The Language of Greatness
By Darrin Steele, USBSF Chief Executive Officer- I have made no secret of the fact that I believe the Head Coaches of the current National USA Bobsled and Skeleton Team are the best coaches our federation has ever had. That is quite a claim given our history. In fact, none of these coaches were coaching in any capacity during the 2002 Olympic Games when we saw more medals than at any other time in our history. There is an argument that you should simply base coaching ability by results. That is partially true, but it is not the whole story. I would counter that argument with the reality that many great athletes have overcome weak coaching in order to achieve success. That is what winners do, they find a way to win and they overcome obstacles. Given enough time, however, great coaches will produce great results. That is what I expect from this group. So, what separates great coaches from the rest? That is the real question. It is a question that is not just contemplated by National Governing Bodies in Olympic sports, but of Athletic Directors at colleges, universities and high schools, executive directors of club sports, YMCAs, Little Leagues, youth camps and professional sports. Former athletes can tell you about the traits of great coaches they’ve experienced and the traits of poor coaches as well. Simply put, great coaches bring out the best in their athletes and poor coaches do not. There is no magic formula for this. There are, however, some basic principles that the great coaches all seem to follow. One of those principles is what I call the language of greatness.
Great coaches find a way to tailor their vision and leadership philosophy to each individual athlete. They are able to do this because they understand each athlete and what drives them. They do this through a communication style that defines the language of greatness. From a high level, this starts with an understanding of human motivation. We are all motivated by two basic concepts; human beings seek pleasure and avoid pain. In layman’s terms, we are talking about the carrot and the stick. Both have their place, but the language of greatness is 90% concentrated on the carrot. The stick is easier and there are many good coaches who use this as their primary motivator. The challenge with the stick, or negative reinforcement, is that it is often successful in the short run. When a new coach sees some success from this approach, they often get a warped sense of accomplishment and utilize the approach again and again. Unfortunately, this approach will never lead to greatness, regardless of any short-term wins.
Great athletes are not motivated long term by negative reinforcement. Great coaches understand this and only use the approach sparingly in specific situations. It is much more difficult to lead through positive reinforcement. It is not just about telling an athlete, “good job.” Instead, it is about a coach conveying to an athlete that they believe in their potential to achieve greatness and then reminding that athlete about the behaviors and expectations that great athletes exhibit. It is about a focus on future accomplishments and the goals that must be achieved in route to those accomplishments. That is what inspires greatness and that is one of the key concepts that separate great coaches from all the rest.
The idea may sound subtle, but the difference in the eyes of athletes could not be more vast. It is the difference between a baseball player stepping up to the plate, thinking about hitting a home run or thinking about not striking out. It is the difference between a basketball player wanting to make the game-winning shot or not wanting to lose the game. It is the difference between a gymnast wanting to score a perfect 10 and not wanting to fall off the beam. A great coach will remind an athlete of the great things that lie ahead when they do great. A weak coach will remind an athlete of the negative things that will happen if they fail.
Like I said, each approach has their place, but if a coach is not using the language of greatness 90% of the time, they are not a great coach. Today’s USBSF coaches understand this concept and that is one of the reasons I can make the claim that these coaches are the best in our sport’s history.