Nobody wins with new coach syndrome. I’ve had it, I’ve had it real bad, so I can speak from experience. My kids have had coaches with it, so I can speak from a parents point of view. My own coaches have had it when I was a player. You get the idea. Guess who lost in all those scenarios? Everyone. Ive sat through meetings with new coaches and thought, oh boy, here we go. Classic symptoms are easy to spot.
Not that it can’t be recovered from, but it’s unpleasant. For the programs unfortunate enough to have a new coach every couple of seasons – the norm these days with coach turnover- it’s becoming a hazard that can and should be avoided for the sake of the kids having to face it year after year.
It all stems from pressure and often, really bad advice based on old ideology. Pressures that are perceived, whether they are entirely real or or simply magnified under the spotlight. Make it great, get respect, make it your own and redo everything your way. John Wooden took 16 years to win his first national championship at UCLA, yet we get a new team and feel like the expectations are for greatness, immediately. We could all use a little John Wooden in our coaching.
The old school recommendations are proving over and over to be less effective and outdated, yet we cling to them. Start off strict or they’ll walk all over you, set unreasonable expectations to get them to prepare harder, insert a little fear of being eliminated or cut to foster competition. Keep an authoritative stance so they respect you, don’t connect, you aren’t their friend. The focus is on proving the team’s ability, the coach’s ability, to the parents, to the community, to the competition. Don’t be soft or nice or you’ll get run over.
The problem with this approach beside it being baseless (please give me a nice coach any day!) is that the lens is all out of focus on the players, they become the blurry background and everyone else becomes the focal point. Now all you see as a new coach is a crystal clear picture of disapproval or approval from people who you are not charged with building and teaching. People like parents, other coaches, newspapers, friends.
Don’t catch new coach syndrome with your next program. Captain Von Trapp from the Sound of Music had his kids answering to whistles and lining up in perfect height order and I don’t think anyone looked at him and thought- wow he has his stuff together, what a great parent! The first year is about relationships with your players. That’s got to be priority number 1.
Some helpful tips for approaching your new players and parents at your first meeting:
1. Expectations are great, but if they are the focus then relationships become optional and up to the player. Keep it simple- my expectations went from 3 pages to 3 total. Show up, work hard, be nice. That’s it. That pretty much covers everything for me that matters.
2. This is a service position. Rather than a ton of rules and threats of awful running and misery headed their way, or things you want them to do for YOU- a total stranger- tell them what you can’t wait to do for them. What will you do to provide an exciting and prosperous experience for them that they should get pepped up for? Not your resume, talk about what you hope to help them do this year and how.
3. Many people are scared to tryout. Instill belief right away rather than fears of tryouts and have more kids less afraid to make mistakes show up for team selection. Scared kids don’t try out well and this isn’t professional sports. The pattern is set early of what you think they can can do. Rather than a test they need to train for, call it their chance to show you what they have got. Tell them what you know they can accomplish before the tryouts begin, that you believe they can fit training into their schedules- here are some tips, here are seniors who can advise you, etc. again, simplicity is the answer. Tell them to -Do what you feel is necessary to come to tryouts feeling confident you are bringing something we could use on the team, that makes you shine, and then show it to us every opportunity you get with all your passion and love of the game. We are excited to see you shine!
4. Tell them how to approach you with questions, when you are available and become an approachable and trustworthy mentor from day 1. Anything that says – I’m important, don’t waste my time, or I’m scary- watch what you say, closes doors that are hard to reopen.
5. Get them excited. Tell them the fun stuff, give them a silly challenge, set them up with small groups , start building community right away. Establish your humanity- your imperfection, let them see that you have things in common to connect over and that you can lead the way.
6. Stop. Everything else you wrote down to say that maybe stuff you are planning or thinking is great for you, not necessary to share. Too much is overwhelming, hard to remember, could be misinterpreted. Keep it incredibly short, upbeat and watch the energy in the room. It should build not deflate. This is not the time to lay the hammer down and establish your dictatorship.
Spend your first season building relationships with your players. Remember how hard it is on these kids having to constantly face new coaches and expectations. Make the transition as unstressful as possible. Open your door and your mind to connections, feedback and new ideas as well as valuing old but cherished remnants from before you. You don’t have to clean house, just tidy up.
Bring structure but allow that team to decorate it with their uniqueness. If you choose to build wins and mandate discipline first, before that trust and connection is made, the relationships could be damaged beyond repair. I’ve never suffered in my team’s performance by changing my approach. It’s done the opposite. It’s inspired greatness and trust in the team and between coaches, parents, and players.
Have a great season!!