My friend Ed came to town visit and talk teaching leadership to athletic teams. After a few hours of great conversation, he sat back and said, "Alright, we have talked about a lot of stuff. But if you If you could only say one thing to a group of athletes, what would you say?"
“LEATH! LEATH!” I hear my replacement yelling my name. I jog to the sidelines and report to my position coach. He is furious. At 5’9, my defensive back coach played college football at the same position I was just relieved of. I prepare myself for a wicked tongue lashing, but I get nothing.
"Get the rebound!”
I scream at these athletes to be more aggressive under the basket, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. I have three of the tallest girls in the league and we are getting outrebounded! I slap my clipboard to get their attention, but it seems nothing is working.
Then, the plastic clipboard shatters into about ten pieces and falls to the court all around me.
I call a timeout. Embarrassed by my actions, I frantically pick up the pieces of my shattered clipboard. My sixth-grade girls basketball team walks toward me with their heads down. It is only the second quarter of the first game of the season.
“Girls, I am so sorry.” “Why do you keep yelling at me?” asks Halie. “I’m not yelling at you, I am trying to get all of you to box out and get the rebound.” I pause for a response. I get nothing but blank stares. The girls look back at me and say nothing. “Okay, a fresh start. No more yelling,” I say. "Let’s just have some fun out there. Randy, get a break and let’s get back to the game.”
The girls say a team break and I can tell immediately I have not only shattered my clipboard, but also their confidence in me as their coach. For the rest of the game, I try to win back their trust but I can see I have a lot of work to do.
We lost the game. The year before, the team went 0-10 under a different coach. It looks like I might be headed in the same direction. I kept the post-game talk to about ten seconds then released them to get on the bus.
A friend of mine came to watch me in my first game as a girls basketball coach. On the ride home, it is silent for a few blocks, then she turns the radio down and breaks the silence.
“Why were you so upset?” “I know, I am so embarrassed.” “But what did you want them to do?” “Just get a rebound!” I explain. "I don’t know why it is so hard. They are the tallest girls in the league, and…” “I know,” she interrupts. “Do they know what a rebound is?” “Of course they do!” What a silly question, I think to myself. “So, then what kind of rebound drills have you done at practice?"
There it is. Dang it! She was right. In three weeks of practice, I had not once taught the girls to rebound, much less “box-out” to make it easier to get a rebound. I made the common mistake of believing my girls would just inherently know how to use their height as an advantage. The fundamentals are never too basic to teach. I think of Coach Lombardi when he would start every football season as an NFL coach with a simple sentence as he held up a football: “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Thanks to youtube, I found some great drills on teaching rebounding. I apologized to the team for my behavior and asked for their forgiveness. They accepted my apology, and and with hard work and determination, we ended up in the championship game losing in triple overtime.
Every season, no matter the level of the sport, a different team shows up. Though the athlete could be coming from the same school as the year before, every season has its own culture and feeling. 6th graders are now 7th graders, juniors are now seniors, so on and so forth. A lot changes in a young athlete’s life between seasons, and as coaches we should not assume fundamentals are as sharp as they were the year before, or that the athletes are coming with prior knowledge. As an adult, I need to be reminded more than taught, and that is also true for my athletes. Repetition breeds mastery, and as coaches we must not forget the importance of the seemingly mundane tasks of practicing the fundamentals. The lesson I learned was to focus on the basics and make it easy to unleash my athletes to reach their highest potential. The next time I coached at that level, I took a very different approach from the very beginning. (Here is a sample of one of the drills I do everyday).
Start your season with a clean slate, and make sure every athlete understands the expectations you have for them and the knowledge to live up those expectations. Good luck, Coach!
I was sitting in the bleachers at my school enjoying a youth football game when I heard those words come from a coach directed at his running back. Apparently, the running back was not being aggressive enough and as a way to motivate, the coach decided to use that sentence.
It wasn't the first time I had heard that sentence. I remember the first time I put on a helmet and was asked to tackle my teammate in a drill. I lined up, barely able to see out of my helmet because it had come down to cover most of my eyes when I heard the whistle blow.
The ball carrier ran towards me and I was terrified. I closed my eyes, opened my arms, and braced for impact. The wind was knocked out of me and I started to cry.
“Get up, Leath,” coach says.
I finally catch my breath only to receive the next devastating blow, one that will hurt me much longer than the previous one.
"Go to the end of the line, and come back when you decide to man up!”
I was nine years old.
And more importantly, what does teach him about girls? It took me a long time to answer that question for myself. In that moment, I was taught that girls are physically weak; that crying is an emotion that displays weakness and therefore reserved for girls and that behavior won’t be tolerated.
Children get the foundation of their identity, beliefs, and values from the people they meet on their journey through childhood. Parents get the first shot at passing on their knowledge and experience to their kids, but as they get older, teachers, religious leaders, and coaches gain credibility in the eyes of the student and an identity is formed that will later define who that young person becomes.
So when Cam Newton expresses how it is "funny" that a woman can understand routes in football, he takes all the fall out (and he should have consequences for such an ignorant statement). But we forget that apparently the many men in his life were either silent on negative gender specific stereotypes or a more likely scenario is that those men encouraged male-dominant behavior. Yes, he apologizes, but how unfortunate that he even said it in the first place.
A great coach will take Newton’s terrible choice of words and use it as a teachable moment for young boys to learn that young girls grow up into strong women and the world needs both strong men and strong women, working together.
I think a great myth in America is that sports build character. This is false.
[ctt title="Sports do not build character unless a coach intentionally teaches it and models it." tweet="Sports do not build character unless a coach intentionally teaches it and models it. @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/9d460+" coverup="9d460"]
Respect for women is learned when men model that behavior to the young boys who want to be just like their coach. As coaches, we have been given a transformational voice that, if used intentionally, can help create a future where we don’t repeat our mistakes. It is an honor to have that voice, and we should all be reminded that we will be held accountable for our actions for every athlete who has us listed in their phone as “Coach.”
No written word, nor spoken pleaCan teach the kids what they should be.Not all the books on all the shelves It's what the teachers are themselves.-Ronald Gallimore, quoted by John Wooden
With juice and a donut in hand, Cameron and I are sitting on a park bench outside the gym where we just finished playing our second basketball game of the season. "Cameron, why don’t you shoot the ball during the game?” I ask. “Last year, my coach told me I wasn’t allowed to shoot.”
“Hmmm.” I pause. Take a bite of my blueberry donut and fight the urge to ask who her coach was so I can have a few words with that man or woman, but I snap back to the present and focus on the magnitude of this moment in this 10-year-old’s life.
“Well, you are my center… and the tallest girl on the team. What happens when you shoot?” “I miss…a lot.” She looks down at her feet, embarrassed by her performance. “So, what if I told you on this team, you are allowed to shoot, and miss?” “Seriously?” Her face lights up. “Cameron, do you want to get better?” “Yes.” “Do you want to help your team be successful?” She nods. “Then from now on, you are allowed to shoot.” She smiles, then looks away, contemplating her fate. “And if I miss…” “I don’t care if you miss, Cameron. I just want you to be brave. If you see the shot, take the shot. If someone is in your face, then pass to your teammate.” Cameron looks out to the field. I can tell I have sparked something in her. There is a competitor in there and I need to draw it out.
“Are you brave?” “Yes, coach, I am brave.” She straightens her back. I can feel the energy shift. “I know you are. These girls look up to you. I want you to know you can be brave during the game and at practice. These girls look up to you, and I trust you.” We clink our juice boxes, she leans over to give me a hug. The smile on her face in that moment is worth every minute I spent volunteering to coach that team that season.
The next week, Cameron takes her shot in the first 45-seconds of the game. It misses the rim completely and the other team gets the rebound. The team sprints to the other side of the court to set up for defense. Before Cameron can turn around, I am already on my feet. “Good job, Cameron. I see you. Do it again.” She smiles, gives me a thumbs up, hustles to the other side of the court.
We won the game, 32-14. Cameron had 12 points.
We didn’t win every game that year, but a child felt loved and gained confidence in herself. That is why we coach.
[ctt title="Empowering a Child to Be Brave" tweet="Empowering a Child to Be Brave by @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/g4C1_+" coverup="g4C1_"]
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead http://amzn.to/2gnncKJ
“As for you, my fine friend, you are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you run away from danger, you have no courage. You are confusing courage with wisdom. Back where I come from, we have men who are called heroes. Once a year, they take their fortitude out of mothballs and parade it down the main street of the city, and they have no more courage than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a medal. Therefore, for Meritorious Conduct, Extraordinary Valor, Conspicuous Bravery against the Wicked Witches, I award you the triple cross. You are now a member of the legion of Courage.”
-The Lion formerly known as "Cowardly"
Billy Graham once said, “A coach will impact more young people in a year than the average person does in a lifetime.” Like most older brothers, I was a bit of a bully to my little brother. I remember once in 7th grade my coach pulled me aside before practice to speak life into me that had nothing to do with sport, and yet I remember it still to this day. “You know,” he said, “Your brother looks up to you. Maybe you could find a way to be a little nicer to him.”
I had heard that before from my mom and my dad, multiple times, even to the point where I would get grounded or lose privileges. But coming from my coach, it had a different influence over me. I’m not saying what my parents said was not important, or that when they talked I did not listen, but coming from my coach it hit me harder than when I heard it come from my parents. I wanted to impress my coach, as most young athletes do. He used his influence to speak to me, not down to me. It was a suggestion, taken by me to be a way that I could make this man proud of me.
Consider asking the parents of your students about what message you as a coach could help reinforce. Raising great kids is a team effort, and beautiful things can happen when coaches, teachers, and parents work together to help a child grow up.
As parents and coaches, we are in the business of creating adults, so the more we can work together, the better off our future adults will be.
I stand in front of seven 6th-grade basketball players as I try to teach them a lesson in communication. <Opening Scene>
“Imagine you are on the playground 100 feet away from your best friend and you want to know if they want to join your game."
“Like jump rope?" asks Taylor.
“Sure, like jump rope. You yell out ‘Hey Tasha, want to join our jump rope game?’"
Emmerson interjects. “It’s not really a game, coach, we call it a turn."
“Okay, great, thank you Emmersen. So you yell out to them to take a turn using this voice [I raise my voice as loud as I can] ‘Hey Tasha, come take a turn.’
That is me yelling to Tasha to join us. Now, here is a different way I could do it [I use a deeper voice with attitude and frustration] 'Hey Tasha, come take a turn!’ I used the exact same words, but do you hear the difference in how I said it?"
Chase raise her hand, excited to contribute. “I do! The first one you were encouraging. The second one you were mad."
“Yeah,” Tasha agrees. “It’s like the first one you were yelling to us, but the second you were yelling at us.”
“Well said, both of you. Now, what is something I say during the game, a lot?"
“Get your hands up!" says Alex, our best defensive player.
“You’re right, I do say that a lot.” I look over at one of the shorter players who often forgets to make herself bigger by raising her hands in the air on defense. I raise my eyebrows--she smiles and puts her hands up. The team giggles.
“Like a thousand times a game, coach."
“That sounds about right, Maddie. Okay, Alex, scoot back 10 steps and yell to me to get my hands up. Camryn, you go with her and yell at me to get my hands up."
We yell at each other, to each other, the lesson is learned, we giggle, we high five, then begin practice.
Communication is dependant on the relationship between the sender and receiver. If there is a problem with the relationship, that will affect how the receiver interprets the message.
If the relationship is healthy and there is trust both ways, then communication will be received as trying to help.
If the relationship is rocky and trust is absent or has been broken, then it will be heard as trying to hurt.
In my experience, the people who can communicate the most effectively often end up being the most successful in their field. I have heard it said many times that success belongs to the one who can tell the best story, and I agree. Former NFL Football coach Jon Gruden*, said he chose to study communication in college because he knew he would, for the rest of his life, need to be able to communicate a game plan to his players and coaches. I was in my third year of college when I read that sentence and it made so much sense to me that I literally changed my major to communication the very next day.
There was an unintentional side-effect of the scene described earlier. During practice, the girls got loud--real loud. They had now been given permission to yell to each other with the understanding that is was not to be taken personally. That trickled into our games and improved everything because there was trust that one person could yell in the direction of a teammate and not offend them.
During the game, parents are cheering, feet are hitting the gym floor, basketballs are flying, whistles are blowing, and music blasting. Any good coach knows they have to use a loud voice in order to be heard over these noises, but the better coaches know there is a right way and a wrong way to yell. More importantly, do what you can to foster trust between yourself and the athlete by taking an interest in their world outside of sport.
Teach your young athletes to know the difference between yelling to hurt and yelling to help and keep your own emotions in check. Use yelling as a tool and use it sparingly so when you need to get their attention on something important, it doesn’t sound like everything else you yelled to them.
*Gruden, J., & Carucci, V. (2003). Do you love football?!: winning with heart, passion, and not much sleep. New York: HarperCollins. Amazon Link
In 2009 I was in my third year as the head coach of a very successful youth football team. In the eyes of the fans, they would say we were successful because we won a lot, but winning a game says nothing about the character of the team— the true measure of success. Those boys (and a few girls) were successful because they practiced hard, paid attention to details, and bought into the idea of playing every play until the whistle blows. For as long as I have been coaching youth football, my playbook has not changed much. It consists of 2 formations and 10 plays. I don’t focus on the x’s and o’s, instead, I learn new ways to teach the fundamentals. In coaching youth football, and I have found
- complexity creates confusion;
- confusion leads to hesitation;
- hesitation leads to failed plays;
- failed plays leads to defeat.
An athlete who hesitates will not be successful in the game of football, or in most other sports for that matter.
Here are a few reasons my playbook is so small: 1. Ask a 6th grader to raise their left hand and they will, about 50% of the time.
- During warm-ups we do not do sprints. We get in the huddle and practice getting to the line of scrimmage efficiently. After the first week, with only 2 formations, most players know exactly where to line up, even if it is their first time playing that position. Additionally, the players know where those around him or her should lineup so they start coaching each other. "You're too close, scoot out." "Get closer to the line." "Put your other foot forward." The players begin to coach each other and create an environment where it is okay to lead each other.
2. A player can play a different position quickly because the play is simple.
- The tight end always lines up on the right, every play. If I need someone else to play that spot, the other players can help police that player. Saves me time and because the players are helping each other, it creates a sense of ownership of their team.
3. I can quickly change the play before the other team can adjust.
- Since the players are always lined up in the same spot, I can see an opportunity in the defense and change the play in less than 3 seconds. They approach the line, get set, and the QB knows to look at me before he starts his cadence. I yell, “Check, Check!” and 11 face-masks are pointed at me. I yell “Sweep right!” and every player hits the side of their helmet letting me know they heard me and they run the play. Of course, the smart players on the other team here "Sweep Right" and cheat to the right. But because they are facing us, they literally take themselves out of the play because their right is our left.
- Before the coach can let his players know how to adjust, we are already running the new play. Note: some opposing coaches pick up on this and are able to let a player know it is coming to them. However, just because I yelled a play out does not mean we are actually running that play. My team knows only to run the play when “the sign” is given. You have to practice this, a lot. Again, we do it during warm-ups.
It doesn’t happen often, but one time I was approached head coach of the other team after the game and he wanted to talk privately. We had just beat them 35-0 despite pulling out all my starters in the second half. He asked me very frankly, “Will you give me your playbook?” We met for coffee the next morning and I gave him everything I had installed that year and things I planned on installing. We met in the playoffs a few weeks later and I could tell he had implemented almost everything I gave him. The only difference was that my offense had evolved as the season progressed so we had a little more to work with. We still won, but this time it was 21-8. He had the same players as before, but he kept things simple, his players were confident, and it felt like we were playing a completely different team.
[ctt title="Confidence beats Strategy. " tweet="Confidence beats Strategy. @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/ewcTB+" coverup="ewcTB"]
The strategy is important, of course. As the age of the athlete increases, so should the size of the playbook. But a young athlete with confidence is his or her ability to do the job they have been given can overcome a strategy that might not be as advanced as the one the opponent has prepared.
The focus of the coach should be on creating confident, fundamentally sound athletes during the week. Then, on gameday, let them play. Give the athletes the tools they need and let them build a victory. When the game starts, it is less about coaching anyway and more about managing. If your young athletes can master the basics and they truly understand their job on each play, then you are way ahead of most youth football coaches I come across who focus more on tricking the other coach than on developing sound football players.
“…after that, we’ll break up into defensive groups and work on technique.”An athlete walks into the room—three minutes late—while I go over the day's practice plan.
I pause, we make eye contact. He nods, I nod back, and then he quietly sits down with his team.
A few minutes later, everyone knows what is going to happen today at practice except one person.
“Are there any questions?” I ask. “What time does the bus leave on Saturday?” “9am, but be here no later than 8:30am or you will not get on the bus.” “Got it, thanks coach.” “Anything else?” Blank stares from a room full of athletes are eager to start practice. “Alright, get a break and let’s have a great practice.”
The athletes huddle up, do their pre-practice chant, then sprint to their stations.
Mr. Late hustles to over to me.
“Sorry I was late, coach.” “Everything okay?” I ask. “Yes, my mom got off work late and we got here as fast as we could.” “How often will that happen, you think?” “She said only on Tuesdays, but not every week.” “Okay, thank you for not interrupting when you joined the group. Will you text me next week on Tuesday before practice to remind me you will be late?” “No problem, coach.” “And if you forget?” “Bear crawls after practice?” “Deal. Get with a teammate to see what you missed.” “Thanks, Coach.”
When I was late to practice as a kid I was usually sent on a lap. Rarely was it my fault, since I couldn’t drive and was at the mercy of my dad to get home from work and drive me the 9 miles to practice.
As a coach, now I realize how dumb that was. Not only am I late, but I am punished for something that is out of my control. I won’t pass on that confusing message.
There are a few things to note in this conversation from a few months ago.
The athlete did not hijack the meeting. The young man came late and quietly joined the team. He knew I would ask him about the situation once I was done speaking. At the beginning of the season, I take the time to teach the athletes how to interrupt, whether they show up late or need to interrupt a conversation because they need something. This is not a skill that most kids know and it takes a few minutes to teach. For example, if I am speaking to an adult, they are to wait for a pause in the conversation, politely touch my elbow, and say, “Excuse me, coach, can I speak with you, please?” I gave them that line. We practice it. The athletes don’t know this, but I set them up for opportunities to interrupt. I’ll tell an athlete to come see me before practice, and when I see him coming towards me I’ll grab an adult and start a conversation. If they do it wrong, we practice. I do it with love and am careful not to embarrass the athlete, but they get the lesson.
The athlete had answers. He had already asked the questions he know I would ask. He took ownership of the situation. This was not the first time someone was late. I don’t know this for sure, but I think he spoke with one of the other athletes who were late the week before. I think is safe to say he trusted I would not get mad, just like I did not get mad at the athlete the week before.
The athlete now has accountability. No laps for being late. No extra running. He is rewarded for taking ownership of the situation about something out of his control. By asking him to text me, now I have something to hold him accountable for that he can control. If he doesn’t text me, he has bear crawls—a consequence he came up with.
The athlete was late the next Tuesday and did not text me. He knew right away when he got there what his consequence would be. After practice, he did bear crawls with the captain. There were no complaints, no justifications. Just some bear crawls facilitated by the captain. Both came and shook my hand afterward and that was that. No big deal.
The following Tuesday, I got a text.
Start on time, every day. End on time, every day. Teach the athletes what to do if they are late. Don’t make them run when they are late, that just makes them more late. Assign a team captain to facilitate consequences after practice for those who are late. If no one is late, the captain doesn't have to stay. It only takes once for a captain to have to stay after because of his or her teammates. Peer pressure is WAY more powerful than whatever you have to say about the subject.
In my senior year of high school, I decided to see if my athleticism could transfer to the volleyball court. I had been a two-way starter on the football team all four years and had spent time on the wrestling team, baseball team, track team, and the competition cheerleading team. How hard could it be? Although I made the team, I did not play much. Volleyball, like any sport, requires a particular set of skills that must be developed and mastered. Not only did I not possess those skills or the years of developing them like my teammates, I was the shortest guy on the squad which did not help my playing chances. I remember my first day of practice being in awe of these athletes. They would soar through the air and smack the ball with a loud thud that echoed throughout the gym with ease. A ball would speed at them faster than I could track and they would somehow move their bodies right in front of it, bumping it perfectly to the setter to then create an echo from the air-assault on the ball.
Though I did not play, I took away lessons that I would later use as a coach. At the end of every practice, had us repeat an exercise I still use to this day. She would gather us up in an informal huddle and randomly ask each player one of three questions: with a few
- What did someone else do that was good?
- What did you do that was good?
- What did the team do that was good?
She called it “You, Me, We” and we never ended a practice without spending a few minutes celebrating the good things that happened that day. I later found out she kept a record of who he asked on her clip board so no one would go more than a few days without having to answer one of the questions.
[ctt title="You, Me, We: An Exercise in Building Team Culture" tweet="You, Me, We: An Exercise in Building Team Culture @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/pa4Zu+" coverup="pa4Zu"]
YOU Getting a compliment from a peer is very powerful. As a coach, you may not have noticed something good that one of your athletes did during practice. This is an opportunity for players to notice each other and build each other up.
ME Many athletes dwell on past mistakes and that slows down their improvement or they focus on the mastery or mistakes of others. Give your athletes an opportunity to search for the good in their performance. Did they hustle more than the day before? Did they improve on something today? Force them to recognize some sort of improvement in their game and try to notice that in the next practice.
WE Celebrate the team. What is the team getting better at? Was there a moment in the previous game when the momentum shifted? Is the energy level of practice improving?
Focusing on self, others, and the team is going to happen whether you do this exercise or not. However, I find that doing this helps you as the coach guide the thought process of your athletes, leading them to focus on positives instead of negatives.
“It’s stuck, help!”I watched a parent stand next to her son while he was struggling to zip up his jacket. At first, she instinctively reached to help him but then caught herself, paused, then put her hands down by her side. The little boy gave it another attempt. “Dang it!” he yelled to himself, feeling a sense of failure. He looked up at his mom for assistance but was met with a smile as she patiently waited. Receiving no help from his mom, the little boy had no choice but to try again to try again. Again, the little boy was unsuccessful. He threw his hands down in defeat. “I can’t do it,” he proclaimed.
Mom smiled warmly. Calmy, with the sweet tone every child years to hear from their mother, she says, “We need to go, honey. Try it again.” “Hrumph!” He gave it another go. After five more seconds of struggle, the frustrated little boy throws his hands in the air and exclaimed, “I did it!” “Yes, you did.” Mom smiled at her son. “Are you ready to go?” “Let’s do it!”
There are not many things more satisfying to me than a smiling baby, an excited child, or a youth victory dance. This whole situation took place in a matter of thirty seconds. It could have been easily prevented by mom reaching down and zipping up his jacket for him, but she paused and let him do it. Had she intervened, the little boy would not have had the joy of triumph after the struggle. But mom, in her great wisdom, allowed her son to do it on his own. Though I am sure it was difficult to see her son struggle, the payoff of victory outweighed the difficulty of failure.
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Just like the rock in the stream shaped by the constant pressure of the water, so are we shaped by the experiences we are allowed to have. Think of the subtle lesson learned by the little boy in that moment. In just a few seconds, he experienced failure, success, and ownership of the process.
He tried. He failed. He tried again. He failed again. Then, he succeeded.
A little hard work from the boy (and a few moments of patience from mom) and a young boy has learned the valuable lesson in life about working hard to accomplish a goal. Now, it’s doubtful any child triumphs over adversity and cries out, “Look at my character grow!” but as adults, we know that is exactly what is happening.
This week, look for situations in practice, in competition, or in life, where the child is struggling. Before you intervene (and if they are safe), let them struggle a bit. The payoff will outweigh the struggle.
"The secret to winning is not what you think it is. It’s not the coach. It’s not the star. It’s not money. It’s not a strategy. It’s something else entirely."
The founding editor of The Wall Street Journal’s sports section profiles the greatest teams in history and identifies the counterintuitive leadership qualities of the unconventional men and women who drove them to succeed.
I have the privilege of working with many great teams in high school, college, and on the professional level, discussing leadership and personal development. Building great teams requires many people to come together and do their part to the best of their ability. However, I often see the organization putting themselves ahead of the players, especially in youth sports, but really at every level. As coaches and administrators, we sometimes forget the most important people in the organization are not the coaches, but those who make up the team. In youth sports, I remind coaches all the time that kids do not need us. I did not need a coach to organize a flag football game at the field down the street where I grew up. No one one helped line the fields and monitor play during the epic capture the flag battles that filled my elementary lunchtime schedule. Without the players, a coach is just a person with a bag of cones and a useless whistle.
This book shows some very interesting statistics on the long term effects of firing a coach or hiring someone new. (Spoiler alert: the change in winning percentage is miniscule.) But player personnel changes, that is the real game-changer.
Idea to Ponder:
- The Seven Traits of Elite Captains
- Extreme Doggedness and focus in competition.
- Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.
- A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
- A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style.
- Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays.
- Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
- Ironclad emotional control.
“How does the team look this year?”
Years ago I ran into a former coach of mine who was entering his 27th year of coaching.
“I don’t know just yet,” the old coach replied.
“Well, you went pretty deep into the playoffs last year, so things are looking pretty good,” I offered.
He thought for a moment.
“Records are deceiving, buddy.” He went on, “I won’t really know how I did as a coach for 10, maybe 15 years. When those young men finish college, start a family, and are productive members of society, then I’ll know I did my part well.”
[ctt title="'Coach the Species, not the Sport.'" tweet="Coach the Species, not the Sport by @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/D4LUz+" coverup="D4LUz"]
I have never forgotten that conversation. As coaches, we get so caught up in current wins and losses and the drama of the season that we forget we are only one season of our student athlete’s lives. We get them for such a short time and at such an important time.
Last year I got a call from a student I coached 9 years ago who was in town and wanted to have breakfast with his old youth coach. It reminded me how special the title "coach" really is. When I was this man’s youth football coach, we lost one game in a span of two years. How do I know we were successful all those years ago? Because over breakfast we talked about his collegiate aspirations and his dreams to be an engineer. He tried to explain to me why I should be on Snapchat and I recommended some books he should read. We laughed and shared and poked fun at one another. Not one word was uttered about all those games we won.
Focus on coaching the species, not the sport.
I believe books are the most under-valued and under-appreciated technology in the world. I also believe that teaching leadership is less about the number of books you have read and more about being an open book.
In my experience, most students are unimpressed with titles and accolades. Instead, they want to hear stories and experiences. I get the most positive feedback from my students whenever my sessions have personal anecdotes sprinkled among the lessons.
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However, my stories are finite! After a few months I have run out of stories I believe my students would like to hear. So, I read. I take notes. I collect stories from the written word and try to bring them to life for my students. In a book by George R.R. Martin called A Dance with Dragons, I ran across this quote:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
My father-in-law is a brilliant man and is always laying wisdom nuggets on me he found in some forgotten book. Last week, I wandered into an antique bookstore and discovered two old tomes that I found extremely fascinating. They reminded me that the rules for living and finding success are the same as they have always been. Here are two passages I plan to share with my older athletes this week.
From Education Through Recreation, 1936 By Lawrence Pearsall Jacks
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both. Enough for him that he does it well.”
From Self-Knowledge and Self-Discipline, 1916 By Basil William Maturin
“We do not endure [self-discipline] merely for its own sake, but for what lies beyond it. And we bear those acts of self-denial and self-restraint because we feel and know full well that through such acts alone can we regain the mastery over all our misused powers and learn to use them with a vigor and a joy such as we have never known before…”
“It is as though one who had a great talent for music but had no technical training, and consequently could never produce the best results of his art, were to put himself under a great master. The first lessons he will have to learn will be, for the most part, to correct his mistakes, not to do this and not to do that; it will seem to him that he has lost all his former freedom of expression, that he is held back by all sorts of technical rules, that whenever he seeks to let himself go he is checked and hampered. And it is no doubt true. But he will soon begin to realize that as he learns more and suffers in the learning, possibilities of utterance reveal themselves which he has never dreamed of. He knows, he feels, that he is on the right path, and as the channels are prepared and the barriers against the old bad methods more firmly fixed, he feels the mighty tide of his genius rise and swell, he hears the shout of the gathering waters as they sweep before them every obstacle and pour forth in a mad torrent of glorious sound. All those days of restraint and suffering are crowned with the joy of the full and perfect expression of his art. The restraint and discipline he knew full well in those seemingly unfruitful days were but the means to an end. The end is always before him, and the end is positive expression. The dying to his old untrained and bad methods is but the birth throes of a larger and richer action…”
“Without such an inspiring motive [discipline] is meaningless, it is cruel self-torture. We need—who does not know it—to fill our life, not to empty it. Life is too strong a thing, our nature is too positive, to be content with mere restraint and repression. Many a soul who has given up one thing after another and emptied its life of interest after interest, learns to its dismay that its energies finding no means of expression turn inward and revenge themselves in morbid self-analysis and sickly scruples. They need an outlet; they need interests. You may check the flow of a stream while you are preparing to divert its channel, but you cannot stop it. If you try, it will only gather force behind the barriers that hold it back, beat them down and rush through with a strength and volume all the greater for the restraint. And the stream of life cannot be merely held back. Many a man trying thus to repress himself finds after a time that temptations have only grown stronger and passions more violent, and that he seems to have become worse rather than better through the temporary resistance. What he needed, what might have protected him from failure and despair, was to be taught that all the restraint was but temporary, and in order to turn the stream into its true channel.”
Lastly, I have the following poem hung up on my office door:
No written word, nor spoken plea Can teach the kids what they should be. Nor all the books on all the shelves It's what the teachers are themselves.
It was originally written by Ronald Gallimore, but Coach John Wooden recited it often so it is many times attributed to the Great Coach. I believe it is a great reminder to myself about how to reach and teach my students.
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The journey of where I am as I write this started with a simple thought, “I want to work at IMG Academy.” The position I wanted required more than what I currently possessed, including a masters degree, a few certifications, learning a new language, and a doctorate in psychology for good measure. At the time, I was a full-time instructor and coach, and I had little time for anything else outside of teaching, coaching, and school work. However, I knew what I wanted and I knew it was worth it. Waste-deep in research papers, I stayed up late to complete the work for each class. I believed with everything in me I would one day be in that position. Henry Ford is many times credited with the saying, “Whether you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you are right.” That being said, I believed. When I finally applied, I decided to shoot low and apply for a summer position. I told my mentor and she had some choice words for me, some of which I probably shouldn’t repeat here. Her message, which paralleled the message from my wife, was that I was selling myself short. They both saw in me something I had yet to realize. I thought I believed in myself, but I was not quite there yet. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I needed Glinda the Good Witch to remind me I already had everything I needed to be successful. Three years later, and a slight change from the original goal, I am the head of the Leadership Development and surrounded by an amazing group of leadership and mental coaches, strength coaches, nutritionists, and athletic trainers who are great at their jobs and challenge me daily to grow as a person and a professional.
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Here are a few things I have learned about belief:
Belief creates power. Belief has a way of creating the momentum you need to achieve fantastic feats. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), an American Psychologist who many sport psychology students credit as a huge influence in their studies once said,
"The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.”
Can you relate? I bet there is a situation you can think of right now in which you could honestly say you sold yourself short. If only you believed you could do better, perhaps that would have pushed you to try a little bit harder.
Belief is a matter of effort. When I was a high school strength coach I loved working with the incoming freshmen because they were so eager to learn. On the second day, after a day of teaching fundamentals in the weight room, I would take them outside and ask them to raise their right hand as high as they possibly could. With their right hand in the air (insert the classic “your other right hand” joke here) I asked them if that was as high as they could go. They would say yes. Then I said, “Raise your hand one inch higher.” Every single player was able to raise his hand at least an inch higher. I have done that with females and adults, too, and invariably get the same result. We live in a world of fierce competition and when all things are equal, the one who wins is the one who went an inch further than anyone else. Last year I wrote an article asking: What is the difference between winning and losing? The answer, I argue, is Three Inches.
Belief is learned. I remember my freshman year of high school I once said to a teacher, “I am just not good at math.” He responded, “Yeah, some people just aren’t good at math.” As a teacher myself, I now know how damaging that statement was. He should have encouraged me to work harder to understand the things I did not yet understand. He could have used that moment to teach me the power of “Yet” that Carol Dweck teaches in her TedTalk about the power of believing and in her book Mindset: The New Rules of Success. Instead, he agreed with me and I spent years believing math was just not a subject in which I could ever excel.
Some people will call you crazy for your beliefs. You are. You should be. You have to be a little bit nuts to ignore the haters who try and poke holes in your dreams. They are loud and persistent. Exceed their efforts to distract you by letting your accomplishments speak for you. And when someone tells you their dreams believe them, ‘cause, why not?
“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
~Steve Jobs (1955-2011)
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I always start my leadership class with an activity. I do this because I find it breaks the monotony of school, practice, games, repeat. The range of activities we do is anywhere from improvisational games you see on Who's Line is it Anyway to childhood games most kids played on the playground. Sometimes the game has a take away that can be woven into the lesson that day, other times it is just a way to let teammates get silly with one another- something I believe leads to a great culture. Here is how I set it up, as well as two games I have played recently. First, when they enter the classroom, I shake their hand. I stand in front of them and won't let go until they make eye contact with me. I stand in the doorway so they have no where to go except through me. I say hello and use their name. I've said this before, kids love to hear you say their name when you have a smile on your face.
There is music playing in the background. That helps with setting the mood that this is going to be a positive experience. Prince, Michael Jackson, and Pharrell are likely to be coming through the speakers.
"Two minutes, everyone." I give them a warning that we are starting in two minutes. This lets them know to finish up that SnapChat or text message and to put their phone on the table by the door. They know to do this because I expect it of them. We as coaches can tell them all day to get off social media, but it will be in vain. Two minutes later, this:
This is an expectation. I have a fundamental belief that kids are not intentionally disrespectful, they just don't see any other way to behave modeled by people close to them. When I suggest to them it is a sign of respect to put their phones on silent then place them on the table before we get started, they willingly oblige. However, its all in the delivery. Yell at them, demand from them, and they will respond the way you think a teenager will respond: with disrespect.
I turn off the music and begin class. Here are two activities I did just this past week.
Transformers: I separated the football team into groups of 7 athletes which gave my 5 groups. I gave them 30 seconds to come up with a scene (frozen in time) that I yelled out. First, I yelled "King's Throne!" They then had 30 seconds to use everyone in their group to create something that resembled a king's throne. Myself and a few coaches judge each group and come up with a winner. Then I yelled, "Dominoes!" (Having them hold that while we judged was hilarious.) Last one I used was a two-parter: transformer. They had to start as one thing and transform into another when I got to their group and yelled "Transform!" A winner is declared and we started leadership class.
Take Away: Notice who in the groups takes over. You will see leaders take charge and team work together. Since there is a time limit, there is no time to argue or the group will be unsuccessful. Make sure to recognize a few people that stepped up who usually do not, and to notice a few athletes who had to hold a "tough" job in one of the poses.
This photo is the first part of one of the transformers.
Blind Freeze Tag: The second activity I want to share is Freeze Tag, but with a slight twist. I paired up the athletes and put blindfolds on one of them. It is important to do this on grass and to instruct the athletes to always walk, being careful not to swing their arms like a crazy person. I had two taggers. When someone is tagged, they must freeze and put their hand up. To unfreeze them, a blindfolded teammate must give them a high five.
Take Away: Communication and trust are big take aways from this activity. We talked about how must confidence a blindfolded athlete had in his or her partner and what was it like to have to help an athlete who could not see navigate the game.
Bottom line: Activities like this are a great way to break up the monotony of being a student athlete. I hope you found value in me sharing some of the ways I get student athletes to look forward to my class. Please try them and let me know how it worked out for you!