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Good Coach – Bad Coach: There is absolutely no question that an athlete’s experience within her sport is almost completely colored by the type of coach she is lucky or unlucky enough to draw. A good coach will teach the athlete to love the sport. He will inspire that athlete to dream big and take risks in pursuit of that goal. He will motivate the athlete to work hard, push through pain and fatigue and bounce back from setbacks and failures. He will build trust among team members and teach each athlete to sacrifice the “I” for the “we.” A good coach will teach valuable life lessons and model these through his behaviors and interactions with the athlete and everyone he comes in contact with. A good coach will directly and indirectly change that athlete into a better, more confident, happier person. A bad coach, on the other hand will teach very different lessons. Through his treatment of his players and interactions with those around him he will turn his athletes off to the sport. He will gradually kill the athlete’s love and enjoyment of the game. He will steal the athlete’s self-confidence and energy and replace them with self-doubts and apathy. A bad coach will motivate the athlete to expend her energies in self-protection and risk avoidance, rather than personal excellence. He will breed jealousy, selfishness and mistrust on the team. He will snuff out dreams and make the athlete fear failure on and off the playing field. A bad coach will leave the athlete diminished and embittered. In this issue of The Mental Toughness Newsletter, we will revisit this topic of good coach – bad coach.

PARENT’S CORNER – “The truly excellent coach, a rare blessing in today’s sports”
COACH’S OFFICE – “The dilemma of being a good coach”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES “It’s about winning, stupid!”

“The truly excellent coach, a rare blessing in today’s sports world”

Both my girls have been on tons of teams over the years in almost every sport imaginable. They’ve competed at almost every level there is from recreational and travel team, to middle school and high school varsity. It is only now, after almost fifteen years of various coaching with both girls that my youngest daughter now has what I would consider to be a truly remarkable coach. More on him later.

This is not to say that there haven’t been some decent coaches over the years. When my girls were both playing at a recreational level they both had very kind coaches who knew just enough about the game and about kids to give my girls a fun, rewarding experience. However, as I look back on all their team experiences I am dismayed to see that the decent coaches were the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of coaches they had were either kind, but completely ineffectual or downright nasty and abusive.

The unbelievably frustrating part for a parent is to watch your child go through a youth sports experience with this kind of coach. To help you develop a better perspective about what a good coach really looks and sounds like, I’d like to share with you my 15 year-old daughter’s current experience on her AAU basketball team. She has tried over the past three years to make the AAU team and each time has been cut. This Spring she finally made the team and for the first time ever she is playing for a coach who not only really knows the game of basketball, but who knows how to teach the game to adolescent girls.

My daughter is, plain and simple, ecstatic. Having had so many bad coaches over the years she instantly is aware that this coach, Coach J is a very different animal. She is learning the game. She is feeling better and better about herself as an athlete. She is feeling listened to, recognized and valued by the coach and his two assistants. She is quite simply blossoming in the rare air of this refreshingly healthy environment.

Coach J is a stickler for detail and demands that these girls learn the game his way and play to the best of their ability. However, having said that, his coaching methods are very basic, down-to-earth and effective. He underscores that the new girls will be completely overwhelmed by all the new material. They are! However, like a good teacher he makes it quite clear to them that their frustration and confusion are normal and to be expected. He also lets them know that at the other end of their frustration and not knowing is understanding and competence. He reassures them that they will soon master these new offenses and defenses, just like everyone else.

Coach J is a great teacher. He stops the practice whenever there is a teaching moment and he effectively uses it. He points out what went wrong, what should have happened and then demonstrates the right way again and again. When he corrects his players he uses his knowledge of their personalities to make his interventions. With some he uses humor.

With others he yells in mock horror. With still others he puts his arm around them and challenges them to point out what they did wrong. Above all else, with everyone he is good natured and patient. It’s as if he has the inner knowledge that in his interactions with these young ladies there is far more than the learning of sound basketball fundamentals at stake. Plain and simple, Coach J knows the impact that he has on these girls. This is good coaching!

His sense of humor is probably the major vehicle that he uses to teach the game. He uses it in a kind way, sometimes even poking fun at himself whenever he messes up. The girls respond to this style and there are a lot of smiles and laughter during practice even when they are working their butts off! Humor certainly can be used as a weapon to cut, demean or embarrass. This is not how Coach J uses it. His humor seems wrapped in kindness and patience.

Like all good coaches, Coach J is enthusiastic. He clearly loves the game and enjoys teaching it. When you play for a coach like this your experience is dramatically different than when you play for someone who is just going through the motions. His enthusiasm regularly and predictably bubbles over whenever his players execute successfully. He always seems to go out of his way to catch the girls doing things right. He’ll stop the practice, point out what was just done effectively and single out the girl who just did it. I don’t know if he’s conscious of how much he’s building self-esteem and confidence in each of these interactions. It probably doesn’t really matter. I’ve watched enough practices at this point to see that this is an integral part of his coaching style.

Coach J has been coaching AAU teams for over twenty years now. Perhaps the fact that he has also raised three daughters of his own has contributed to his sensitivity to the needs and issues of the adolescent girl. Far too many male coaches don’t have a clue about how to work with young women. As a consequence they neglect the importance of the coach-athlete relationship by yelling at and demeaning their athletes. Young women are motivated by relationships and when you ignore this fact you not only limit your coaching effectiveness but you also do a lot of damage.

The games haven’t started yet this season but I heard from another parent that Coach J plays everyone on the team in each game. To be honest, I was quite surprised by this because the level of play in the AAU system is so high. Not surprising however was Coach J’s explanation for doing this. He sees his job and this team as a vehicle to teach these girls the game. Learning is his main priority for them, NOT winning. Accordingly the girls can’t possible learn the game if they are always sitting on the bench while just the best players play. When I heard that’s when I knew he was a Martian. Here’s a man who does not have his ego and self-worth tied up in his team’s record. Sounds like he already knows that he’s a good coach and doesn’t feel the need to prove it by winning.

Have hope as a parent. There are a few good coaches out there. When your child runs into one, truly appreciate the moment and be sure to take the time to let this coach directly know how you feel about him/her.

“The dilemma of being a good coach”

With all this March Madness coming to a crescendo with the finals of the men and women’s NCAA basketball championships upon us, there’s another form of madness that coaches around the country have to suffer through. I’d like to take the time to empathize with the madness of the no-win situations that far too many coaches are placed in today.

Sixty-five teams began the men’s NCAA tournament (I think just 64 for the women) and that means that there are going to be 64 losers! Think about that! 64 teams will end their season with a loss. 64 coaches will go out “failing” in the eyes of some of the media, the fans, a few of their misguided colleagues and parts of their athletic administrations. As a result of their losses, a number of these coaches will actually lose their jobs. Their athletic administrations will replace them with someone who they believe and hope will be more of a “winner” next year. Lost in the process of these replacements are the feelings and wishes of the athletes that initially signed on to play with these “losing” coaches. A more remarkable loss, as far as I’m concerned, is the actual job that some of these coaches were doing with their athletes.

The fact of the matter remains that regardless of what the media and all the experts say, what your won-loss record was and how far you went in the post season tournament does NOT really determine whether you are a successful coach or not. Now I’m not naïve. I know that what I’ve just said is considered quite stupid by all the basketball and coaching aficionados around the country. After all, when you come right down to it, it’s really only about winning. If it wasn’t, do you think a coach like Bobby Knight could land another job so quickly? The bottom line remains the same: When you win you’re successful and considered to be a good coach and when you lose or somehow don’t win it all, you are not quite as “good.”

Why else do ESPN and every other major sports network compile all these “useful” statistics of the losing, winningest coaches who have never come away from the big dance with a title? You know darn well what the implication here is! If you don’t win the big one then you really haven’t made it. There’s Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Temple’s John Chaney near the top of the list, both having won a ton of NCAA tournament games but never the defining one. Only a few years ago Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun was a long term member of that unhappy list until he finally shook the monkey off his back with an improbable win against Duke in the 1998-1999 tournament. Let’s face it. With all those in the “know”, the real measure of your true worth as a coach is in how many of the big titles you win.

That is the “no win” predicament that far too many coaches find themselves in today. Regardless of the level that you coach at, if you don’t have a winning record, the parents, fans and others associated with your sport naturally assume that you don’t know what you are doing. What really makes you a good coach is almost totally and completely ignored in judging you, if you don’t win. Interesting enough, when abusive, insensitive and demeaning coaches win, they are considered to be brilliant tacticians and great coaches. It seems to me that there is something fundamentally wrong here.

The pressure to “prove yourself” by winning enough corrupts a lot of coaches. They end up sacrificing some of their integrity and decency to the fickle gods of winning. In the process, they lose their perspective of what’s really important at the expense of their players. Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not a purist nor a goody-two-shoes. I am as competitive as the next guy, perhaps even more. I love winning and I hate losing with a passion. However, the outcome of your games and your won-loss record for the season have very little to do with your caliber as a coach. Having said that I will also say that really good coaches in my definition of “really good,” end up winning a lot anyway.

So if you dare to be different and not sell your soul to the gods of winning, then where shall you go for direction? What guiding principles shall you follow?

Well, like a good Sports Performance Consultant, let me answer that question with a question or two: What is your purpose as a coach? What important lessons are you interested in teaching your athletes? What do you want them to learn from their time with you? Far too many coaches don’t realize that every day, in almost everything that they say and do, and for better or worse, they are teaching life lessons to their athletes that go far beyond the insignificant x’s and o’s of the sport. Under the best of circumstances the lessons taught are about the value of integrity, hard work, honesty, fairness, and sportsmanship, how to master both success and failure, the importance of teamwork and sacrificing personal needs for the greater good, how to handle adversity, the need for compassion and caring, what a positive role model is and much more. With good coaching, the athlete comes away the experience a much better person with a renewed commitment to personal excellence, a positive attitude and increased self-confidence. This is because really good coaches know that the experience is really about the athletes, not the coach. Really good coaches are NOT selfish in that way.

Under the worst of coaching circumstances, the lessons communicated are far more limiting and destructive. The athlete learns about dishonesty, favoritism, emotional abuse, jealousy, head games, poor to no communication, doing just enough to get by, the abuse of power, and that winning is the only thing that really matters. Under this kind of bad coaching the athlete gets to absorb the interpersonal failings of a terrible role model. He learns all about selfishness and insensitivity. His love and enthusiasm of the sport is dampened. His self-confidence is shattered. The athlete comes away from this experience personally diminished, turned off to the sport, resentful and embittered.

So what’s it going to be for you? Are your ego and feelings of self-worth strong enough for you to keep winning in perspective and successfully survive the pressures of coaching in today’s frequently crazy and always intense sports world? I sure hope so because we really need you! The fact of the matter is that really good coaches are getting harder and harder to find.

“It’s about winning, stupid!”

It was the finals of the State High School Soccer Championships and it was being played before a crowd of almost 7,000 crazed and screaming fans under the lights at the State College’s brand new, soccer facility. The hype and media attention leading up to the game had produced a standing room only crowd. Both teams, bitter archrivals were not only undefeated in their regions, but also equally matched. Interesting enough, the two opposing head coaches were intense competitors themselves, but good friends. The game promised to be a hard fought, exciting showdown and it didn’t disappoint.

From the opening whistle, the game was attack, counter attack, the coaches directing their teams as if on a chessboard. The West struck first around the 10-minute mark of the first half. The West’s striker beat his man, then two more defenders before launching a rocket past an outstretched goalie into the upper left corner of the net. The fans erupted. The West maintained this lead almost the remainder of the first half with their keeper making two dramatic saves on what looked like to be sure goals. Then with less than two minutes remaining in the half, the East attacked, crossed the ball into the middle where one of their taller forwards headed the ball away from the keeper for a score. Both teams went into the locker room with the game knotted up at 1 goal apiece.

If possible, the second half was even more intense than the first. The East took the lead 14 minutes in when they counterattacked catching the West defenders off guard and out of position. They maintained their two goals to one lead until there was less than five minutes left in regulation. Once again the West’s striker took over, dribbled through two defenders and crossed the ball to a streaking teammate for a wide-open shot to tie the game at two. The roar of the crowd was deafening. Both coaches yelled out frantic instructions from the sidelines.

In the last four minutes of regulation, the intensity level was cranked up several notches. As time ticked away the tension mounted even more. With less than two minutes to go the West mounted another offensive attack. The ball was hotly contested into the left hand corner and went out of bounds off an East defender. A corner kick was awarded to the West. As the West player got ready to kick the ball his coach yelled out instructions. The rest of the West team jockeyed for position in front of the goal, setting up a particular play. As the kicker set up the ball there was less than 20 seconds on the clock. Given that there had been no stoppage of play in the second half that was all that was left in the game.

The 7000 plus fans watching fell silent as the kicker approached the ball. His kick was perfect. The ball sailed in a high arcing curve, from left to right across the front of the East’s goal. As both teams struggled for position one of the West’s players jumped up and faked a header. His job was to try to draw the defenders away from his teammate whose job it was to take the header. As he did so he put both of his hands up and the ball sailed right through them, just barely grazing a finger on his left hand, but not enough to affect the direction of the ball. As the play was designed, his teammate then leaped up and headed the ball into the right hand corner of the net for the winning score. The crowd went crazy and then the horn ended signaling time had run out! The West players began a wild celebration in the middle of the field. The East players and coaches desperately complained to the officials that the goal should be disallowed because there was a handball. Interesting enough, none of the officials had been positioned to clearly see the West player grazing the ball with his fingertip. The score held. The game was over! The West had won the State Championship! Or had it?

It just so happened that the West’s bench had a very clear view of what had actually happened those last frantic seconds in front of the East’s goal. The West’s coach, assistant coach and several bench players saw the handball very clearly. While his players were celebrating, the head coach walked up to the East’s coach and explained to him that he had seen the handball. Both then approached the officials. A prolonged discussion ensued. The West’s coach insisted that he did not want to win the State Championship that way. Then the whistles blew, the celebration stopped, the crowd was silenced. Over the loudspeaker it was announced that a handball had indeed occurred and that the game would now go into a 15 minute, sudden death overtime period. There was a loud groan from the West’s supporters and a huge cheer from the East’s fans.

It’s about winning, stupid! What is wrong with you? Don’t you realize you just gave away the State Championship? Listen Bud! You need your head examined! What are you, some kind of freak or what? Just what we need in sports today> Another Abe Lincoln!

Let’s just think about what just happened here for a moment. This coach did not have to do anything about the handball. It was not called. The game was officially over. His team was the official State Champions. They were the winners. However, this coach had too much integrity to allow himself to win this way. In his mind, this wasn’t an honest win! On top of that, he would be beating a good friend in what he perceived was a very dishonest way. This was simply a missed call that determined the outcome of a very important game. How many coaches in his position would have done the same thing? Very few! You have to have a lot of class and integrity to pull something like this off. You have to be unwilling to sacrifice your personal values for the temporary glitter of winning. Regardless of the eventual outcome of this game, the West’s coach was a winner. He was a class act. He had his priorities straight. Perhaps he was a bit of a Martian if you will, but a class act nonetheless.

Before the overtime period he explained to his team why they were playing an overtime period. He let them know that if they were going to be State Champions they were going to have to earn it honestly and fairly. He also told them that he was proud of their efforts up to that point and that he trusted them to continue to carry themselves like State Champions regardless of the game’s outcome.

p.s. The West scored the game-deciding goal 8 minutes into the sudden death overtime period to win the State Championship for the second time in the same game.

If you are struggling with a performance difficulty or you’re consistently underachieving, call me today. I can help!

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