In Coaching: Good/Bad/Unfair, Winning/Losing

Winning coaching is not rocket science. Nor is it a one way street the way far too many coaches think. You know the drill. The coach speaks and everyone must listen because the coach is always right and his/her athletes are most often wrong.

Winning coaching involves carefully listening to your athletes as they tell you both verbally and non-verbally through their performance what works and doesn’t work for them.

Good coaching involves saying and doing things to your players and then carefully examining how each athlete responds to you. By carefully paying attention to each athlete’s response, you as the coach can then gain some very valuable information about how to help that athlete perform to his/her potential. If you shut off that source of feedback from your players, that is, if you’re not at all interested in what they have to say about your coaching interventions, and you never examine the effects of what you say and do with your team, then you will be operating in the dark as a coach. The result: You will end up seriously limiting your overall success.

Each of your athletes needs different things from you and perhaps even a different approach. Some of your players will positively respond to your yelling while others will shut down. Some will rise to your challenges while others will become overwhelmed with excessive nervousness. Some will need to be pushed by you while others will need you to inspire them instead. Good coaching is all about finding out what “buttons” to push in each of your players. You can’t effectively do this without being open to feedback from each of your athletes.

What does this mean? Sometimes you will do things with your team that will backfire and cause them to play badly. The good coach is willing to examine his behaviors and take responsibility for the team’s bad play. The bad coach continues to blindly forge ahead, blaming his players for the poor performance while being totally oblivious to the fact that he actually caused it!

An example: In practice, the day before a huge game against their conference rivals, a Lax team was yelled at and threatened by their coach. He built up how good the opponent was while simultaneously tearing his players down. He repeatedly told them that if they continued to “suck” the way they did, then they were going to get their butts kicked. I can only believe that his intention was to somehow get his players “up” for the game but his approach was baffling to me. Not surprising, the more the coach threatened and put his players down, the worse they played in practice. The coach responded to this poor play by getting even angrier until, with just over a half hour left in practice, he grabbed his clipboard and angrily stormed off the field leaving his stunned team behind. His parting comments were, “You guys absolutely suck and you’re wasting my time out here!”

The next day his entire team was off. They failed to execute either offensively or defensively. They played tentatively and scared, and they indeed got their butts badly kicked. The coach’s response after the game? “I told you so! You guys messed around in practice yesterday and that’s why you lost!”

Here’s the thing. This team didn’t lose by themselves! They had a lot of “help” from their coach. In fact, he set the tone for this loss the day before in practice. Unfortunately his coaching operated on that one way street concept of “I’m always right, I never make mistakes and when things go badly, it’s your fault!”

Had he been more self-aware, he would have been able to make a connection between how he handled practice the day before and how his team then responded in the game.

Listen to your athletes. In one form or another, they will tell you what they need from you to be at their best.

A high school tennis player was responding very badly to her coach’s pre-match anxiety. Her coach got very worked up before matches and kept focusing the entire team on the importance of winning that day. This coach put even more pressure on the #1 player, saying to her before her individual matches, “You really need to win and if you don’t, it will be hard for the team to win.” During the match the coach would then nervously parade back and forth behind the fence. At changeovers the coach would give this player very unhelpful feedback like, “How could you have missed that easy volley?” or “Why did you double fault at that point?”

Not surprisingly, the coach’s handling of this #1 player made the poor girl even more nervous than she was and, as a result, she found it very difficult to relax and concentrate through the match. I encouraged her to finally talk to the coach and explain to her that this outcome focus and the coach’s nervous pre-match behaviors were hurting, not helping her play. This player respectfully asked that the coach not stand behind her court, pace during the match or “coach” her. She told the coach that when she did, it only distracted her from playing and made her too nervous to play well.

At first, the coach honored this player’s request and the girl was able to relax, focus on her matches and start performing well again. This went on for two weeks until the Regional tournament. The player won her first two matches and was in the final match, ahead 5 games to 3 and serving for the first set. She had been playing relaxed and confidently all day.

For some strange reason though, the coach picked this crucial point in the match to come over and begin to “coach” her player. As usual her comments were totally negative, off-base and generated nervousness within her player. i.e. “How could you have missed those two shots?!!! Now you’re going to lose this game and have to go into a tiebreaker. Why did you do that?”

The #1 player was completely caught off-guard by her coach’s sudden change in strategy. Then this girl started getting nervous and distracted. She was able to hang on and win the first set, but as the match went on, she got more and more distracted and upset by the coach’s behaviors and comments. The coach was completely oblivious to this negative effect she was having on her player. Perhaps in her mind she was just “doing my coaching job.” After having a 3-0 lead in the second and deciding set, this player then lost 9 games in a row to lose the match and the championships!

Whose fault was the loss? To me, the coach was completely responsible! Why should an athlete have to work extra hard to neutralize and/or block out the negative effects of her coach? Is that the purpose of “good coaching,” to make your athlete’s life more difficult? To interfere with your players’ performances? I think NOT! The really upsetting part of this story is that the coach already had gotten feedback from her player as to what she needed in order to perform well. The player told her both in her conversation and then later in her two weeks worth of wins!

Winning coaching is not done in a vacuum! It involves carefully listening to and watching your athletes. It involves putting your ego aside long enough to figure out what really works with each of your players and then acting accordingly. Winning coaching involves taking responsibility for your athletes’ poor performances and then taking the time to try to figure out what you as the coach need to do differently.


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