I am wrapping up my 14th season of coaching experience on a college campus, and there's one thing that continues to bear itself out over and over again. Coaching is all about solving problems.
No matter how proactive you are as a coach to ward off problems through the construction of a healthy culture, you will still experience problems. Some problems center on developing and executing the short and long-term vision of your team, and these are often the easiest to solve. However, many more problems will arrive through the daily activities of life which can affect your team's success. What are those activities? Anything not pertaining to practice, training, or competition; essentially, everything else in life.
As the coach, it is your responsibility to craft a culture where approaching you with problems is seen as welcomed behavior. Instill in your athletes you desire the opportunity to help them with non-athletic problems, and that only goodness comes from those discussions. If not with you, then with a professional counselor. Repeat this throughout the season. One time is not enough. Inject personal stories where you did this yourself at their age. Admit your own screw ups or struggles, and explain how you fixed it to become a stronger person and better athlete. All too often, athletes believe they can handle it on their own, or maybe they see it as a sign of weakness. We have all been guilty of this, but we must swallow our pride and face our fears. Once we take the step to ask for help, everything afterward becomes much easier as the coach-athlete relationship grows stronger.
As coaches we always want to try and fix things, but sometimes just listening is the best tactic. Always be available to listen, and if help is sought, offer it. Listening alone can often go a long way in helping someone cope with their problems. The best answers are the ones an athlete comes up with on their own through your thoughtful questioning about the problem.
If you are an athlete, it is important you make your coach aware of what you are struggling with, and ask them for guidance. A good coach not only wants to know, but they want to help. Your coach cannot provide help if you keep them in the dark. No coach is ever too busy to sit down with you and talk about an important matter, so reach out and set an appointment if necessary.
Why be open with our struggles? Because everything else in our life greatly impacts our ability to be successful in our athletic endeavors. Talking with your coach helps to prevent pressure from building up, which is never good. Pent up frustration can lead to a decline in performance or an outburst or breakdown. If an athlete and coach do not handle problems properly, the individual and team will find it difficult to achieve desired goals. Not only that, but it can negatively affect team culture long-term. Therefore, coaches should be made aware of problems.
The proactive process to develop your team's vision is similar to what's required for reactive problem solving. Being a problem solving coach requires having a good ear and a non-judgmental attitude. More times than not you lack information or perspective, so the first thing to do is gather information. Knee-jerk opinions are a waste of good energy, of which you have a limited supply.
Start things off by simply asking, "what is the problem," or, "what are you struggling with?" Then sit back and listen, and follow up with, "how can I help you?" Again, listening is the most important aspect to this. Remember, the best answers are arrived by the athlete through questioning, not entirely by you the omniscient coach.
Second, set aside your ego and be objective towards the athlete and with yourself. Never let your ego distort the truth or twist the problem presented. Oftentimes, I will ask myself why I feel a certain way about a thing, and attempt to understand my thoughts or feelings first before making a decision. Why is this my interpretation or why does my mind create these expectations and boundaries? Our own ego can ruin our effectiveness if we are not careful.
Third, be fair to everyone involved because your decisions will impact the team's current and future culture. Consistency is key for culture to thrive in order for chemistry to take hold. Consider the athlete's condition first, and the impact on the team second. Sometimes a decision must be made that negatively impacts current team success, but it will preserve the culture necessary for long-term success. Coaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and this is even more important as it relates to the personal development of athletes.
Lastly, be honest and transparent at all times. People can handle the facts and the truth. They may not like it, but they know they cannot refute it. You owe everyone around you at least this much.
A couple of years ago I made this post which seemed to resonate with many: "Culture comes before chemistry. Culture is shaped by leadership. Chemistry is shaped by team members. Chemistry is fleeting without culture."
Coaches strive for culture, and athletes strive for chemistry. To be successful long-term, you cannot have one without the other. The more an athlete achieves chemistry the more they value culture.
One can apply this advice to a work setting by replacing the word athlete with employee and the word coach with leader. Good leadership is coaching, and good coaching is leadership.
Do these things and people will trust you, respect you, and want to be led by you. In the end, athletes will be of a healthier mind, body, and spirit, and will perform at a higher level.