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Team atmosphere – Coach-athlete relationship

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A team of five players is directionless. They practice badly, they can’t seem to be motivated, they fight amongst themselves, and their play is very inconsistent. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes they lose horribly. Then suddenly, a magic change takes place. They seem to all align with the same goal, and their play reflects the drastic change by becoming consistently excellent.

What happened? Leadership did.

The coach-athlete relationship is one of the most powerful relationships in all of sport. A superior coach can provide the leadership an athlete needs to develop both mentally and physically in their sport. Likewise, a bad coach can destroy their athlete and his sporting soul, rendering them completely unable to compete in the future. Part of the reason for this is that elite performance is so massively complex, that athletes with a team of people around them are able to constantly outperform those without. However, because athletes come to rely on those relationships, and then the relationship has an inordinate amount of power over those athletes’ development.

In this article series we are exploring team atmosphere. The first article covered team cohesion. The second covered team motivation. This final article will discuss team leadership. How can a coach make or break their athletes with the power of feedback? With a proper understanding of individual motivation, it is possible to produce champions. As always, you don’t have to take my word for it:

Earn your leadership every day. ~Michael Jordan

TEAM ATMOSPHERE ARTICLE SERIES
Team unity - When player's don't click
Team motivation - Competition versus Mastery
Team leadership - Coach-athlete relationship
Team infrastructure - Support for athlete development (forthcoming)

EMPOWER – ENCOURAGE – EMPATHIZE

Empower – An elite athlete can act on their own

Empowered athletes act on their own. They are self-driven, self-determined. They get up and go without asking for directions. You want your athletes to find solutions to hard problems, so they need practice doing that. They need to be faced with tough choices and make mistakes. Do not lead your athletes around by the nose or you will get followers instead of innovators. Where will that get you in a sport which pits 5 players against each other with no outside advice? The most creative and resourceful team will win, and the team that needs guidance from their coach or manager will wonder what they should be doing.

Do this by giving your athlete choices instead of telling her what to do. A really good team leader will only offer choices that can lead to success. It is a win-win because the athlete has to take the steps themselves, but you are guiding her so even if she fail in something small, she does not fall off the path. Ultimately you may even offer her the dreaded choice of “shape up or ship out.” But at the end of the day, leave the choice to her. You might rescue one of your best athletes.

If you are a very directive leader and find giving choices hard, think of it as giving tips. Confront an athlete. Only bring up the mistake if he do not already know about it. (Note: Most elite athletes know when they screwed up. That is why they are elite athletes.) Offer a few tips and then ask him if he has any ideas. Or even better, reverse that and solicit his ideas, then offer tips. The athlete now has a few new approaches and will try to implement the one that works best for them.

Privacy is crucial when giving feedback, especially “constructive” feedback. The best way to turn an athlete into a robot is to confront them in front of their teammates. All of a sudden she only has one good choice, to do what you say. Or she can fight you. I guarantee when she does do what you say, some part of her is hoping it will fail. The athlete wants to regain face by overcoming the challenge herself, not being told to do it and how to do it. An athlete on the team who already wants her effort to fail is a recipe for disaster. Most public feedback is done by a leader for his own benefit. To save face, to appear strong or tough, to build credibility. It almost never benefits an athlete.

Encourage – An elite athlete knows they can be the best if they try

Elite athletes have competence. They know what their strengths are, and they understand the basic principle of great performance. Effort trumps everything. If you have, as a team leader, empowered your athletes to freely work hard, now you want to make sure they know how to work hard and why they should work hard.

Team goals should be set and agreed on by the group, and feedback should always be tied to achieving those goals. If you give critique to an athlete on something not related to the group’s progress, then it creates apathy. Even worse is pushing athletes towards a goal that everybody secretly knows is a pipe dream. Set more realistic goals or become a great coach/manager/captain and convince your athletes that it is not a dream goal. That it is possible. Play motivational speeches from sport movies in the background nonstop if you have to. If you want help setting SMART goals check out this article I wrote about goal setting. Above all, do not base your day-to-day coaching on something your team thinks is a fairy-tale.

Empathize – An elite athlete wants to perform for their coach and peers

Deal with your athletes promptly. Saving up an athlete’s problems for weeks and then dumping them all on the table is overwhelming. She will not develop at all, and it leads to a worse coach-athlete or peer relationship. It may be hard to constantly give feedback to athletes after every training, but it is necessary to be consistent and not let things pile up. If an athlete thinks the atmosphere is turning against her, and they do not know what to do to fix it, you are going to be having a roster change really soon.

Listen to your athletes and see things from their point of view. More importantly, let them know that you understood. Use active listening skills. First, start with an empty mind. Do not be thinking what you are going to say back, do not be thinking about the weather or how you are going to coach them. Just listen for understanding. Secondly, repeat back to them a summary of what you understood them to say. Let them correct you if you got it wrong, and move on once it is right. This demonstrates empathy and makes athletes feel connected to their coach or teammate.

COMMUNICATING FEEDBACK

Many coaches, managers and captains ignore their communication style when they talk to athletes. This is especially dangerous in eSports, where leaders have bonds that run much deeper than in traditional sport. They are friends, almost family to their athletes. They might even live together in the same training house. It is very useful to have a professional, down-to-business tone of voice to put an athlete in the right mindset for development. If you are happy-go-lucky all the time, and then give criticism in the same tone of voice, an athlete can be in entirely the wrong mindset and the same advice that would have worked in a different setting will be taken as a betrayal of friendship.

My recommendation is to have a body stance, physical location, and formal style of speaking that is reserved only for feedback. One of the easiest methods is to imagine you are suddenly in a business meeting. You (typically) do not swear in business meetings, you do not use slang, you speak in formal sentences, etc. It is a more presentation-style tone, and then after the feedback you can revert to your standard style of speech. The athlete knows the criticism is over, they can relax.

If you are a highly skilled leader it is even possible to change roles with your athletes simply by moderating your tone of voice. For example, one persona is the coach and then the other persona is your athlete’s counselor. Observing a lot of top-level coaches, you can see them bringing the truth, confronting their athletes, and then in the same session helping them to cope with that criticism. Practice this and you can help them save face, make sure their emotions are in the right place, and allow for any backlash to happen so they can move past the encounter and get on with the training.