I crouched down, one knee buried in the warm turf pellets and the other clasping my oversized white board. A group of teenage girls sat in front of me; dirty, tired, frustrated. A season long run of victories, excitement and then injury after injury tugging at our hopeful chances of playing in the top two at the state tournament before us. They had overcome the odds getting their first state birth and executed a virtually undefeated season. They had surprised everyone, surpassed their own expectations, done something incredible.
But there we were. Half time at the semi final game and I had nothing. Nothing to draw on the board. Nothing to say, no magical speeches, no clue. We weren’t playing well. Our young team had to pull this off without their senior leaders who were trying but unable to play through injuries and they were crumbling. We were watching the other team run through us like water through a sieve and they knew it. We scored on ourselves attempting a clear. We ran past ground balls. We dropped everything. We were not the team we had been all season and because I hadn’t known that positive culture wasn’t just a good thing to have but rather THE most important thing to build, when we were tested with adversity we all sat there pretty much speechless. We had no path built to move us forward, no real connections to rely on.
Are you giving up? Do you want this? Get out there and start playing!
It’s to date my worst half time speech. I knew it at the time, I silently prayed for anything better to say, but I had nothing. How do you take a group of defeated players and get them to re engage in the game, to believe in themselves? I had stopped believing. I didnt see any way we could pull this one out and I was frustrated.
It was a valuable lesson. As I left that game it occurred to me that outside teaching the game, I had no idea what I was doing. None. I spent the next couple of years trying to find ways to motivate players. Contests, prizes, awards, snacks, team building trips, but the culture didn’t budge.
I can still feel the frustration WHAT AM I MISSING?!? Cursing the fact that I’d never had a coach that worked on culture, I realized that I had no role model to follow. I had no mentor, no way to figure this out -but it wasn’t because I didn’t care or wasn’t trying. I was consumed by the challenge. But the more I tried the more I felt like I was failing my team. I questioned my ability to be a coach despite my love of teaching the game. Nothing was working and I got more and more bad advice.
Call it divine intervention, call it fate, but I found the piece I was missing through some extraordinary circumstances that came across in God’s ever perfect timing. I had been looking at everything backwards. What I had chosen to put as the core of my program (Lax IQ) was surviving and thriving because it was my main focus. The things outlying that core were withering. They weren’t being nurtured, implemented, supported. They were circles outside of my core with no direct connection.
I had been wrong all along when I was trying to solve the problem. I didn’t need to learn how to maintain a better team culture that was crumbling half way through the season. Rather it was that I had never built it in the first place. I was allowing the players, parents, misunderstandings, poor communication, circumstances and disappointments build my team’s culture. Most teams are positive at the beginning as the excitement of a new season begins. But each challenge starting with team placement and cuts, added another knot in the cord, another bruise on the surface of the fruits of our labor. I couldn’t maintain it because it was completely at the whim of whatever we faced. Injured player? Bad weather? Hostility? Playing time? Difficult refs? Those things owned us and no amount of telling the players to just play through would fix our outlook because they didn’t know what the alternative was to drowning in the tides of unfortunate circumstance or living the highs of short lived victories.
What does this do to a team over the course of a sports season? Players, coaches and parents begin to need those victories, playing time, rewards. They crave them, focus on them, need them. Because the uncontrollable events feel so intolerable, the alternative only leaves that quest for immediate gratification to soothe the frustrations.
In this climate it starts to feel like everything is stacked against you, like no matter what you do something is always stealing your ability to move ahead. Each season felt like the obstacles were just getting bigger and more frequent. It rained more every season. The refs were worse. It was colder. The parents were more difficult. Or were they? We started blaming, complaining. Sometimes even the wins started to lose their luster because the sting of everything else was gripping us so tightly. You know you’ve hit some sort of crisis when the win lacks joy and has players worried about who played and if the coach said the right thing or not.
Build your core on something controllable, positive, something that you can believe in no matter what storm you stand in the middle of. Your core belief is what will last and thrive, its what sustains your greatest focus. Then connect every piece of your program to that core with a life line. Check that line frequently for kinks, blocks, loose ends. Be diligent in the health and vitality of your connections.
There were two events that changed my core beliefs in coaching. One was facing my own mortality after my pulmonary embolism and realizing exactly what still mattered when everything was at stake. The other was meeting an author who filled in the blank for me. When I was silently screaming out to the world “what am I missing”, Jon Gordon somehow crossed my path and his books and conversations filled that need for a mentor who understood culture. The Energy Bus, Jon’s own transformational story, The Seed, and The carpenter are where I learned that the core must be planted firmly in positive leadership, love, care, connection, purpose. That no matter the task in life, it must stem from there first in order to grow. It’s the reason I am so passionate about sharing these ideas and stories to programs today.
This core became love, and it connected to the players, lacrosse, fun, learning through lifelines and daily checks to keep those connections clear. It turned me from a transactional coach to a transformational coach. I’m not just talking about the players. I’m talking about every single person in the program, including myself, growing in a greater purpose through playing and coaching a sport. I’m talking about the lives we touch who come watch us play, who sit on the opposing player sideline, and who interact with us in our daily lives. If you aren’t in awe of the opportunity to reach an incredible scope of people in a positive way or conversely to make a negative impact through sports then take a step back and see the bigger picture. If its a little overwhelming then you get it, you know this is more than a game.
What’s in your core. What is the one most important thing and does everything else have some sort of connection back to the center to keep it going? Don’t be me at that silent, frustrated half time with nothing to say.
Instead tell them – I love you guys. I love being on this field with you as you battle out an incredible challenge. I don’t know what’s going to happen second half, but I know it will be spectacular because that’s what you do best. I know that at the end of this game we are going to huddle up and shout out the best and the bravest moments that you are about to go experience because I know what,s in your hearts. I know whatever is coming, we will be better for it.
Then send them out there, core intact, connections in place, and hold on tight.