By Gregory A. Dale, Ph.D. Duke University
From Olympic Coach Winter 2005
"If you want to build an atmosphere in which everybody pulls together to win, then you, as a leader have to recognize that it all starts with you. It starts with your attitude, your commitment, your caring, your passion for excellence, your dedication to winning. It starts with the example you set. It starts with the way you treat and relate to your athletes."
Pat Williams, Senior Executive Vice President, Orlando Magic
Have you ever wondered why some coaches achieve so much success with their athletes and teams — winning and gaining everyone’s respect along the way - while others continually fall short or struggle to get their teams or athletes to perform at a consistently high level? If you are like most coaches, you have probably asked yourself questions such as the following:
Ø How do some coaches consistently get the most out of their athletes while others have athletes who chronically underachieve?
Ø How do some coaches gain their athletes’ confidence, trust, and respect while others have athletes who never buy into them and what they are trying to accomplish?
Ø How do some coaches inspire their athletes to compete with confidence, aggressiveness, and mental toughness while others have athletes who routinely crumble and choke under pressure?
Ø How do some coaches get athletes to willingly “run through walls” for them while others have athletes with little commitment, no work ethic, and bad attitudes?
Ø How do some coaches inspire a sense of loyalty and pride in their athletes while others have athletes who want to quit, or worse yet, instigate a revolt and try to get their coaches fired?
In my work as a sport psychology consultant, I have come to the realization that the most successful coaches are those that not only win most of the time but also are able to develop meaningful relationships with the athletes they coach. In other words their athletes respect them and willingly “put it on the line” for them when asked.
Following are seven characteristics that successful coaches and their athletes have identified as being essential for a coach to have credibility with their athletes and ultimate success. As you read these characteristics, I hope you will honestly examine the way you coach. Ask yourself if there are any areas that need attention.
Remember, you continually ask your athletes to work on aspects of their games that are lacking. It seems to only make sense that you would do the same for yourself if you want to improve.
Ø Do what they say they are going to do. They don’t tell athletes one thing and then do another.
Ø Are honest with athletes regarding their roles on a team. They don’t promise things that they can’t deliver.
Ø Follow the rules as they are written and don’t look for ways around those rules to have a better chance to win.
Ø Are consistent in the way they administer punishment. They don’t show favoritism toward better athletes.
Ø They don’t have a “doghouse”. Disagreements are dealt with and everyone moves on in a productive manner.
Ø Are consistent in their mood and the way they approach their athletes on a daily basis. They don’t take things out on their athletes.
Ø Create an environment where their athletes know what to expect from them. There are no petty mind games.
Ø Make sure their positive/instructive comments outweigh the negative comments.
Ø Are proactive. They seek out athletes and check in with them vs.waiting for problems to arise.
Ø Truly have an active, open door.
Ø Clearly communicate with athletes and staff about roles, expectations and standards. They make no assumptions.
Ø Focus on really listening to players.
Ø Seek input from team leaders on key decisions. Athletes feel like they can come and talk to them.
Ø Act as servants. Athletes feel like the coach would do anything for them regardless of their talent.
Ø Take a genuine interest in the athletes’ lives away from the sport.
Ø Treat athletes as more than just a group of individuals who can help the coach move up the career ladder.
Ø Forge long-term relationships with their athletes. There is a sense of loyalty for life.
Ø Know their sport inside and out, but are also human enough to admit when they are wrong.
Ø Keep up to date with the latest advances.
Ø Always learning and willing to look for new ideas.
Ø Their athletes improve from the time they entered their program to when they finished, no matter how good they were when they started.
Ø Have a clear vision for the program and are able to communicate that vision to athletes.
Ø Are passionate/invested. They are committed to putting in the time. They come early and stay late.
Ø They aren’t afraid to list their secrets of success because they know no one will outwork them.
Ø Have a competitive fire. They are highly competitive individuals.
Ø Are inspiring. They sell athletes on themselves. They create and maintain hope and optimism. They also plant seeds of greatness
Ø Know that athletes want to feel appreciated, valued, competent, and important. Great coaches make athletes feel good about themselves.
Ø Realize that confidence is fragile and they are willing to praise athletes in public and criticize in private (never publicly embarrassing them). They catch people doing things right.
Ø Are appreciative. They share credit with staff, especially acknowledging the “little” people.
Ø They have the mindset that the athletes are the ones who really win games, not the coach.
Gaining and maintaining respect and credibility with your athletes is vital to ultimate success. Great coaches are great because they see the importance of credibility and respect. They know how fragile they are and work hard to maintain them. Where are you in your journey to becoming one of the great coaches?
In conclusion, I would like you to consider how you want to be remembered by the athletes you coach. Every athlete that competes for you will remember his or her experience with you and your coaching for something. When you think about it, your coaching career is relatively short in the whole scheme of life. Whether you involved for a few years or dedicate much of your life coaching, the time you have available to impact people is relatively short. Essentially, your career is the “dash” between your first and last day of coaching (e.g., 1995-2035).“It’s an inch.” It is very short.
Therefore, it is imperative that you invest your time wisely and determine what you will do with the “dash” you have been given. How are you going to coach during those years? What legacy would you like to leave behind after you are gone? What would you want the important people in your life to say about you when celebrating your career at your retirement banquet? The following is a poem that seems very appropriate when thinking about your legacy.
Poem: How You Live Your Dash
I heard of a man who stood to speak at the retirement banquet of a coaching friend.
He referred to the dates of the coach’s career from the beginning....to the end.
He noted the first and last day of the coach’s time and spoke the dates with tears.
But he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time that he spent coaching on earth.
And now only those who loved and played for him know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not how much we win; the trophies...the records...the cash, what matters most is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard...are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left that can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough to consider what’s true and real and always try to understand the way our athletes feel.
And be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat our athletes with respect and more often wear a smile, remembering that this special dash might only last awhile.
So, when your coaching career comes to an end with your life’s actions to rehash...would you be proud of the things your athletes say about how you spent your dash?
Adapted for coaches by Jeff Janssen and Greg Dale from “The Dash”, a poem by Linda Ellis of Linda’s Lyrics www.lindaslyrics.com
This article is based on the book:
Ø Janssen, J. & Dale,G. (2002). The seven secrets of successful coaches: How to unlock and unleash your team’s full potential.
Ø Tucson, AZ: Winning the Mental Game.
About the author
Dr.Greg Dale is a Professor and Sport Psychology Consultant at Duke University.As a professor Greg teaches and conducts research in the areas of Sport Psychology and Sport Ethics.As a sport psychology consultant, Greg helps coaches and athletes develop systematic approaches to the mental aspects of performance. In addition to his work with athletes and coaches at Duke, Greg is a member of the sport psychology staff for USA Track and field and consults with athletes and coaches in professional football, soccer, baseball, golf and tennis. To find out more about Greg and his work, visit www.excellenceinperformance.com.