The Culture Pit.
Maybe every coach hasn’t faced this yet, but chances are that if you’ve taken on a new program there’s a culture issue hiding below the surface. I’ve walked into culture disasters so many times that the signs are like giant red flags. For someone experiencing it for the first time, the signs may seem subtle, like the tip of an iceberg that will be easy to navigate around. The players seem okay on the surface. The old coach swears there was no drama on the team and the players seem to be cautiously attentive and receptive, so you post some rules and dive right into coaching first. Seems like a quick and easy issue of them needing some more instruction, and most of us feel confident in that role so we jump right in. But something isn’t right, the blank stares, the low effort level, the missing excitement, the low engagement. Do you add more rules?
Ever do a project on an old house? Just a quick fix on a spot on the wall. As you uncover that small spot you realize there’s a huge water leaking issue behind the wall, mold damage on the framing, which then leads to the discovery that the foundation is cracked, and before you know it you’re wondering if you’ll have to bulldoze the house down. Have you seen the movie The Money Pit with Tom Hanks? It’s a great example of how things can look like a quick fixer upper on the surface but be completely broken in the light of day.
Heal the team first. To heal the team, you must get to know them. Assess the wounds, assess the needs, explore the reasons they have stayed despite those wounds and needs being unmet. Walking into a new program with your giant rule lists, culture standards, plans made, and proclamations of what the team must be now that you are in charge is going to backfire. It’s going to feed the negative energy that’s hiding behind the mask of your athletes. You may wipe out the only thing that they enjoyed for the sake of trying to make a clean slate for yourself. That’s a common tactic when coaches come into a new program and don’t put first things first.
Many programs have high turnover. Some kids have a new coach EVERY year. And they say the SAME thing no matter what coaching style they have. We are going to win, I don’t care how you did it in the past, I know what I’m doing, here’s my resume, you are going to work harder than ever…blah blah blah. They’re tired of hearing it, they don’t trust you, you’re a stranger full of the same old promises and you’ll probably just leave them when they don’t perform or you get a better offer.
Why not do something new and approach them as a human being who cares about them first and foremost and then set up all those pretty hand bound rule books after they know you are the real deal because they see your heart and passion in action?
I’ve tried many different ways to approach coming into a new program and each time I make some small changes. One day maybe I’ll have all the answers, because I certainly don’t have them now. But I do have a priority list and it has helped me form relationships with my teams faster so that we can start training, building, and getting the energy from some of the deepest depths of negativity to one of excitement and hope.
- Start talking to the players as you meet them, but mostly start listening. Leave judgement and past-history behind and let them come to you with a fresh start and see where they are NOW. Poor past behavior is often a reflection of their reaction to past leadership. Don’t assume they will have the same issues with you when you know you can form a better bond.
- Bring your excitement, it’s not a sign of weakness to be excited and show how much you love the game and your job. If they say “simmer down coach!” just say..I CAN’T IM TOO EXCITEDDDDDD WOOHOOOOOO. 🙂
- Expectations are important but a huge list of them before they even know you is overwhelming and puts up walls. Bring your values and live them in how you speak, how you treat the players, how you respond to their concerns and wishes, and how you act as a person, and the tone will be set.
- Throw away snap judgments. Their first impression might be awful. Yours might be too depending on when they happen to meet you. What’s under the surface is so much more important. Give it time and hand them your belief and care from day 1, even if they may rub you the wrong way at the start. They come to you with bias, past hurt, possibly a new coach EVERY year. They’re tired of changes and new expectations and wondering what the coach thinks or wants or how to please them.
- Acknowledge the past but focus on the future. Some of these athletes have deep wounds, they are carrying scars and they are going to have walls to protect themselves. While you can’t promise a perfect future that season, you can talk about your vision. You can ask them about what they want in their program. And then you can focus your energy and your conversations on the actions to build it. It also provides a great opportunity to stop negativity in it’s tracks as it comes up and talk about how those actions and words were what built the past hurts. Redirect to the new vision and mission.
- Be more flexible than you want to be at the beginning. I know the old school method says to be strict from the beginning, so they don’t walk all over you. But when you are rebuilding behaviors and priorities you must become a coach, teacher, and a leader not the punisher. That means walking them through their misstep, guiding them to the correct choice and helping them understand why it’s important and then … letting them try again, this time with the understanding that you have faith in them. 9 times out of 10 you won’t have to correct the same behavior twice when you take the time to really step up and teach them the right way. Because they had that kind of support, they often turn and mentor those that come up behind them because they’ve been shown how and they appreciated how it was done for them in a way that made them feel valued and cared for as a person.
- Know your convictions and know your hard lines. There are places to “bend and assist” (never JUST bend, the assist is the most important part) as they learn to be adults, and there are places that are unacceptable. If that line moves around based on circumstance, then you may find yourself treading water all the time. I don’t have many hard lines, but if one is crossed then that athlete needs to turn in their gear and the reason doesn’t matter. Never in mean spirit or revenge but in protection of our team, our family, and our future.
- Communicate often. Do what you say and follow through. Then follow-up. Trust is built on reliable communication and the actions that come after. And if you mess up, and you will, own it and apologize and make it right immediately. Never sweep mistakes under the rug just because you can use your authority to have them not question you.
- Put down your own past walls and hurts. We all have scars from coaching. It may have been a parent that we thought was a friend who turned on us when their kid stopped getting what they wanted. It may have been an athletic director, or a player, or fellow coach. We carry baggage into each new coaching job and we must put the hurt aside but keep the lesson.
- Never let the small stuff affect your interactions with the team. Coaching is full of head-on-desk banging frustrations. From budget, to fields, to difficult personalities, to injuries, schedules. You name it, you’ll be dealing with it. They feel big, they can have some pretty big affects on your season. But you cannot let those issues ever cross over into your reactions, relationships, patience, planning, or care of your team. The team is the people business, the other stuff is back office. Keep them separate and bring your excitement and love to your team everyday no matter what head-banging issues you’re dealing with behind the scenes. Be 10 times more concerned when you have a people problem going on than the other stuff. When you have an issue with a player’s heart, drive, effort and behavior then you have a problem. When you have a problem with all that other stuff it’s not really a problem, its just part of the job.
Don’t be afraid of the culture pit. Don’t turn off the lights and pretend it doesn’t exist while doing a quick patch job on the surface. Dive in, open heart, open mind and open ears. The take your team and build a ladder to climb out together.