Establishing and Maintaining an Effective Coaching Mindset
by Corey Radford (USAV Florida Region)
In order to be the most effective coach you can be, you have to be deliberate in your approach to improvement. Just as many coaches ask players to become self-aware, to strive for excellence, and to thrive on feedback, those coaches must practice what they preach. In short, this means serious coaches must willingly subject themselves to the seemingly endless gauntlet of both self-evaluation and peer review. First and foremost, coaches must equip themselves with the proper attitude and mindset. Here are a few things I’ve learned from the gauntlet I’m in:
- Maintain Perspective – before all else, maintaining both self-control and perspective throughout practices/games is a conscious and fully intentional process. Ultimately, your ability to control yourself and maintain perspective is, in large part, the difference between being an ordinary coach and an extraordinary one. Effective coaching is a mindset that is practiced not just once or twice, but every second of every day of your life. In my opinion, this is the number one critical skill for effective coaches. Understand that mastering the process of self awareness and control is no easy task, but is one well rewarded in the end. In my own experience, I have arrived at a few tricks that can help you along the way.
- Identify those times in your life when YOU yourself struggled to learn, to correct, and to perform a certain skill set. Once you have done that, magnify your memories of your own struggles by ten and that will give you a good idea of what your average player goes through when attempting to learn and correct their own mistakes. Have mercy and be kind to your players - allow them some time to get a feel for the new skill set. Remember, your players are younger and much less experienced than yourself- do not compare their mastery to your own (that’s why you’re the teacher).
- Pretend that there is a news camera filming you. One of the best ways to instantly correct unconscious, poor behavior is to actively pretend that every word and action you make is going to be publicly broadcasted as national news. Another way I’ve heard this explained is to pretend your mother is watching you. Both of these techniques are eye opening and will cause you to immediately notice your own ridiculous or inappropriate behavior.
- Focus on the improvement the team and individuals have made rather than your own egotistical expectations of performance. The simple fact is that most of your expectations are misled, inaccurate, and not specific to the current capabilities of your team. For this reason alone, you should not gauge progress by such subjective terms. Instead, set your team up for positivity and improvement by making objective measurements and setting goals. If you must have performance expectations try to set them lower than what you feel is reality and work from there – any improvement will then satisfy you in a positive way. Keep in mind that I’m not addressing the concept of setting team expectations (in terms of rules or goals), I’m merely attempting to make you aware that a flawed personal expectation of your team’s performance can dramatically affect your coaching effectiveness.
- Before practice or games, take a few minutes to collect your thoughts. It is helpful to take 15 to 20 minutes before the game/practice to go over things in your head. You might begin by imagining problematic scenarios and then imagining what you feel would be the most professional and correct response to the scenario. If you’re like me, then you are painfully aware of your shortcomings as a coach and you might need to “cheat” to get an edge. I have found that it helps me to compose a short list (1-4 items) of coaching reminders on a scrap of paper and then keep it in my pocket during the match. The list might be purely strategic in nature (i.e. call serves), purely mental (i.e. don’t yell at the ref) or a combination of both. I have found this strategy to be effective because I am emotionally collected and focused when I write the list and so it helps me regain focus during the match. I keep a pen in the same pocket as the scrap of paper and anytime I reach for my pen, I also take out the reminders and read them over quickly. It is a quick trick to help keep you focused on improving your self control and maintaining focus as a coach- especially when things get crazy on the court.
- Look in the mirror, look out the window –The importance of humility cannot be overstated. Quite simply, YOU are the leader, YOU are the most experienced, and YOU are responsible for the overall performance of your team. It is an interesting study to take a team’s character, personality, and seasonal tendencies and then compare it with the coach’s character, personality, and tendencies. After one particularly awful season, I made the remark to someone that my team was bi-polar. They’d play amazingly one match and horribly the next. It wasn’t until after the season that it dawned on me that it wasn’t the team who was bi-polar, it was the coach. A good way to think about this is to remember that when things go wrong you need to look in the mirror at yourself. You have to try to see what other people see in you and your actions. How exactly are you leading? The not so obvious inverse of this is that when there is success you need to look out the window and give the praise and credit to the multitudes of people that made it happen (and avoid taking any credit while you are at it). In the history of sport, personal glory is always more finely polished by humility. Remember, great coaches aren’t defined by their own accomplishments, but by how they can move ordinary people to acts of greatness.
- Be proactive, be competitive – No matter how many players you have on your team, you are the proverbial “sixth man” who comes off the bench to provide that extra lift and consistency – that extra competitive advantage. If you are like me, thinking of yourself in these terms will put an immediate pressure on you to perform your duties as a coach more effectively. Placing pressure on yourself as a coach keeps you from being stagnant and keeps your skills razor sharp. In my own experience, I am constantly evaluating other coaches and teams for things that might help solve my own problems. Here are a few good ways to be proactive and become more competitive:
- Exist in a state of constant re-evaluation. As excited as I am to watch my team perform at a tournament after working hard in practice, I am always more excited to note what we aren’t doing perfectly so that we can come home after the tournament and begin correcting those things. Keep in mind that effective evaluation of performance requires you to know first, what’s important and what’s not (i.e. correcting poor team serving performance is much more important to winning than correcting defensive footwork) and second, to be able to spot what is wrong during game play. This is part of your technical repertoire as a coach- if you do not have a technical repertoire, get one. Re-evaluation does not stop at the team level. I find it helps me to write down my own list of weaknesses and then prioritize them. It is always very humbling, but it gives me a good idea of where to direct my efforts.
- Develop solid principles –coaching without a strong set of written principles is like hiking in the woods without a compass- you may eventually get where you’re going, but the trip won’t be easy and there’s a really good chance you’re going to get lost. Principles are set in stone and they are the guiding force in every decision you are faced with. Good principles will allow you to very easily become a consistent disciplinarian, a great teacher, and an inspiring motivator. Some principles can come from your heart (i.e. moral/ethical principles), while others need to come from science (i.e. why do I teach passing this way?).
- Educate yourself from a variety of sources, but scrutinize everything for effectiveness. As a coach, you have to have answers for your players that make sense. “Because I said so” is not an appropriate answer to any question regarding why. If you don’t know, say, “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out” and then go ask someone you feel might know. On your mission to find out, you have to consider the source and then discern as to whether the answer will work for you. Personally, I try to attend as many credible clinics, camps, or certification seminars as possible. I choose the venues based on the credibility of the instruction and go from there. Once I have the knowledge presented, I examine it to see if it matches up with my principles. If it does, I keep it, if it doesn’t I throw it out. You’ll know you’re in the right place as a coach when you know you’ve learned so much, but still feel as though you know so little.
- Emulate until you surpass. I can’t say this enough; you must have an example by which to begin shaping your coaching style and career. Choosing a proper role model is important for anyone who seeks to improve their skills. Equally important is to find a good mentor of whom you can ask questions and learn more about the game. Sometimes the mentor and role model are one in the same; sometimes the role model is not accessible to you (i.e. an Olympic coach). Regardless of the situation, it is in your best interests to emulate until you surpass. What you’ll find is that your personal coaching style will begin to construct itself from the small things you have borrowed from your role models and mentors. Remember, even Leonardo Da Vinci used models to paint his masterpieces.
- Be more organized than even the best coaches. Organization is about getting the data you need into a format that causes it to be less intimidating and more helpful. Use an evaluation form after games and a practice plan and then work off of those to guide you in becoming a more effective coach and team. Practice plans take time and diligence and should be written out and distributed to the team at EVERY practice in some form (i.e. printed copies or on a white board). I won’t lie, this can be a HUGE undertaking but any additional effort towards organization will pay dividends both for your personal development as a coach and for your team. As an experiment, ask the best coaches you know how much time they take to make their practice plans- you’ll be surprised at how much thought, effort, and time go into the process of planning and executing a great practice.
- Organize everything from macro to micro. All great leaders have great “vision.” In layman’s terms, “vision” is nothing more than being able to imagine the largest result of what you can accomplish. You must always begin with the end in mind. Once you know where you are going, you can lay out the map and figure out how to get there, step by step. I am fond of setting individual and team goals. Set a few for the season (long term) and a few for the next tournament or match (short term). Share them with everyone and talk about them with enthusiasm and frequency. Use your evaluation to plan your steps sequentially. Like Zig Zigler says, “If you aim at nothing you will hit it every time.”
- Regress to the mean and save your sanity. It is a common mistake for many coaches to “over-coach” an individual who is not performing a skill set correctly. This causes information overload and is overwhelming for the player. Couple that frustration with the insanity it induces for the coach and what you get is a learning environment gone sour. For many coaches who are perfectionists, over-coaching is a natural reaction to poor initial player performance in the early stages of learning. If you are this type of coach, you must be aware of your own perfection complex and learn to control it. One simple way is to coach to the player’s average or “regress to the mean” of their current skill. To elaborate, let’s say you have demonstrated a particular skill set and are now beginning to give the players the precious repetitions they need to lock it in to place. One player, however, just can’t get it. You see this and it immediately catches your attention. You move in to correct the behavior. Now, this is where you are going to have to make a choice and be conscious of your perfection complex. As you correct, you MUST give the player simple and concise instructions, but you also MUST leave them to practice and feel out the new skill. The player has to be given the time to establish neural pathways (if you know what I mean). Give them twenty or thirty repetitions and observe how many they execute perfectly versus how many they do not. If a player executes the skill perfectly 25 times out of 30 tries, then they are to be considered successful as long as that “average” holds and they do not begin to form bad habits based on their incorrect executions. In short, think of regressing to the mean as allowing the player “get the hang” of the skill before offering too much instruction. Just be watchful and don’t allow them to perform too many incorrect repetitions.
- Have fun and be positive. Laugh at your mistakes, then get up and do it better. There will be times when you’ll laugh because something happened that was funny and there will be times when laughing will be the only thing you can do to keep from being angry or just outright crying. Have a soft, easy going nature, and remember that you LOVE what you do and it should be evident. You are a leader of young people, how do you want them to remember you?