My dad passed away on Monday. He was a good man. He was a father to more than his sons and a friend to more than a few. This is one of my favorite moments as his oldest son.
We continued to talk for a few more minutes. It is always great to catch up with former players and see what lessons they took from our time together. This conversation reminded me, however, that a coach’s influence doesn’t end when the season is over, but that for the rest of that player’s life, I will always be “Coach.”
Coach, challenge your athletes to set the standard for the team. They will not adhere to seemingly arbitrary rules handed down on a piece of paper or written on a wall. You didn't when you were an athlete and neither will they. However, if you can get them to feel how the expectation will help them, you will see improved compliance.
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
“Excuse me, where can I find the batteries?” I’m at Home Depot walking around aimlessly when I find a guy wearing an orange vest. He has a clipboard and is obviously working on something. I feel bad for interrupting him.
“Hi!” He greets me with a smile. ”Batteries…hmmm. You will find them on 18. Follow me, I’ll show you.”
He turns on his heels and begins a fast pace. I’m in my flip-flops and struggling to keep up with his pace.
I am reminded of one of my first heroes, a football coach at Central High School in Fresno, California, named Coach Bog. Walking with him anywhere meant you were going to sweat and be a little out of breath. Years later, when I was hired as a teacher at that school, I asked him about his pace. “You teach people how to treat you by the way you dress, the way you talk, and the way you walk.”
He paused, letting it sink in and allowing for questions. This was his teaching style. I was accustomed to his way of teaching so I kept my mouth shut and waited for him to continue.
“Be intentional about how you dress,” he said. “Master the English language, walk with a purpose, and people will want to hear what you have to say.”
I snap back to reality when the man in the orange vest points to the batteries and says, “Here you go, how can I help?”
How can I help? He just walked 11 rows to show me where the batteries are and now he asks how he can help?
We found what I needed and I thanked him for his time. I reached out my hand and he grabbed it with enthusiasm. A firm handshake. Eye contact. “My pleasure, have a wonderful day, be blessed.”
The man set the example for what youth coaches can do for their athletes.
- He was busy, but not too busy to help me.
- He was deep in thought, but okay with the interruption.
- He told me, but then he showed me.
[ctt title="How Getting Lost Helped Me to be a Better Coach" tweet="How Getting Lost Helped Me to be a Better Coach by @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/fGUIf+" coverup="fGUIf"]
What if we coached the way this man helps strangers?
At the beginning of every season of whatever sport I am coaching (the last few years have been specifically middle school students and younger), I have a meeting with the parents. One of the first things I tell them is that their children are my priority. I say, “If you and I are speaking and any of the students interrupt me, our conversation is over. I am there for the students, not the parents.”
I teach the students how to interrupt me in a similar way and I teach them how to shake hands. I tell them to look for an opportunity to interrupt, for example, during a pause in the conversation, and say, “Excuse me, Coach Leath,” and to wait for me to respond.
Do this. Teach your students the skill of the interruption. I promise you, when it happens, and you take your attention from that parent and fully give it to the student, you will light up your athlete.
Then, whether they need to trust you in the heat of competition or get batteries in a Home Depot, they will follow you at the pace you set for them. You can’t expect to be perfect, but your example as a coach, whether good or bad, has the power to alter the life of the students who call you coach.
[ctt title="Be the example. Set the standard. They are always watching." tweet="'Be the example. Set the standard. They are always watching.' @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/3aKZE+" coverup="3aKZE"]
“He is going to be shocked we no longer want him.”
“Come again?” I asked the college assistant coach seated across from me at lunch. “You flew across the country to meet him, and now you won’t recruit him anymore?”
The coach had recently stopped for a day in another state to check in on one of their prospects, before arriving at my school in Florida.
“He is a great talent, he certainly has the skills needed to play for us,” said the coach. “Sadly, he just won’t fit in well with our culture. It’s sad how many kids we come across every year that we cannot recruit, and it has nothing to do with their ability.”
As the Head of Leadership at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, I have the privilege of having conversations with college recruiters from major universities every week. One of saddest topics we discuss are stories of top high school talent being passed over because of behavior off the field. High talent and low character is a poor combination.
I have heard these stories enough to feel compelled to write this so that it may be passed onto every high school athlete that dreams of playing in college. There are a lot of talented athletes out there, but talent alone will not land you a coveted roster spot. Your talent may get your foot in the door, but it takes a lot more to hit the field at the next level.
The recruiter is not there to see you tackle, throw, bump, spike, pitch, catch, hit, shoot, or pass for the thousandth time. He already knows your stats. He has already watched your highlight film and read all the press clippings. He has likely seen you play. What he is looking for are called intangibles, the things that cannot be easily measured, but make all the difference.
Of the countless conversations I have had with college recruiters, here are the most common questions recruiters are searching for answers to decide whether they should recruit you or not.
[ctt title="Talent gets you noticed, character gets you recruited" tweet="'Talent gets you noticed, character gets you recruited.' @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/1ebgU+" coverup="1ebgU"]
What are you doing when you think no one is watching?
Recruiters are not always wearing their school clothing. That guy in the corner of the weight room talking to your coach? He might be a recruiter on an unscheduled visit. That woman in the stands taking notes? She may be writing down the behavior she sees to report back to her head coach. The more talented you are, the more people are watching you to try and see what flaws you are hiding. How do you treat your teammates, coaches, parents, and officials? Do you make eye contact with your coach when she is talking? What is your body language like when things are not going well? This all matters, a lot!
Are you one thing in person, and another person online?
Social media is the microphone of your character, and whether you agree or not, you will be judged by what you post. Please, pause and think before you post! If you wouldn’t want it on a billboard so your grandma could read it, you probably shouldn’t post it online.
Colleges put a lot of research into your character, especially the high-profile sports such as football and basketball. Most schools have teams of people who use very creative tactics to comb through your social media feeds.
For example, I heard a story recently about a prospect who used a lot of racial slurs on his Twitter account. This recruit was shocked because his Twitter account was set to private. However, a few weeks prior to the recruiter’s visit, this prospect accepted a request to allow an account with a profile picture of a pretty girl. That account was actually owned by a guy named Chris. Once accepted as a follower, Chris was given access to that prospect’s entire feed. Chris also discovered that the recruit had a habit of ridiculing teammates online. The recruiter thought that prospect had the talent to play at the next level, but talent alone gets you nowhere.
Who are your biggest influences?
You will become like the people you hang out with the most. This includes who you follow on social media. Take a look at who you are following on social media sites, and in life, and unfollow those you do not wish to be associated with or become like.
Last year, I spoke to a coach about a 5-star baseball recruit being watched by all the major universities. That was until a news story came out about all the accounts this recruit was following on Twitter that promoted sexual assault towards women, drug use, and alcohol consumption. This recruit also had a Twitch account where he would play certain games that glorified abuse towards women and was recorded cheering when an explicit event would happen during the game. Not surprisingly, he ended up going to community college and getting kicked off his team halfway through the year.
Ask yourself, “If I were a coach, and I looked at the list of people influencing me, would I recruit me?” Be honest with yourself, because your potential future coach will be looking very closely at your influencers.
Are you a great teammate?
I coached varsity football for a number of years and had some decent talent under my supervision. I remember one recruiter visiting from a big school in Southern California to take a look at our star linebacker, maybe the best at his position I ever coached.
When the recruiter arrived, he was wearing boots, jeans, and a t-shirt. Nothing about what he was wearing gave away where he was from or connected him to his university. As I spoke to him in the corner of the weight room, he watched one particular athlete with great intensity. If he were to tell the story, this is how it would go:
“When I arrived at the school, I was taken directly to the weight room where our number one linebacker prospect was lifting with his team. He did not know who I was because I was wearing regular street clothes. I do this during all my visits because I don’t want to influence their normal routine just because I’m watching. I am sure the amount of weight he was squatting was impressive, but watching him squat was not what I flew 400 miles to observe. One thing I noticed was during every set, he had a spotter standing behind him just in case he needed help. This teammate was yelling encouragement during the prospect’s last few reps and helped him rack the bar.”
“After all three sets, sadly, I watched our recruit sit down and pull out his phone instead of returning the favor of spotting his teammate. His coach asked him to put his phone away after his first set. He did. He then pulled it back out after the second set. I stopped his coach from intervening again. We look for guys who can be trusted to do the things after being told once. During the third set, he finally put his phone down, but only because he saw his teammate struggling to finish his last few reps. This teammate was there for the prospect every rep. The prospect, however, did not spot him or encourage him, putting himself and those around him in danger. I began to question his ability to be a great teammate, and if he would fit in with our team. Then, when the workout was over, the coach blew the whistle to start cleaning up. The prospect headed straight for his cleats and walked out the door, never even making eye contact with me, and leaving his teammates to clean up and rack the weights. Definitely not a good fit for our culture.”
Do you make a good first impression?
One of the first things I teach all my athletes is the art of the handshake. Firm grip, eye contact, be fully present while you introduce yourself. (Click here for an example of how I do it.) I had a group of NBA prospects in my leadership class recently. I had been working with this particular group a few weeks so they knew how to enter a room, command presence, shake hands, make eye contact— all things that will set them apart from the hundreds of other NBA draft prospects.
A new guy showed up to campus and was put in my class. When he walked in, he gave me a handshake that could only be described as “a dead fish.” He mumbled his name and never really made eye contact. The class booed him and told him to “try it again,” pointing towards the door. He was confused and shocked that he was booed when he walked into the room. He came back in, did the same thing, and was again booed by his peers. Here was a phenomenal athlete, tall enough to have to duck when he entered the room, and he was getting booed for how he entered. I walked out with him the second time.
“Why are they booing?” he asked.
“Because you suck at entering a room.” I could see the confusion on his face. Then I saw a smile as he realized class had begun.
“How are you going to stand out if you enter a room like everyone else? And what’s with this handshake? Give me your hand,” I said.
I showed him a proper handshake and I encouraged him to walk across the room with purpose, introduce himself clearly, and look me in the eye when he shook my hand. Then I walked back into the classroom, shutting the door behind me.
The large man destined for the NBA walked in, smiled, and walked across the room with purpose. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and introduced himself clearly. The room full of other large men erupted in cheer.
You are always being watched—from the moment you get out of your car to the moment you leave the parking lot. The more talented you are, the more people pay attention. Give them a reason to remember you off the field, court, mat, or pool.
Do you “sweep the shed?”
The most successful sports team in the professional era is not the NY Yankees, or the Boston Celtics, or Real Madrid, but a team from a far less known sport. It is the New Zealand All Blacks in rugby, who have an astonishing 86% winning percentage and numerous championships to their name. In the outstanding book, Legacy, written about the All Blacks (the most winningest professional team in the history of modern sports), author James Kerr discusses one of their core values that epitomizes the selfless attitude.
You see the goal of every All Blacks player is to leave the national team shirt in a better place than when he got it. His goal is to contribute to the legacy by doing his part to grow the game and keep the team progressing every single day.
In order to do so, the players realize that you must remain humble, and that no one is too big or too famous to do the little things required each and every day to get better. You must eat right. You must sleep well. You must take care of yourself on and off the field. You must train hard. You must sacrifice your own goals for the greater good and a higher purpose.
You must sweep the shed.
After each match, played in front of 80,000 plus fans, in front of millions on TV, after the camera crews have left, and the coaches are done speaking, when the eyes of the world have turned elsewhere, there is still a locker room to be cleaned.
...by the players!
If the New Zealand All Blacks are sweeping their locker room, then why aren’t you out there helping younger players, picking up cones, arriving first and leaving last, and setting the example for others? Are you leaving the uniform in a better place, or counting the days until they retire your jersey?
I once asked a recruiter what he thought of the prospect he came to watch.
“Remember when they were doing pushups?” he asked. “He led the team by counting, but he missed pushup 13 and pushup 18. He just didn't go down, even though he commanded the team to do so. I am not sure about this guy, honestly. Out of twenty plays, we can’t have him taking off two because he is tired.”
You are always being watched, so sweep the shed.
Do you show a sense gratitude?
How you treat the people who take care of you matters. The coaches, the trainers, the ball boys—they are there to serve, but they are not your servants. True leaders serve those around them. When the trainer shows up, don’t bark, “I need tape!” Instead, ask for it. Say “please.” Say “thank you.” Clean up after yourself. When you are grateful, and treat others with the respect they deserve, people take notice. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do.
[ctt title="Your talent will get you noticed, but your character will get you recruited." tweet="'Your talent will get you noticed, but your character will get you recruited.' @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/82ald+" coverup="82ald"]
- Show gratitude.
- Be a positive influence.
- Do the little things.
- Be a great teammate.
- Make a great first impression.
- Sweep the shed.
And always remember, whether you are online, on the field or in the classroom, someone is watching.
As president Calvin Coolidge once said, “nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.”
Your reputation is who people think you are; your character is who you are when you think no one is paying attention. Someone is always paying attention, and every recruiter has countless stories of passing on a talented athlete who failed the character test. You must be the exception. You must be extra-ordinary. That’s how you get recruited.
What does it take to build a legacy? One brick at a time.
This is a poem about "mindset" I put to memory long ago. It has served me well. Enjoy!
"The idea of molding men means a lot to me." Coach Bear Bryant said that. When coaching football, that is reality what we are doing. These young men look to us for guidance on the field and subsequently will use those same strategies off the field. We teach how to have a sense pride, how to handle winning and losing, to believe in themselves, to "finish the block" and how to communicate with others. Ask yourself, who on your team looks at you like a father? Remember, you don't have to be a good father to be looked at like a father. There are PLENTY of bad fathers out there...