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.
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
"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.
“You’re fired!” The Major walked away from the most recent team leader and began looking for the next person to be put in charge. That was the third leader fired for not doing the task appropriately or efficiently enough. “Simmons!” Simmons made his way to the front of the pack.
“You’re in charge now. Do you understand the task?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Good, show me. The last few knuckleheads can’t seem to get it."
“Yes sir.” Simmons turned to face his brothers.
“Listen up, we need five even lines. Miller, scoot to your right a few inches. Good. Thomas, tuck your shirt in.” Simmons began pacing up and down the lines adjusting the water bottles to make sure they were lined up and facing the correct way. He moved a few notebooks so they were directly in front of their owners.
About a minute passed. “Simmons, you’re fired!”
Simmons acknowledged his demotion and took his place at the back of a line.
“Gonzales, where are you?”
“Here, sir!” Gonzalez made his way to the front of the pack, accidentally knocking over a water bottle. He fixed it immediately and stood directly in front of the Major.
Gonzalez was one of the smallest young men in the group. Because of his size, he rarely got to participate in the game.
“Can you figure this out, Gonzalez?”
“I think so, sir.”
“You think so?”
“I know so, sir.”
“Show me!” The Major yelled at the top of his lungs directly in the face of the young man. Gonzalez flinched, but tried to hide it the best he could. He quickly regained his composure.
“Yes, sir!” Gonzalez turned around and summoned the first person in each line to join him in a small group.
A slight smile crept onto the face of the Major. He became aware of his countenance and it disappeared as quickly as it appeared.
[ctt title="How to Intentionally Create Leaders" tweet="How to Intentionally Create Leaders by @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/zf7WY+" coverup="zf7WY"]
“Listen up, brothers. It's hot and we are all tired, so let’s get it right this time. I need you to take care of your line. Make sure all the water bottles are full of water and lined up to the right of your feet. Check to make sure your line has their shirts tucked in and socks pulled up. I noticed some pens are missing. Make sure each person has a writing tool. If they don’t, there are more in the box over on the bleachers. If you need one, make sure you hustle there and back. The Major gave us five minutes to complete this task--let’s do it in two.”
Adversity presented an opportunity for this young man to display something he did not know he possessed. In that moment, Gonzalez was elevated in the eyes of his brothers. No longer a sideline bystander, he was now in charge and he seized his moment. It's moments like these that old men share as pivotal moments in their lives.
The small group breaks and gets to work, looking for anything out of place that could ruin the exactness of their line. They take ownership of a job well done, directed by the unassuming teammate that possess the heart of a lion.
“Thirty seconds, brothers. Check your line once more, then fall in once complete.”
Gonzalez made one final check of the work of his brothers and made his way to the Major.
“Task complete, sir.”
“Are you sure?”
“How confident are you that you did an acceptable job?”
“Very confident, sir.”
The Major slowly walked up and down each aisle, stopping every few athletes to stare a teammate down. No one flinched or fidgeted. He made his way to the front of the group.
“Well done, Gonzalez. You are a great leader.”
Gonzalez moved his shoulders back and slightly puffed up his chest. His brothers tried to hold back their smiles--some hid it better than others. They were impressed.
“Please tell your brothers to grab their items and report to the shady area for debriefing.”
Gonzales, about two feet taller than 10 minutes before, gave his brothers their next task. The team grabbed their items and sprinted to the shady area without saying a word.
[ctt title="Leadership is caught, not taught." tweet="Leadership is caught, not taught. https://ctt.ec/5Ndk2+" coverup="5Ndk2"]
It is something that is learned when we see others fail at the arrival of adversity. As children, we learn how to lead by watching our parents, teachers, coaches, politicians, and religious leaders first do it. We see how our brothers and sisters treat us and experience what happens when we treat them certain ways. Later in life, we have people we report to and who report to us. We read books and watch programs and attend seminars that allow for us to learn different ways to motivate and lead others. Then, we start to intentionally pass on the lessons we have learned.
Some ideas are good, most are bad, but it is experience that teaches us the difference. It has been said that experience is the best teacher, but I believe that is an incomplete analysis of the lessons of experience. To truly grow from experience, we must evaluate what we have endured, then extract from what happened the tools to be used in a future situation.
A leader must be a great follower.
Without adversity, leadership and its lessons are absent. Failure is a one-time event, not a life sentence. The leaders before Gonzalez were not so much failures as they were a lesson in how to do the task wrong. By the time Gonzalez was given the chance to lead, he used the lessons he just learned to do the task correctly.
A leader must be able to use the tools he or she has available.
Gonzalez was not an imposing figure who could use height and a baritone voice to influence those around him. Instead, he used logic and teamwork to get done what he could not on his own. His predecessors tried to lead alone. They thought they could do it by themselves because experience had shown them no other way. The Major knew this, as most young men are not intentionally taught the importance of teamwork, and introduced a task that could not be completed until the use of others was part of the equation.
A leader must be able to hold him or herself accountable before holding others accountable.
If Gonzalez had his shirt untucked, he could not have told his teammate to tuck in his own shirt. Many coaches forget this insight. They command their athletes to be on time, but fail to arrive on time. They encourage their athletes to keep their cool on the sidelines, but scream and yell at the referee, calling him or her all sorts of unacceptable names.
[ctt title="Leadership is less about the number of books you have read and more about being an open book." tweet="'Leadership is less about the number of books you have read and more about being an open book.' @jamesleath http://ctt.ec/e0_UK+" coverup="e0_UK"]
How To Intentionally Create Leaders
A typical practice session offers very few opportunities to grow leaders. Drills are run by coaches, scrimmages are paused for instruction, and rarely does an athlete have the opportunity to call out one of his or her teammates.
Here are some examples of ways you can create opportunities for growth:
The Weight Room
Many college programs have a strength coach dedicated to making sure the athletes are getting stronger and faster. However, most high school programs are lucky if they have enough supervision in the weight room, nevermind an actual strength coach. Create small groups and designate a leader in that group. Before the workout begins, bring together the group leaders and let them know what will be expected of them during that workout. Demonstrate anything that might be cause for confusion and allow for questions. Before these kinds of meetings can take place, the whole team must know what is expected of them when these pre-workout meetings are taking place. Design some sort of warm-up to keep the athletes busy and out of trouble. This will take some extra work on the front end but will make things easier once implemented. If a group is screwing around, the leader of that group is reprimanded after the workout (extra sprints, bear crawls, etc.).
After a few weeks, every group gets a new leader. Meet with leaders periodically and help them work through situations like teammates not giving full effort or messing around too much. Sports are a microcosm for adult life and they will soon find out that high school never ends and many adults never actually grow up.
Create groups that set up and tear down the practice field (cones, bags, ladders, etc.). Once complete, ask the leaders to report to you letting you know the task is complete and reporting on anything that needs attention (a broken piece of equipment, for example).
Let your athlete run the warm-up drills. Give them a clipboard and let them lead how they think is effective. Coach them up on strategies. Point out athletes that are doing it wrong and let them correct their teammates.
Doing these things creates a culture of accountability. Holding a peer accountable or calling a peer out as a young person (or an adult, for that matter!) is a difficult skill and best learned in a safe environment like the practice field.
Some students are better at certain subjects than others. If you have a math whiz, give him or her permission to tutor during study hall. Celebrate their strengths for math, or Spanish, or history, or whatever it is they are good at and give them a platform to help others.
Sometimes age gets in the way of allowing learning to happen. If a sophomore is better at math than a senior, that senior’s pride may get in the way of letting a younger person teach them. This is when you step in and promote the idea that we can learn from anyone, regardless of age or any other differentiating trait.
Look for ways to allow your athletes to practice leading and use your life experience to promote growth in their leadership ability. At first, you may think you are losing time to practice strategy and technique, but you will soon find that you are gaining a team full of leaders that you can rely on when adversity arrives...and it always arrives.
[ctt title="'Leadership is less about the number of books you have read and more about being an open book.' " tweet="'Leadership is less about the number of books you have read and more about being an open book.' @jamesleath http://ctt.ec/b5S65+" coverup="b5S65"]
One of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen is the movie Avatar. In that film, they express their affection for each other not by saying, "I love you," but by saying, “I see you.” A child thrives on simply being noticed. “Do you see me?” and “Watch me do this,” are child speak for, “I want to show you I’m worthy of your affection.”
I recently started helping out coaching with a 7-year-old flag football team. I look around at the other teams and I see coaches trying to give their teams speeches to pump them up that last 5 or 6 minutes. I watch as those same coaches try and do a post-game analysis with the kids and I can see the frustration on the coach’s faces because their athletes are not listening. At that age, they are just there to run around with their friends. They just want the ball and a post-game snack. They want to know you “saw” them play.
I have coached against youth teams that were physically and strategically better than my team but beat them simply because of the ability to communicate clearly during a competition. I remember on one occasion showing up to a youth football game with my team and hearing the opposing coach yell at his players before the game. I could see the nervousness of those players and so could my players. They were a stronger team, but my kids were relaxed and confident. By halftime, we were up 28-0.
[ctt title="Five tips for coaches on communicating with young athletes" tweet="Five tips for coaches on communicating with young athletes by @jamesleath http://ctt.ec/nuH56+" coverup="nuH56"]
1. Take your glasses off.
In college, I worked at an elementary school as a yard duty teacher. There was an autistic student who was notorious for being a troublemaker on the playground. He once told me I was the only teacher he would listen to. When I asked him why, he pointed at the hand on my side holding my sunglasses. He said, “Because when you talk to me to take your sunglasses off so I can see your eyes - you’re the only teacher who can see me.”
2. Take note of the sun.
After a long practice in the heat, my team took a knee but wouldn’t look at me. I began to get agitated and raised my voice. One of my athletes stood up and said, “Coach, I want to look at you, but right next to your head is the sun and we are staring directly into it.” Whoops, my bad. Bonus: try to have a wall behind you so there is less activity to distract them.
3. Take a knee.
All day long children are quite literally looking up to their parents and teachers. Taking a knee or bending over to get on their level will allow them to make a better connection with you. Most likely you will be the only adult who did that all day and kids remember that stuff.
4. Take a breath.
Kids are not mini-adults. Let me repeat, kids are not mini adults. They don’t have years of experience on how to deal with emotions and how to behave. It is your job and the job of the other adults in their lives to teach them the strategies they need to deal with these new emotions and how to act. You are there to teach them. Remember: Your behaviors are louder than your words.
5. Take two minutes or less.
How many times did your focus waiver in reading these tips? Remember that next time you get mad at a child for not paying attention. We live in a world full of distractions. Focus takes energy and practice. This article written in 2004 about how John Wooden coaches is worth a read. It is a revision of original research done in 1976. What they found was Coach Wooden rarely spoke to a player for more than 30 seconds and usually for only five-seven seconds. He would teach, show, and then have them do it.
These are strategies I have found help get the most out of my young students-athletes. The lesson here is that kids are in school all day and they come to you to play. Don’t lecture from high above. Instead, take your glasses off, find a shady area, take a knee, take a deep breath, and then talk a bit. Then, let them have some fun and play because that is the real reason they are playing sports.
[ctt title="How to Communicate to Youth Sport Athletes" tweet="How to Communicate to Youth Sport Athletes by @jamesleath https://ctt.ec/bl2_K+" coverup="bl2_K"]
“If your output exceeds your input, your upkeep will be your downfall.”- Thomas Nelson, Pastor of Denton Bible Church
“You are going to have to run practice the next few weeks; I am running for city council. Are you up to it?” No problem, I thought. After all, I had just been voted team captain and felt I had a pretty good grasp on the game. I was in 8th grade.
Of course, inside I was a mess. What did I know about running practice? Why would the team listen to me? Luckily, the former coach was still a teacher on campus and we had a good relationship so the next day I sought out his advice.
After listening to the situation, he leaned back in his chair and smiled. He didn’t say anything for what seemed like an eternity though in reality it was probably only 10 seconds or so. He turned to his computer (the same one I had used to play Oregon Trail during recess the year before) and printed out the playbook from last year. When it was done printing, he handed it to me and gave me great advice I still use to this day.
He said, “Write down what needs to be learned for the week, then break it down into 3 parts, one for each day of practice. Figure out the skills needed to be able to run those plays and create drills around those skills. Put it together at the end of practice, and review the next day.” I was feverishly taking notes as he talked. “Lastly, talk to the team and come up with some expectations everyone agrees on, then as a team decide on consequences for not following those rules. If you all agree, then everyone has the right to enforce.”
At lunch time, I found brought out my notebook and found a tree to sit under as I designed practice. After school came around and the new coach asked the team if they would be okay if I ran practice since he was going to be making phone calls. They agreed, and with that, practice began. I pulled out my notebook and showed them what the goals for today would be, but first, we needed to set some team rules and consequences. I wish I still had that list. That season, we went undefeated, winning the championship and solidifying my future as a coach.
Baseball season rolled around, and we went defeated, but that is another story for another day.
That summer, a man named Paul Babcock gave me three books on tape, all by John C. Maxwell. They all had something to do with leadership, and since I had had a taste of what it was like to lead, I must have listened to those books 4 or 5 times each as I rode my bike throughout the community. Since then, I have continued to improve my ability to lead a team through books and by asking questions to as many coaches who will listen.
Why do I tell this story? I learned the value of leadership at a young age because I was given a challenge beyond what I thought I was capable. Instead of doing it for me, the adults in my life I turned to for help gave me clues but ultimately let me figure it out myself. It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. I had to set starting lineups and learned very fast that it is difficult to coach and be friends with the players on the team. But I kept reading. I kept learning and asking questions. I am so grateful they let me struggle instead of trying to fix the problem. I think kids these days would do well to struggle a bit more than they are usually allowed to.
As the Head of Leadership Development at IMG Academy, my team and I go throw a book a month. They are usually non-fiction and have something to do with leadership, but sometimes we’ll read a fiction book by Jon Gordon or recently, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. Here is a list of the books we have gone through over the past few months:
October: The Way of the Champion, Dr. Jerry Lynch November: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card December: Legacy, by James Kerr January: Deep Work, by Cal Newport February: The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday March: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John Maxwell April: Forces of Character: Conversations About Building A Life Of Impact, by Chad Hennings
I recommend all of these, but there are many others I have written about before.
Kayla Montgomery is one of America's best long distance runners, but that's not why this story is so amazing. She has been battling with multiple sclerosis (MS) since high school and it doesn't make racing easy at all. Watch her inspiring story of perseverance - it's simply incredible. [video width="640" height="360" mp4="http://jamesleath.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/E60-Catching-Kayla.mp4"][/video]