We talk about wanting team unity, but often as leaders we end up in a Me vs You battle when it’s time to correct behaviors. When effort levels, focus, distractions, or priorities become an issue, the old school form of leadership is still quite popular. That’s the one where we immediately take that authoritarian stance and start yelling or doling out physical punishment until they comply.
It is, after all, our job to get them to their potential, to push them and keep them on track. So what do you do when your players fall out of line? I remember the words, “on the line” etched in my memory and firmly attached to an imminent feeling of dread. Someone had not been paying attention in line, or perhaps we’d made the same mistake over and over. It could have been someone coming late to practice, a poor performance, an eye roll. Whatever it was, the punishment was going to hurt. We weren’t sorry for the mistake, but we were definitely sorry for getting caught and for what was surely going to make us regret it.
Though the intention behind punishment is usually meant to motivate, it’s a short term solution that doesn’t attack the root of the problem and carries with it some nasty side effects. Things like resentment, frustration, fear, hesitation in decision-making and ultimately a loss of enjoyment and excitement towards training can build inside the program.
So there lies the conundrum. Because there is, no question, a need to curb behavior that is detrimental to training and skill growth. There is a need for accountability. Behaviors that all teams deal with. There needs to be compliance with guidelines, priorities, expectations and consequences. How can we drive that without becoming a “Me vs You” coach. How can we build a team that’s dedicated to falling in line without drawing a hard line and making sure they know who’s the boss and who they should fear?
One of the first pieces of advice I got as a new coach was ironically the first thing I got rid of when I transformed into a positive leader. That advice has been echoed from generation to generation.
The general idea behind the advice is that you have to start off strict, because you can always get nicer. But if you start off nice, then they will run all over you. Sadly, this serves to create an immediate disconnect with your team, forms a barrier, an unapproachable quality that ultimately will keep your players from buying-in with you on a greater mission. It creates an environment where punishment and reward are mandatory to get things done. Where suddenly they are there for you and your mission instead of their own.
I’m not saying that you should allow yourself to be run over for the sake of being nice. I’m saying, there’s another way to approach your team that unites you. A way that says, “Im with you, I believe in what you are capable of, and Im joining in your quest to reach your goals. A way that says, I believe you care enough to create accountability and drive this mission with me. A way that says, I am not here to be against you every time you are less than perfect. I’m here to shape you into your best, and we’re going to do it together.
So how do we do this? Think of the last behavior issue you faced. For example, the team is moving slowly, seems distracted, just off their game today. Maybe prom is coming up, or spring break. Energy isn’t where it should be. There’s the tried and true “ON THE LINE!” approach. And likely it will light a bit of a fire. But the tone that it takes upon returning to training will be mixed with frustration and isn’t likely to address the cause of the distraction. You may run more than one set of sprints and still not address the problem.
Instead, call the team together and ask them to invest in what they get out of practice that day, without shaming. Try these questions:
How do you feel our focus and energy is today? Rate it on a scale of 1-10.
Is there something distracting you today? Is it something that can wait until later or is there something we need to address right here and now?
What would you like to get out of practice today and what is the most important thing we need to focus on improving and getting ready for by the end of practice today?
What effort level do you want to make as our goal for the rest of practice? (1-10) Is that the highest? What would be pushing it but reachable – can we go for that?
What fun game would you like to wrap up practice with if we reach that goal?
Do you think you can encourage 4 people before practice is over today?
This is what I like to call the reset, the refresh, the return to what’s important to them personally and a reminder of what we have bought into as a team and declared to be our priorities. It carries with it a different side of effects unlike the punishment version. Often it comes with increased trust, increased love of sport, increased desire to excel in the process, and the desire to self motivate for the sake of reaching unified goals. It often brings connection, openness, calm and focus.
It may sound soft, it may sound completely outside of the philosophy we all grew up with where authority is supposed to stand above the team and drive them on with a bit of fear and yelling so they fall in line. But try slowing down and approaching your team in a way that connects them to your purpose when you’re frustrated. You’ll quickly see that the easy route is actually yelling to let off steam but benefits only yourself. The harder path is by far taking the time to slow down and make quality motivation a priority when you want to push harder.
Think of it this way. If a door says pull, you can push as hard as you want. You can get a running start and force as much as you want because you’re in a hurry and have somewhere you need to be. You can push so hard you break it to get to your destination.
Or you can stop, read the sign, pull and walk through it. It’s time to stop with the push, it’s time to slow down, read the situation and give it what it calls for. It’s time to pull.
Let your team know it’s not a battle, it’s a mission and you’re on it together. Let them tell you how they can get there and just keep telling them you believe and will keep providing the tools they need to build that season’s masterpiece.