Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Better Than The Right Answers

The questions I get asked more and more are about coaching (what a revelation that is) but not the way you might think. The questions are not about what to do with the athletes, there is much print material available to assist with that. I call that the "science" of coaching. What aspiring coaches are more interested in is the "how" of coaching, not the "what" and good on them for recognizing the difference.

I know coaches who have the "x's" and "o's" of coaching, well, down to a science, but to be honest, I wouldn't want them anywhere near a curling team. Because a coach doesn't coach a sport. A coach coaches athletes. People! The more I coach, the more I realize that the "art" of coaching really is more important than the "science". Some coaches have "it" and some don't! If a coach doesn't have "it", it's hard to develop "it", not impossible but it's a challenge and thankfully, I know of many who have become artful coaches who didn't start out that way.

What is "it"? Well, the best way I can describe "it" is rapport. It's that relationship between athlete(s) and coach from the very first meeting. Clearly, one's basic personality plays a major role in the rapport that so important. Some people are just fun to be around and even though their knowledge might be limited, the "culture" they create is inspirational and when an athlete is inspired to greater performance, the first step to achievement has been taken.

What remains for the coach is to now "empower" that inspired athlete! Empowerment means removing the coach as the fount of knowledge and positioning the more important person, the athlete, into a place whereby the lessons needed to excel come from him/her, not from the coach. The key to that step, in my view the most important step, is by forcing the athlete to come up with answers he/she perceives to be paramount on the journey toward peak performance. The key to that is for the coach to know what questions to ask.

When I work with athletes, I'm right up front with this position. I flat out tell them that I'm not the "Answer Man", mostly because I don't have all the answers, but I have something much better, I believe I do have most of the right questions. The answers are not universal anyway. What might be the right solution to a challenge for one athlete might be totally different for another. It's why I try to encourage coaches and instructors to say the same thing in as many was as possible. What has real meaning for one athlete in the way it's expressed might be ancient Greek to another.

Unfortunately I still see too many coaches who feel that they must be in total control! They are sometimes what I refer to as the "Puppet Master Coach". That coach sees him/herself as pulling on all the strings, expecting his "puppets" to respond appropriately. It's the coach who is usually highly visible and in some cases easily heard by anyone within earshot (and sometimes that proximity can be measured in several meters, perhaps even tens of meters). It's easy to spot this type of coach. On the upside, his/her athletes will generally play well. The problem with this type of coach is the legacy he/she leaves with the athletes. Without the coach telling them what to do and how to do it, they sooner of later stop thinking for themselves and when the "marching orders" from the coach don't quite match the situation, confusion can and usually does ensue.

A coach's task should be to work his/herself out of a job, to have the athletes so prepared to know, think and respond to changing challenges within the context of the athletic conference to the point that they really don't need the coach to succeed. That's an unachievable goal of course to strive for it in my view is what makes a good coach better and a great coach, well, a great!

An effective coach creates an atmosphere in which he/she is a partner in the development of the athlete and the team! Coaches, like athletes, make mistakes. The type of coach referred to two paragraphs above will often rationalize his/her errors so not to be seen as fallible. When coaches operate under that philosophy, they are eventually seen by the athletes for exactly who they are. The athletes will begin to stop listening and distance themselves from the coach! That is sometimes characterized by the phrase, "He/she has lost the room!".

Now, make no mistake, as I feel Tom Coughlin, the recently resigned coach of the NY Giants of the National Football League might acknowledge, at some point, a coach reaches the end of his/her shelf life. They have the resume to demonstrate that they have been successful and are universally respected by the athletes but it's just time to let those same athletes hear someone else's voice.

Not always, but usually in my view, great coaches are calm, especially in the face of great adversity! A very animated coach, who's "on the edge" most of the time, runs the risk of trivializing key stages of a season and a game. When everything in the coach's mind is a crisis, causing great rages and rants by the coach, when a real crisis emerges when some animation is a good thing, the athletes can't tell the difference.

Athletes frequently reflect the personality of the coach. Athletes under the tutelage of that "Puppet Master Coach" feel they have to live up to the coach's expectations. Every coach will have expectations and occasionally, to get the best out of an athlete a coach might come down pretty hard. Every athlete is different and no good coach ever treats his/her athletes the same, except in the category of "fairness". When the athletes start playing for one another, the chances of the team becoming greater than the sum of its parts is greatly enhanced. That doesn't mean that sometimes, due to the very special relationship a team might have with the coach, the team wants to "win for their coach". After all, the coach IS part of the team but that role is in preparation, not in the athletic contest itself in terms of inspiration. The game is not the place to feel you must inspire one's athletes. It's too late for that! Athletes need to arrive at the venue inspired and therefore motivated to achieve a high degree of performance.

In my view, coaches who are overtly animated are often that way because as the game looms large on the horizon, they feel a sense of a lack of preparation. The calm coach is frequently that way because he/she, and the athletes, know they've done everything they can to be as prepared to play as possible.

The best in game coaching performance I have ever witnessed was in the 1999 World Women's Ice Hockey gold medal game. Once again the combatants were Canada and the USA. The Canadian coach was Daniele Sauvageau. The final score was 3-1 for Canada but that score does not do justice to the way in which Team Canada emerged as gold medalists. The referee, very early on in the contest, became overwhelmed by the fact she was officiating in a world championship game between arguably the two best women's hockey teams on the planet and the rivalry was fierce. For some reason, the referee took it out on Team Canada. I've tried to actually obtain the game summary to back up what I'm about to say but I've not been successful so I'm going to forge ahead based upon my recollection. If anyone out there can verify my memory, or refute it, have at it.

As I recall, the ratio of unwarranted penalties between Canada and the American squad was about 5-1. The Canadians played short-handed it seemed for about 1/3 of the game. Using the term "unwarranted" in the previous sentence was being kind. Some of the calls were outrageous! The players were mystified and could very easily have lost complete emotional control, but not Coach Sauvageau. She knew that if she reacted to the referee's calls, and she would have be totally justified in doing so, she would have a team doing the same thing and in the process lose site of the task at hand which was to play at peak performance levels.  I sat before my television in complete admiration for Coach Sauvageau! The team immediately picked up on their coach's attitude, put their heads down and just played. I had the opportunity at a coaching conference to meet Coach Sauvageau and tell her how I felt about her coaching performance in that game.

In one week I'm going to have the pleasure of being around 28 coaches of junior teams in Stratford, ON at the Canadian Junior Curling Championships. We'll share stories and in some cases perhaps I'll be able to help them as the competition proceeds. One think I know for sure, I'll leave Stratford a better coach for having been with them! If I'm asked to weigh in with a team to help them better deal with the challenges of a national competition, I won't have the answers they might seek but I will have something better. I'll have all the right questions!


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