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.

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