Once the season was getting into full swing and the expectations and tone had been set, practice had started and games were coming up, there almost always seemed to be this big dip in energy. It’s like I could feel some of the positive excitement fading away and my connection that seemed strong at the start wasn’t growing any more. I started calling it the culture plateau.
As a team we were gelling okay, having games and bonding activities, and working through issues together. The handful of athletes that tended to hang out more around me or who were more vocal and went out of their way to talk more to me seemed to be forming great relationships with me. It was those players that often helped me get through the season, it was a connection that I wasn’t forming with the quieter, less assertive players who often would lean towards silently griping behind my back while smiling to my face. For several years this hung over me as a weak spot in my culture creation. It was too consistent season to season to declare it a personality issue.
Then one year I broke through the plateau by accident, and I had an epiphany. I was missing connections with players because I wasn’t being intentional enough with every single one from the start. I was trying to let it happen naturally, at practices and meetings but it wasn’t enough.
I was bonding with those that were more vocal but I was waiting until I sensed an issue before really reaching out the the quieter ones. By then, they were already struggling but I hadn’t formed any trust yet, I was still a stranger to them, so all of my leading questions to figure out what was wrong were met with answers of, “I’m fine.” “Nothing.”
The accidental answer came one year when I started the season more disorganized than usual. As the season started I realized I didn’t have the information I needed from the players to start planning and getting organized. I couldn’t seem to track down a time that worked for everyone so I set up a meeting with each player to figure out their background, their info, their availability etc.
It was in those meetings that I got to know every single player before the season had even started. And they got to know me. In those meetings I learned about their lives, their personalities, their concerns and what they were excited about. We found things we had in common, we laughed and sometimes we got into incredibly deep conversations that I would have never anticipated about past team experiences and what they wish or hoped they could have in a team. In those meetings I built a bridge that connected every single player to me in a way that made approaching me as issues came up seem so much easier for them. It made me more understanding throughout the season of their struggles and more sensitive to how and when I said things.
After the first couple of players had their meetings I could feel the difference this was making and I changed my plan and added a new tradition. Weekly check-ins. I’m not perfect at it, but my goal is to have one intentional check in with each player once a week. In person, in private when possible (in my office, or just taking a walk around campus after practice), or a phone call. How’s school going, what class is going best, what’s the hardest? How are your relationships with your teammates, are you feeling any strain with anyone that you need help figuring out how to address? How’s your schedule? Are you feeling overwhelmed or stressed? How’s the learning speed, am I explaining things well enough or can I draw something out for you? Would you like me to go over your calendar with you to help it feel more organized? What is your focus for this week? How did you do with last weeks focus?
It’s incredibly difficult for a player to come up to a coach when the coach always seems busy, stressed, focused and say, “hey coach, I need to talk, not sure what about but I just need some support.” It’s a rare player who is comfortable enough to make that request. So I built it into my season, and that plateau disappeared. That divide between the players that I felt like I was connecting with vs those players that I didn’t’ know at all disappeared. The weird feeling that there was unrest but I couldn’t address it disappeared.
If you follow my twitter @kateleavell then you saw my coach dare: Personally connect with each player at least once a week. See if it doesn’t get you past that culture plateau!