Part One of a Two Part Leadership Series
As coaches, we are instantly hurled into a leadership position, but how do we know if we are actually being effective leaders or if we are just throwing around our assumed power for the sake of self-gain and accolades? It’s simple: we need to take a look at ourselves first and then look at our athletes. Are our athletes confident and joyful or are they lacking confidence and miserable? Reading where our athletes can be a great indicator as to whether or not we are leading them well. Before we get started, I’d like to first mention that while this post is geared towards coaches and athletes, it can truly be applied to any person who is in a leadership position. In this article, it is my goal to look at coaching leadership from a traditionally unpopular perspective and give some ideas that might help us become better leaders to the athletes who are entrusted to us.
Before anything else, we have to look deeply at ourselves. What is our “Why”? What is our philosophy and what shapes that philosophy? We have to be consistent and persistent when it comes to these things. Consistent in that our athletes always know what we expect from them and what they can expect from us and Persistent in continually reinforcing these constructs. If you’re reading this and you don’t know what your philosophy for coaching (or whatever leadership position) is and why you’re doing that job to begin with, I highly encourage you to think about it, write it down and revisit it often. Doing this will help you on days when you have a rough day and can’t remember why it is that you’re doing what you’re doing. Without a clear view of what drives us, we can’t lead and develop our athletes.
Once we have established our “Why”, we then have to take ownership of the fact that modeling proper behavior starts and ends with us. We cannot expect anything from our athletes that we do not first model ourselves. Attitude, enthusiasm, discipline… if we don’t display them, how could we expect our athletes to? Everytime we interact with our athletes we leave an impact. Our words and actions have the power to either build up or tear down our athletes. When we greet our athletes, a smile, enthusiastic pre-training huddle and some high-fives or fist bumps can completely change not only the training session but the athlete’s entire day or week. Obviously, there will be days where we are tired or we aren’t having a great day, but in the training setting we have to step away from our own situations and focus on the reason we are there: the athlete. The key here is that we are cognizant of our impact. I believe that coaching is a privilege given and with that privilege comes the responsibility of recognizing that the behaviors we model have the potential to change our athletes’ lives, for better or worse, no matter the age of our athletes.
Next, we have to recognize that all of our athletes won’t always be on the same level in terms of maturity, ability and emotional status, to name a few. What this means is that we have to meet our athletes where they are at. Again, every athlete won’t show up to your practice or training session ready to get after it every single day, and we shouldn’t expect them to. It is completely on us to meet them on their level and use our coaching gifts to lift them up. So how do we meet them where they are at? Easy. We love them. I know, that four letter word is one that you don’t often hear when referring to sports, but there it is. When I say love, what I mean is to show our athletes that we genuinely care, and not just about the “X’s and O’s” but about the athlete and who they are outside of their sport. Everyone has baggage and it is up to us to know how that baggage affects our athlete’s performance. We have to take the time to get to know our athletes, even if it’s simple conversations that happen over time. One of the most influential coaches in my life that I had the privilege to learn from at UCF, Dr. Duke, always reiterated how incredibly important it is to build relationships with our athletes, to step into their lives and show that we care. It was in his class that I heard the quote that, especially recently, has shaped my coaching style: “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” We can have the best programs in the world but if we don’t have relationships and trust with our athletes, they are useless. Like modeling proper behavior, building relationships starts with us.
Finally, we need to take a look at our athletes. What is our training environment like? Are our athletes excited to be there? Do they work hard because they want to or because we are raising our voices and threatening punishment if they don’t try harder? If we are doing it right, our athletes will be giving us 110% and will be experiencing pure joy doing it. There’s another word that doesn’t get used in sports much…joy. Why do we consider joy to be such a bad thing? Shouldn’t we want our athletes to be joyful? In his book, Dr. Duke explains it best: “I used to interpret joy as a lack of focus. And that meant loss of control. Coaches are all about control. We need to be in control.” But do we? Obviously, it’s our job to make sure that our practices run according to our programs, but within that, if our athletes are getting work done, having fun and enjoying their practice, why should we shut down the joyful in place of our need to be in total control? If we are in this for the right reasons, the answer is: We shouldn’t because coaching isn’t about glorifying us, it’s about building up those who are entrusted to us, not only as athletes but also as humans.
If you’re still reading, I’d like to thank you for your time. I hope that you are as convicted (or re-convicted) as I am to take a good look at where you stand in your leadership position and make adjustments where needed. Know who you are as a leader and what you believe in. Then don’t be afraid to show a little love to your athletes, embrace the joy and find ways to connect with them that go beyond the weight room, turf or court. What we do is reflected in how they respond. If you want athletes who will go to the moon and back for you, show them that you’ll do the same.
Check out these two additional resources to up your leadership game:
This Book (that I quoted):
Duke, Jeff, 3D Coach: Capturing the Heart Behind the Jersey (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2014)
And This list of questions to help you nail down your intent each week: