Here’s the scenario, a young coach gets a shot at leading their own team for the first time. They’ve been waiting for years, and they are eager to get started shaping their athletes into a unified whole. However, they decide to take the following 5 steps and find that they’ve lost everything they’ve been hoping for…a team willing to follow their lead.
Step 1: Present your team with unrealistic goals
Goals are great for identifying what an individual or group might want to accomplish, but they can be a massive distraction to the overall process of development. Establishing a goal that’s far beyond the capacity of your players’ ability to achieve is setting them up for failure and disappointment.
Another reality of lofty, ambitious goals is that they can become an albatross around the neck of your players. If your kids are constantly reminded that they’re not measuring up to your expectations, they will eventually quit trying if they’re not equally motivated from within (which most players aren’t). Losing the internal fire of your athletes is a sure sign that your team is not going anywhere.
For a different look on the balance between goals and the process of improvement, consider reading Burn Your Goals by Joshua Medcalf. As you might expect, Medcalf is a proponent of focusing on the process rather than the goal. This challenged my think in particular because I was raised to value goals as inspiration and motivation. At the very least, Burn Your Goals will offer an alternative view of how we might achieve our greatest potential over the long-term.
Step 2: Begin by attacking the wrong problem
Many coaches who are just starting their career are full of energy and enthusiasm, but they struggle to know where to direct it. Each team has its own needs that must be met in order to reach their full potential. The players might need to express frustrations with each other or the coaching staff from time to time. Or, maybe they need to decompress in practice with a game, contest, or dance party. It’s difficult to find their needs, however, if you’re not paying attention. For instance, when I first started coaching, I spent an enormous amount of time preparing for practice. Every minute was accounted for, and every drill was strategically placed. So what’s the problem with this? Well, I had left no room to improvise in my practices if the need arose. I spent so much time planning that I became a slave to my schedule…always thinking that we were falling behind. What my team desperately needed was for me to recognize that they occasionally needed some relief from the grind.
Step 3: Assign players roles that aren’t quite right for them
Each player is unique, having their own likes, dislikes, talents, and areas of improvement. Seasoned coaches know that players can’t be completely transformed in a single season. They see the long-term potential of each player and begin to slowly introduce concepts that can add to their game. There are coaches, however, who see their team as a collection of pawns which need to be placed on the board to do their singular, specific job. This just doesn’t fit the character of some athletes…especially the great ones.
The work really begins with evaluating your players, which also involves getting to know them. Once you have a handle on the landscape of your team, evaluate them again. Be in a constant state of observation and analysis of your players. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, your players need your attention. They need to know that you see them, and are aware of what’s going on in their lives. Second, your players change, grow, develop, and sometimes fall apart. If you’re attentive to them, you can make the necessary accommodations that will give them a clear path to success.
Step 4: Change philosophies midseason
Trust is a central theme in leadership. It must be developed both for the players toward their coach and from the coach to the players. The tricky thing for a coach is to successfully predict how their players will be most successful. Understanding your players’ strengths and weaknesses is critical in picking the direction for your team. This gets easier for a coach with time and experience. But what if you don’t have that experience?
This is the trap for an inexperienced coach. What you know about your sport and what you’re able to teach may not be beneficial for your players. Many coaches, myself included, become enamored with trying out every new thing they learn at a clinic. Or maybe you watch a highly successful program execute an offense you’ve never seen before. Do you try to install it in your next practice? Will you be able to teach it effectively? Do you have the players to run it well?
Coaches who bounce around ideologically will systematically lose their players’ trust. Kids have an innate ability to spot ineptitude. If their coach lacks the conviction, foresight, and dedication to lead them in a consistent manner and direction, they will begin to lose interest. Understand this: When players choose to follow you, they invest themselves in your guidance. Once it’s evident that you are wasting their efforts by going in multiple, haphazard directions, they will begin to store their energy rather than expend it. They know that eventually they will be required to backtrack and start in a new direction.
Step 5: Assume that your way is the only way
Many of us have heard the term, “It’s my way or the highway.” Some of us may have even used it from time to time. In today’s society, this mindset for a coach won’t get you very far. Young people today have access to the entire world via their phone or laptop. They have countless ways to invest their time. It’s also possible for them to read or watch videos about other coaches and how they run their program. Students today are also much more highly connected to students from other schools, which allows for sharing information about their teammates and coaches. This leads to families moving from one school district to another so that their son or daughter can have the best experience possible.
Some coaches may complain that players aren’t loyal to their school or team anymore. As sad as this may be, the highly mobile aspect of our society is well-established. As a coach, it would be in your best interest to embrace this fact rather than dismiss a player’s exodus as a lack of character on their part. Players deserve to have a reason to stay and be fully invested in their team. It’s not about placating your players and giving them whatever they want. It would be more accurate to say that you partner with them, guiding them in the development of their program. They want guidance. They want direction. What they don’t want is to be treated like hired help. Honestly, I don’t blame them. Choose to utilize your team’s perspective, talents, and energy, not dismiss it.
Leading a group, of any size, is a tricky task, and there’s no way to avoid making a mis-step from time to time. In fact, a natural process of growth is failure. After a failure occurs, however, be self-aware enough to realize the mistake and then do the work to get the train back on the track. Leaders should be, by default, proactive in recognizing problems and finding the best, most plausible, solutions to address it. This is true for our teams, our staff, and, most importantly, with ourselves. Be honest with yourself about your performance. Are you performing at your best? Where do you struggle? What are you doing to address the issue? These are difficult questions indeed. Leadership demands that our most critical eye be focused on our own performance first, before we can address the shortcomings in our team.