Sunday, April 15, 2018

Proactive Coaching: Discipline Now Sets Up Freedom Later

In Leading With the Heart Mike Kryzewski wrote, "Whatever a leader does now sets up what he does later. And there's always a later." I believe that coaching proactively is the deliberate practice of continually setting up "laters" for our athletes and our teams.

In previous posts, I have written about moving our players from reactive thinking to proactive thinking. That isn't enough. What good is it to have our athletes thinking proactively if we are coaching them reactively? That makes me think of the old computer programming saying of "garbage in, garbage out". If our athletes are thinking proactively then they are thinking about the next skill that they are going to execute. If we are talking to them about the skill that they just executed then we are forcing them to fill their minds with thoughts that may or may not apply to the next thing they are going to do. They need a proactive coach to complement their proactive thought cycle.

How do we move from reactive coaching to proactive coaching? Proactive coaching is only partly about moving into the same thought cycle that we taught our athletes. It is also about constantly choosing what we pay attention to, what we attach importance to and what we give feedback about.

During any given training session or competition more things happen than what we can reasonably feed back to our athletes. Many coaches appear to think that the amount of feedback they give indicates if they are doing a good job. This can lead to what a friend of mine refers to as "sprinkler coaching". The coach is the sprinkler head, rotating back and forth across all their athletes, spewing out a little feedback at each one before moving on to the next and the next. Once they complete the cycle, they reset and begin another round of rapid-fire feedback. It is the sprinkler's job to cover the entire area as efficiently and evenly as possible. This is exhausting for all and rarely productive for any. A proactive coach knows that there is so much going on, both externally and internally, so the coach carefully selects what to talk about and when. The choice of what to talk about is made before training or competition begins and is based on the goals and focuses established for the athletes, either collectively or individually. The choice of when to talk is determined by the athlete's proactive thought cycle. When would our feedback dovetail with the athlete's thoughts about their next action? Giving specific feedback at appropriate times primes the athlete to think proactively. A proactive coach judiciously chooses what to say and when to say it in order to help free the athlete to execute and succeed in competition.

It is natural for us to be eager to coach the last action or an error and those things may be deserving of feedback. If we give in to the temptation of coaching the last action, not only do we interfere with the athlete's ability to think proactively, we also send the athlete mixed signals about what we are valuing. We can make note of those actions or errors and come back to them at a more appropriate time. In an effort to keep athletes free to execute, we are going to stay disciplined by giving feedback that is relevant to the goals and focuses we established beforehand. Part of being a proactive coach is modeling focus for our athletes in this way. As mentioned previously, there's so much going on mentally and physically that it is helpful when coaches keep their messages concise and consistent. Athletes come to understand what matters most at a particular moment or drill and trust that they can focus on that without distraction.

We preach discipline and focus to our athletes as important tools for maximizing their opportunities. It is important that we demonstrate those skills every day so that our athletes gain important exposure to what they look and sound like. The best way for us to model those skills is with the environments we create and the feedback we give. When our athletes get distracted from our goals and focuses, we are there to remind them what matters in the moment. We can acknowledge other issues that arise and let our athletes know that we'll come back to them and then we can move back to our present focuses. Doing this helps our athletes learn how to prioritize their thoughts and actions during training and competition.

Moving into a proactive style of coaching takes time, effort, and discipline just like the changes we ask our athletes to make regularly. Modeling that effort and discipline for our athletes is a powerful teaching tool. The best outcome of this shift is the structure and control that we ultimately give to our athletes. Doing this now sets up powerful "laters" for our athletes.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Brains or Bodies - Which Are You Coaching?

WARNING: The last 5 seconds are NSFW and some may find that bit offensive.
If you don't want to hear the whole bit, here's what it says:

We're Consolidated International and we might be looking for you. Are you one of those people who show up, punch in, pitch in, put out, clean up, punch out, head home, throw up, turn in, sack out and shut up? That's what we need: people we can keep in line.

Carlin was one of the best at making a serious point through the use of humor and this small "announcement" is an excellent example. He was pointing out that large businesses tend to work best when filled with subservient employees. I fear that many of us coach our teams in a way that requires athletes to be compliant as well. But is that what we really want from our athletes?

The idea of subservience versus autonomy is one of the central ideas of Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory. The two psychologists laid out three innate needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is the urge to be causal agents in our lives and competence is the desire to master our environment so these two needs are strongly intertwined in the athletes we coach.

I summarize my awareness of these two needs with the question, "am I coaching brains or am I coaching bodies?" Do I interact with my athletes in ways that allow them to feel autonomous and competent? If I interact with them in ways that engage their minds then they likely feel like they have control over themselves and their environments. By satisfying those needs, the athletes are likely to get much more out of the training and competitive environments I create for them.

There are many ways in which we coach only the bodies of our players. Most commonly, we give feedback that tells them what we want them to do. When the game gives them a problem, we immediately swoop in with the solution for them. When this is the most common type of feedback that we give then our athletes then we allow them to become compliant, to "punch in, pitch in" and little else. They don't have to engage very deeply in what is happening to them or around them because the coach will tell them everything they need to do. Sport becomes something that just happens to them. All they have to do is show up and listen. They may do their best to execute as we tell them but the only way they know if they did or not is if we tell them so.

So as training sessions and competitions go by, athletes slowly become automatons, only doing their best to carry out the wishes of their coaches. Then when we ask them why they made certain choices or executed in certain ways, they are at a loss for how to answer. They don't know why they have done almost anything. They have been trained to do as they were told so answering questions is very uncomfortable because they haven't had to do much thinking, just waiting for instructions.

How do we change that dynamic? How do we make them active participants in learning and execution? We ask questions. We ask far more questions than we give answers. We listen to their answers and then ask more questions. We give them more reps or put them in the same situations and then ask more questions. "What did your body do? Where did the ball go as a result? Where do you want the ball to go? So do you need to do anything different with your body? Let's do it some more and see what happens." Now we're working together to solve problems and work through challenges. Now the athletes feel like they are vital actors in their lives. Now they get to exert some control over their execution and their outcomes.

This process is part of creating mindfulness in our athletes. As athletes become more aware of what they are doing and how they are doing it, they become more autonomous and competent. (Recognize that competent here means something slightly different than physical skill mastery.) I have written elsewhere that I want to free my athletes to perform at their best and I firmly believe that the best path to that is to help them be autonomous and competent. I believe that I am doing my best coaching when I am coaching brains, not bodies.

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