winning the conference are long gone and you’ve got a bench full of players who haven’t played all season.  So why not give them a shot?  If you’re out of contention, that means the starters haven’t been getting it done anyway, so how much worse could your reserves do?  Bench the starters and start the bench…they may not be as skilled, but I’ll bet their effort level will be crazy high.

So there you are…use your bench as a motivating tool and your team may be better off for it.

Tom Hanks Was Right…There’s No Crying In Sports

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Here is Pet Peeve #249:  players that cry in practice.  You’re probably thinking, “oh Dawn, you’re so heartless, sometimes there’s a good reason for crying…stop being so mean!”  In my mind though, there’s never a reason to put self before team and that’s exactly what crying in practice or a game does.  Now, I’m not talking about tears that are the result of an injury or yay-we-just-won-the-championship tears…those are both acceptable reasons for crying in sports.  I’m talking about the tears that stem from frustration, anger, or just plain lack of knowledge as to how one’s behavior affects others.  Let’s look at why I have such a strong opinion about crying and what you should do when faced with a crier in practice.

4 Reasons Why Tears Aren’t The Answer

1.       It’s selfish. When a player cries in a practice or game, they’re saying that their interests are more important than the team’s…plain and simple.

2.       It’s distracting. When there’s a player that cries, the team and coach have a decision to make:  do we attend to the emotional player or do we get work done here at practice or our game?  That’s not fair!  Their teammates shouldn’t have to debate whether they’re being awful people just because they want to focus on the task at hand.

3.       It shows lack of respect. The crier doesn’t respect the work that the coach has put into practice planning, because we’ve got a time schedule to keep.  They don’t respect their teammate’s focus or desire to get better at practice.  And in turn, if it’s not nipped in the bud, the crier could lose the respect of their coach and teammates.

4.       It shows lack of control. There’s no age that’s too young to start teaching our athletes how to manage their emotions.  After all, isn’t that the beauty of sports?  They’ll learn how to win and lose with grace, how to earn or lose a starting spot, and how to succeed and fail in front of others…it’s great!  It’s also our job as their coaches to teach them how to handle life’s ups and downs without it negatively impacting the lives of others.

So You’ve Got A Crier…Now What?

1.       Explain the points above. If you don’t explain those things, they’ll just think you’re being mean…which could spawn more tears (*sigh*) and an exponentially higher level of frustration for you as their coach.  They need to understand that those four things above are contrary to any sort of team success and because of that, you can’t let it slide.

2.       Acknowledge whatever their situation is. Their boyfriend broke up with them, they failed a huge test, they’re playing at an amazingly awful level…whatever it is, you get it, right?  You understand why they’d want to cry, why they’re frustrated, and why they feel like they can’t handle it anymore.  You get it…you just won’t tolerate it, because you and the team still have work to do.

3.       Remind them that they’ve got a mouth. They’ve got to use their words.  You’re a reasonable human being, right coach?  If they came to you with a legitimate problem or concern, you’d listen and the two of you would work it out together, right?  Let them know that you’ll be there for them…but only when they can behave like an adult.  You love them and care for them, but poor behavior is poor behavior and it’s not to be tolerated.

4.       Give them a break. Sometimes the crier can get themselves together and refocus.  Sometimes they can’t and you might have to give them a break.  But it’s got to be legit…you can’t hold it against them!  You can’t say on one hand: come to me like an adult and I’ll listen and we’ll work it out…and then when the crier tells you the problem, you yell or scream or are just generally pissed.  Maybe you allow them finish practice with the understanding that they’re going to be terrible, or maybe you send them home knowing that they’ll be better the next day.

So there you are folks, this is a tough one for a lot of coaches…tears are powerful and disarming.  But stand your ground and turn the situation into a teachable moment.

How To Connect With Your Athletes Everyday

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

What is it exactly?

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

Why is it successful?

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

If you do it correctly, you’ve been MBWAing all season, so the team won’t be startled when you stop and chat with them.  This strategy will pay dividends when and if something big happens within the team that you need to get to the bottom of or you’ve got an important game and you need to be able to have a convo without it being a big deal.

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

Communication Principles For Creating A Leadership Strategy

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In the post, Do You Have a Leadership Strategy For Your Team?, I talked about the importance of having a leadership strategy: How do we pick captains? What characteristics should they have? How do we make sure the process is transparent and can be replicated from year to year?

So that’s what we’re going to focus on!

The following communication techniques are from this post and will keep us focused on our ultimate goal of creating an effective leadership strategy:

  • Formal communication:  I’m sure most of us do this whenever we’re in our captain-picking time of the year.  We say something like, “Hey, we’re going to be voting for captains in a couple of weeks (or whatever your time frame), here are some things we look for in captains.  These qualities should be present on and off the court.  Being a captain is a big deal, it’s an honor, so make sure you’re paying attention so that you can use your vote wisely.”
  • Informal communication: I use this in two ways.  The first being those players who I think will get voted captain.  I start talking to them about it at the end of our season…I want them prepared and I want them acting captain-ly so that they are seen as leaders.  The other way I use this type of communication is in weekly captains meetings where I ask the team leaders how things are going.  Early in the season, I may ask if any of the newbies are feeling homesick.  Later in the season, I’ll keep checking in to make sure there aren’t any interpersonal conflicts that need to be addressed or to find out if the behind-the-scenes tone is generally positive.
  • Communication related to the organization’s rituals and symbols. Older players, alumni, coaches who’ve been around for a long time are essential to helping paint a picture of “who we are” and give context to team culture.  This year, we brought back a championship team to be recognized during one of our matches and our players enjoyed hearing from the alums and seeing the fire that was still in their eyes about competing in our gym.  Those folks can give a fuller picture of the impact being a team leader has had on their life.
  • The messages that leaders send through their every action. I think we, as coaches, are pretty aware of this, but are our athletes?  I’m one of those fake it ‘til you make it kind of coaches.  I tell my team (at least) weekly that their enthusiasm for being at practice isn’t as important as everyone (the coaches, their teammates) thinking they’re enthusiastic about being at practice.  Didn’t do well on a test? I shouldn’t be able to tell by looking at them.  Got in a fight with their best friend?  They should be the loudest talkers in the gym.  A freshmen took a senior’s starting spot?  That senior should be screaming her face off in support.  Leaders/captains put the team first.  This could be the greatest gift we give our players: the ability to control their emotions and how they express them.

I like this strategy!  These are principles from the business world that can be easily adapted to the coaching world.

14 Ways Our Athletes Can Build Their Mental Strength

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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

  1. 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.
  2. Readiness for change. Athletes and coaches have to be nimble, flexible, and adaptable…that’s the only way to beat a savvy opponent.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Preparation for challenges. No season is without twists and turns, use the good times to prepare for the inevitable downturn.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Tenacity.  Never give up. Come in early, stay late…be relentless about getting better.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.

Everyone Is A Critic

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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

  1. Thank you for your observation. Don’t know how I feel about this one. Seems like a blow off to me.
  2. 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.
  3. How might I address this issue? It’s easy to complain, much harder to problem solve. Involve your critic in brainstorming possible solutions.
  4. 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.

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

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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.