How is it that some coaches can come into a sport and create teams that surpass all their surrounding areas and become a dominating force? What do they know that other coaches don’t? What’s the secret to long lasting, quick forming, consistent success?
There’s the obvious, that some coaches put in a lot of time into educating themselves and studying the game, make meticulous plans for practice, break down film and scout players, and getting their kids excited about playing in the off season. But there’s something else, something that makes an even bigger difference then all of that combined- and it’s available for you to put into practice and reap the rewards as well!
It’s about being a coach that sees players as multi-dimensional, and then getting to know those players and making connections so that every single athlete is being developed to their full potential. It’s about keeping out the negativity that comes with labels, frustration, and giving up on each other.
Do you remember when those little electronic label makers came out? You type in a word and it prints out a little, perfect, clean label that sticks on anything. Those machines were pretty fun, I got a little obsessed with labeling things. But there’s a place where labels are anything but fun…
We tend to classify players. We don’t have a lot of time to prep for a season and it’s easiest to get to know a player to a certain extent and then put a label on them, throw them into a category and leave them there until they prove to us otherwise. Problem is, our job is to lead them to that change, understand how they learn, not wait for them to figure it out and bring it to us.
Is that player with an attitude just going to drive you crazy all season? Yea you know the one Im talking about, the one you’re hoping maybe doesn’t come back next season. These players are easy to write off, start assuming they’re a bad egg, an energy vampire. But would it make sense to figure out what their deal is and work with them to find a better way to process, learn and communicate? These are kids, most of them have a direct cause behind their behavior. Some of my most difficult players have become team leaders and someone I highly respect. Yes, that takes more time, but being great as a team and a coach often does.
Is your player hogging the ball? Do your teammates have trust built in each other? Are they able to recognize when it’s safe to pass and when it’s better to keep moving yourself? Are their supports and cutters getting into line of sight and inside an open passing lane? Is it fear of making a decision?
Is your player constantly late, never attending outside activities? Is there an issue with getting there, a responsibility at home holding them back? Are they feeling intimidated or like an outsider and uncomfortable at these activities? Do they not understand the purpose or buy in on team building?
Are they always goofing off at practice? Are they lost, having trouble learning with the teaching style you are using, constantly being distracted by another player, stressed by something else going on just before or after practice everyday? Do they have trouble with organizing ideas, focusing, or need verbal cues when learning but they are afraid to ask and be a pain? Many kids are afraid to admit when they don’t understand so they’d rather just stay lost.
For every problem there is a solution, but you can’t find it until truly getting to know your players. The greatness and longevity of success comes from a coach caring about attacking the issues and understanding obstacles rather then looking at behavior and sticking that label over their heads. Some of the most successful coaches I know can rattle off every detail about their players, know their favorite topics at school, their strengths, weaknesses, how they handle pressure, how they learn best. It’s inspiring to see that kind of complete coaching, embracing the entire athlete for where they are and where they can be, and something that I try every season to get better at.
As a Varsity coach I often looked at my group of 40-50 players and knew that I was not getting to know them enough. While I knew my varsity players really well, I was still spotty with the JV players’ names because I didn’t spend much time with them. One year I decided this was ridiculous, being bad with names is not an excuse, these kids want me to know them and it’s important to them. I made a promise to get to know every players name in my program by the end of the first week. I bought 50 headbands and took fabric paint and wrote their first names on them and asked them to wear them to practice the first week. I fulfilled my promise, and I couldn’t believe how much more connected I felt with my own program just by making that effort to get to know every single player by name. That simple act of getting their names down quickly and showing how important it was to me, made getting to know them even easier as the season went on and built some pretty great connections as those girls moved up through the program. They immediately knew that getting to know them individually was important to me and the walls came down making our team much more open.
Study the game, study your opponents, study and create your practice plans, but don’t leave out the most important asset of all – study your players. Study their why, their how, their insecurities, their needs, their confidence level, maybe even their past team experience. If you’ve ever been on a team truly connected on a personal level, you know there is no comparison to that experience and the bond that is created. And if you haven’t, you’re missing out and so are your players.