How do you coach a team that says they want to win but when they get on the court they don’t act like it at all? How do you coach this team that has been part of a program that has had this mentality for the past 40 years?
Response by PCA Lead Trainer Joe Terrasi
Thank you for the pertinent and challenging question! This one poses some special challenges as Twitter’s 280 characters only allow for the most basic details. As I thought through how to craft a useful answer, though, I began to realize that this apparent limit is really a blessing in disguise. Marissa, thank you for having the thoughtfulness and ability to zoom right in on the core issues at hand. I’ve heard many coaches over the years express similar frustrations, and you’ve distilled them to their essence.
Since we don’t have additional details, let’s look at what we know or can reasonably infer: The sport in question is volleyball. While this question could arise in almost any sport, volleyball is perfect to highlight some of the nuances of the situation.
The athletes have explicitly expressed a desire to win. Their actions “on the court” (I’m assuming practice and games) appear to contradict that desire. I’ll make some guesses about where that might come from in a moment.
The program has a long-standing mentality that is exemplified by this apparent lack of drive to win. This is the biggest leap I’ll make, but I would guess the program’s history is not one of perennially strong, winning teams. I’ll approach the answer from this perspective as it is one many of us have faced or will face, and it certainly bears on the ideas we bring to try to improve the situation.
That’s out of the way - let’s dive into an answer:
Positive Coaching Alliance is firmly dedicated to helping youth sports programs keep a necessary focus on the entire picture. We work with schools and youth sports programs to embrace the unique role sports can play in teaching life skills that will serve athletes both in their sports and in many facets of their lives beyond sports. As one example, we work with programs to leverage sports for their power to help athletes build character and sound ethical judgement. We also pay close attention to helping programs teach sports in a way that is developmentally sound and attentive to children’s safety and well-being.
I offer our goals above not as an advertisement. This perspective sometimes causes a great deal of confusion - not just as it relates to Positive Coaching Alliance, but in its implications for all youth sports. Our years of work with elite coaches and athletes as well as many of the most celebrated academic minds in athletic performance training, psychology, education, and human development have led to an important understanding that has become difficult to refute:
The principles I described above (regarding life lessons taught through sports) are the core elements of solid coaching dedicated to winning games and developing life-long (including elite) athletes.
We offer as a core model for coaching the notion that the successful coach is a “Double-Goal Coach” who simultaneously focuses on striving intensely to win and on teaching life lessons. What is often misunderstood is that these two goals enhance and amplify each other. Teaching life lessons in a developmentally-sound fashion is simply the right thing to do and would be worthy on its own merit, but it is also an essential foundation for elevating athlete performance and for winning.
This leads to some understandings that are necessary for coaches facing the challenging task of turning the tide of a program seen as perennially weak. Any program can have the good fortune to acquire some particularly strong athletes and enjoy a brief run of winning until those athletes move on. Programs that seem to be strong over a long period of time, on the other hand, have something else at work. They are built on a foundation of all the “other things” (other than simply skills and conditioning) we can teach through sports. They’re fueled by an intentional commitment to purpose, character, kindness, and love (among other things).
Make no mistake: Turning the tide of a program that has become comfortable with losing is a difficult, slow, frustrating process. If you endorse a belief that contradicts what that community has come to accept, you will be seen by some as irresponsibly optimistic or simply foolish. It’s likely you’ll even ignite some anger.
That anger likely has roots similar to those underlying your players’ apparent lack of drive. As negative outcomes (losing being one of many possible) start to become accepted and eventually expected, community members, including players, naturally insulate themselves and become reluctant to commit too strongly to what they say is important to them. Who could blame them if the tide of community sentiment has taught them these persistently negative outcomes are immutable?
The foolish optimist is essential to helping a program find its direction and become a place that believes in children and expects and celebrates their successes. These successes include winning games, but these perennially strong programs know that wins are just one of many triumphs and that they have to be part of a broader mindset in which all manner of successes are expected.
An important caution is that taking short cuts (as I said, this is slow) might lead to some short-term gains (wins) at the expense of setting the program back further. That’s why youth volleyball is a great example. When players are first learning, many (if not most) points are won as a result of a player mistake such as a bad pass. If immediate winning were the sole virtue, these teams should all be taught simply to pass the ball over the net to give their opponent the most opportunities to lose points through mistakes. In fact, I’ve seen young teams with this approach. And they win. But they do so with a tactic that will be exposed as a liability by the time athletes want to play in high school or beyond. And in so doing, they shortchange developing the skills that are necessary to compete in future levels.
No, the task is clear and can’t be achieved through shortcuts: The “non-sport” ideals mentioned above need to become the backbone of the program in order to begin a sustainable winning tradition. The coach that takes on this challenge will have to work to infuse the program with a sense of purpose and dignity that is much more broad than simply winning. They have to envision and construct the type of program that players, coaches, parents, and leaders are proud to represent. They will model resilience for the players as they maintain their focus on these priorities even though the process is daunting.
To come full circle, let’s go back to that foolishly optimistic coach. This coach openly believed in the least likely things. They believed the program can be more than it’s been and that its players are successful people for whom greatness is within reach. And they loudly shared these beliefs despite all evidence. That coach’s players are likely to see an incremental rise in their successes and begin to build a sense of their own possibilities that resembles the coach’s outlook. At some point these players will have grown, and they will face real challenges with life and loved ones. And they will be forced to adopt the sort of belief that doesn’t enjoy the benefits of likelihood or evidence. They will rely on the skills they saw modeled by that foolish coach.
Striving to win. Teaching Life lessons. Great coaches don’t choose one over the other because each of these goals is essential to fulfilling the other.
Thank you for your commitment to youth sports.