Coastal Athletic Connection

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The Secret to Coaching Athletes

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Whether you are a sports coach, a strength coach, or a parent who is volunteering to help out their son or daughters team, we all struggle with establishing the culture of our team and getting the players to perform under our guidance. In the team setting, there is always a unique mixture of personalities and temperaments. For example, there is always at least one kid who has the God-given talent, but doesn’t know how to work hard. There is the kid who is super shy in the room, but their play speaks volumes. Lastly, there is the kid who makes up for his or her lack of talent by working harder than anyone else. Having such a diverse group can mean that as a coach, you need to be able to cater to all of them.

            Since every athlete is different, they need to be treated differently. I have heard it said to me many times, that one of the best qualities a coach can have, is the ability to be bi-polar when working with athletes. Yelling at the team may inspire one or two individuals, but the large percentage may need a more caring approach. Some players need you to call them out, while others need you to simply imply what you need them to do indirectly. Now, the question I’m sure most of you have, and the one I had was this: “How do I know what works best for each athlete?” That is a tricky question, especially when dealing with a younger population, such as High School students, because you cannot simply ask them how they want to be treated, as they probably won’t know due to lack of experience. The best way is to be observant and simply spend time with them. You need to get to know your players and see how they act around others. People usually like to be treated the way they treat others (see “Jesus’ Golden Rule”). To correct others and get them to do what you need them to, there are two key components: how you say it, and what you say.

            How you say it refers to the intensity and gravity with which you speak. This refers to your volume (yelling), or speaking with urgency and weight (See Herb Brooks’ speech to team USA in Miracle for a great example of speaking with weight). If one of your players likes to yell and is quite loud, most likely they need you to raise your voice to get your point across. Now, this doesn’t mean you yell at them in the middle of the field or weight room; it simply refers to being able to control what you are saying so that they will hear it and listen. You need to show them with your voice that what you are saying is important and has value. Speak with meaning!

            On the other hand, when needing to correct the shy, quite kid, you will need a different approach. This player usually responds to a more genuine and caring comment. Your voice can be softer, without losing the importance factor, as this athlete will not try to “out-yell” you, as the first example might. Speaking this way will let this player remain calm and comfortable, while being able to take in your message. Nothing puts up the defensive walls faster than yelling at a shy introverted kid. So, be sensible!

            The second component is what you say. Now, there are two ways to say something. You can either be direct or indirect. Once again, you need to pay close attention to the way your athletes speak to you and others to get a sense of how they want things to be told to them.

            If your athlete is very direct, meaning there is no beating around the bush at all, they simply tell it how it is, then treat them the same. If their squat is bad, tell them. If they are running poorly, let them know. Now, this doesn’t mean be mean or beat them down, but just give them the facts. “Hey Billy, drive your knees when you sprint”. Done. No need to add extra fluff, as they won’t appreciate it as much and your point may be lost. If they speak directly to others, this implies that it is how they learn or receive information optimally. A great example is NHL coach John Tortorella. Some players loved his no BS approach, while others suffered from playing for him (aka the Sedins). So, to see which players need this strong-willed approach, pay attention to your athletes and their conversations!

            On the other hand, there are a group of athletes that are very indirect. They beat around the bush and find it hard to come out and simply say what they want to. For these athletes, a different approach is called for from directly telling them. You need to give them the correction in a roundabout way to make sure they get the point, without feeling like they are no-good. A good example is if your athlete is a little on the slow side, your comment could be, “Hey Billy, in order for you to run even faster, try driving up your knees more”. Notice in this example that there was no implication that Billy was slow, or that he wasn’t good at something. You only told him how to be better than he already is (or isn’t).

            Now, you may have heard to use the “Compliment Sandwich” when dealing with people. Open with a compliment to soften the blow, then critique, and then finish with a compliment. For example, “Hey Billy, great job keeping your chest up when you squat. Next time, try and spread your knees more so they don’t collapse in, but good job powering out from the bottom.” While I think this is a great approach for most people, I have found that for some athletes, they don’t respond to it as well as others. Now, while this is simply my own analysis, I feel that by giving two positives, to one negative, the athlete focuses on the good a little too much. Now, while this is not a negative thing, as this will reinforce the good qualities of Billy’s squat, he may be focusing too much on what he did right, maybe out of pride, that he forgets to spread his knees on his next set (the correction).

            For some athletes, the compliment will soften to blow, while for others it distracts them completely. For those that it works for, keep using it! If you are finding that Billy just doesn’t seem to do the correction, drop the praise and see what happens. Now, I’m not saying that this will guarantee results and that you will win the championship with the most behaved and respected team in the league, all I’m saying is that you need to be adaptable. The old saying goes that “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. This means that if your only coaching style is to yell, your going to yell at everyone, whether it works or not. Use an evidence based approach with each athlete to determine what he or she really needs and how it affects them individually. Some players need a direct and loud correction, while others require a more sensitive approach, whether by softening the blow with praise, or by being direct, but just speaking caringly to them in private.

            Now, the bigger your team is, the more work this is going to take, but in the long run, it will be worth it! Figuring out how to deal with people in general is hard, and learning unique approaches for specific individuals when you are working with a whole team is quite the journey. Just remember, you are the coach, so command respect and obedience with how you say things and by how you care for each athlete individually. To throw in one last quote: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”.

Peace. Gains.

-Cole Hergott

            

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