Coach I talk Part2

“Coach, can I talk to you?” For players & parents…

Last week I published a post called, “Coach, can I talk to you about my playing time?”  That post seems to have people talking, which was kind of the point. 🙂 In fact, my colleague, Betsy Butterick, posted some great advice to that very question.

While coaches need to do a better job navigating hard conversations the reality is, we need student-athletes and parents to improve in this area too. If we all commit to utilizing healthy communication techniques we will see a positive shift in our sport culture.

Here are some areas I think student-athletes can improve:

1. Get to know the person –  Often times, when I am working with a team a player will pull me aside and say that she just can’t talk one on one with her coach because she is afraid of her. She’ll say things like, “She is so intense” or, “You don’t understand how she is, you should hear her when she is yelling at the refs” or, “One day we had two players walk in late to practice and she went off.”

Well, I want to let you in on a secret … are you ready? Coaches aren’t that way 24/7, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. We don’t yell at people at the mall. We don’t lecture strangers. We don’t scream at the grocery store clerk asking her to pick up the pace.

The next time you see your coach being intense I want to invite you to think about why she might be acting that way. Also, the nature of the job sometimes requires intensity, but please know, we aren’t that way all day long.

Here are some moments when my players might have said I was “too intense”:

  • The time I yelled to the ref, “JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE HAVING A BAD DAY DOESN’T MEAN WE ALL HAVE TO HAVE A BAD DAY!!” The truth is, I felt like I needed to speak up and fight for my team. This is not a phrase I yell to the employees at my local bookstore.
  • The day I nearly lost it when our freshmen, for the second time that season, put their black uniforms in the laundry with their white uniforms. Here it is; we worked hard to fundraise for those uniforms and I didn’t want our white kit to turn into a gray kit. But in my personal life, I promise this stuff doesn’t bother me so much.
  • Or the time we picked up pasta, drove 25 minutes to the hotel only to hand out the food and realize some of it was missing. Yep, I looked like I could shoot lasers out of eyes and I was mad. My team played hard and they were hungry and I couldn’t give them what they needed. I promise, when I’m alone and my order is messed up, it’s no big deal.

Was I intense in those moments? Yes, no doubt about it. But I’d go crazy if I was like that all the time. If you feel like your coach might be intense I would encourage you to spend more time with her off the field. Stop by her office and talk about stuff that isn’t related to your sport.

Here are a few questions that my players asked me that I loved to answer. These conversations, ultimately lead by players helped them to get to know me as a person:

  • What did you do for the holidays?
  • I know you’ve traveled a lot, what’s the coolest place you’ve ever been?
  • What did you do this weekend?
  • What is your best college memory?
  • Are you still friends with your old teammates?
  • Did you always want to be a coach?

Get to know your coach as a person, see that she isn’t intense all the time and it will make the hard conversations a little easier.

2. Ask “and why does that matter?” – In my last posted I talked about the fact that coaches need to help their players figure out the “problem behind the problem”. Often times when a player wants to talk she is actually looking for a solution to the wrong problem. In order for there to be true resolution, we need to make sure we are talking about the actual problem. Using the question, “and why does that matter?” can help us accomplish this. Here’s an example:

Student-Athlete: “Coach, can I talk to you?”
Coach: “Sure, what’s on your mind?”
Student-Athlete: “You need to do something about Kristin. The way she talks to me on the field is not ok. She is so demanding and too abrasive and you need to tell her to stop talking to me like that.”
Coach: “And why does that matter?”
Student-Athlete: “Because it really bothers me when she talks to me like that.”
Coach: “And why does that matter?”
Student-Athlete: “Because I don’t play well when she talks to me like that.”
Coach: “And why does that matter?”
Student-Athlete: “Because you are going to sub me out if I’m not playing well.”
Coach: “And why does that matter?”
Student-Athlete: “Because I don’t want to be on the bench just because she got in my head.”

And there is it, we have finally found the real issue. This student-athlete needs help developing skills to deal with communication that can sometimes be demanding and abrasive on the field. The coach could tell Kristin to be less demanding but that isn’t solving the real problem.

Using “and why does that matter” before you speak with your coach can be a great way to make sure you are talking about and solving the real issue. You can use this process with an adult you trust or you can simply ask yourself “and why does that matter” to figure out the real issue.

By asking “and why does that matter” you’ll make sure you spend time with your coach solving the real issue.

3. Treat your coach the way you want to be treated– Let me share with you one of my finest coaching moments – insert EXTREME sarcasm here. Kate was one of the toughest kids I ever coached. She was a player who would do anything I asked of her. She was a competitor who would push her body to the limits. I never had to worry that she might not be game ready.

Because she was so physical opponents often tried to give it back to her. It never worked, but she did get more than her fair share of bruises. One season she took a hard elbow to the rib cage. While her ribs weren’t broken it was the kind of pain that would cause most players to sit out, but not Kate. Our Athletic Trainer created a plastic cover for her rib cage and held it in place with an ACE bandage.

In our game that weekend, for the first time ever, Kate seemed out of it. Her head just wasn’t in the game. In soccer, if you are subbed out in the first half you can’t go back in until the second half, so it’s a big deal to take someone out, but I had to get her off the field. I subbed her out and she came over to speak with me. I asked her what was going on and she said, “Coach, this bandage is so tight, I can hardly breathe, all I can think about is trying to breathe.” And I said, “Kate, maybe you should worry less about breathing and more about playing.” Yep. That’s what I said and in my head, it sounded like the greatest advice ever given. My voice was like James Earl Jones and those were awe inspiring words. Kate didn’t agree.

But here’s what didn’t happen…

  • Kate didn’t sit on the bench and complain to all her teammates about what I just said. She sat and watched and got ready to play in the second half.
  • She didn’t tell her parents what I said and argue that I didn’t care about her so they could claim that this was some sort of abuse. They didn’t go to my boss to talk about how I handled that conversation.
  • She didn’t meet with the Captains and ask them to come in and talk to me about how I managed that moment.
  • She didn’t post what I said on social media with the hashtag #StupidStuffMyCoachSays.

Here’s what did happen …

The next day during my office hours she stopped by. She sat down in the chair in front of my desk and had a big smile on her face. She said something like, “Coach, you told me to worry less about breathing and more about playing!” And this was the first moment I realized that my words weren’t the life changing, earth shattering, words of wisdom that I had thought them to be. Kate went on to say, “Coach, that’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever said. Please don’t ever say that to another player.” And by now she was all but falling out of the chair laughing as I processed this conversation. Yep, pretty bad advice on my part.

Her decision to treat me the way she wanted to be treated only made me want to treat her with that same level of respect when she wasn’t at her best. And let’s face it, being 19 isn’t easy so there were several opportunities for me to return the favor 🙂

When you talk with your coach, please treat her the way you want to be treated.

Hard conversations are hard because our emotions are high when we are talking about the things that matter. But knowing that your coach is a person with a life off the field, understanding the real problem and treating your coach the way you want to be treated will make those hard conversations a little less painful.

We can do this.
We need coaches, student-athletes, and parents all making an effort to do better.
It takes work, but together we can do this.


Coach can I talk

“Coach, can I talk to you about my playing time?”

“Coach, can I talk to you about my playing time?” It’s the dreaded question for coaches everywhere. Several coaches have recently asked me how to talk with players who want to talk about their playing time. Now, let’s be honest, when a player asks to meet about playing time she probably doesn’t want to talk about the fact that she feels like she is playing too much. Most of the time, it’s a player who didn’t make the travel roster but she feels like she should be starting every game. Here are some different approaches that I have used with players in the past. Ultimately, you will need to pick the approach that you think will work best with your players.

1. “Facts, Figures, and Film” – I have found this to be a good starting point for players who may be feeling emotionally charged. Using tools like stats or film to show a comparison between how she is performing and how the players in front of her are performing is a good first step. You can also create an assessment where you ask her to rank herself in a variety of categories. Then share with her how the coaching staff ranked her in those same categories.

I used this approach with a player who was coming off the bench as a forward. We compared her stats to the starter in that position. The conversation went something like this; “So in the last game Kara took 6 shots and put 3 on frame. But in the last 4 games combined, which equals the same amount of time that Kara played in the last game, you took 1 shot and it wasn’t on frame. We need our forwards taking shots and putting them on frame.”

This approach attempts to take the emotion out of the conversation and make it feel less personal. It is critical that you give your players clear steps on how to improve in their areas of deficiency. For the player I mentioned it wasn’t just, “shoot more” it was; work on beating players 1v1 so you can shoot more, work on your first touch so you don’t turn over the ball and then you can shoot more, or develop your left foot so you can shoot more. It was important that we gave her specific skills that led to her being able to “shoot more”  and we could demonstrate these moments on film as well.

2. “Start Doing, Stop Doing & Keep Doing” – This approach is great for a player who has the potential to get better but she needs to make some changes to get there. Often times the improvements players need to make can feel overwhelming. By looking at those adjustments in three categories we can make them much more manageable. The three questions I like to ask are:

  • What do you need to start doing to become better than the player who is playing ahead of you?
  • What do you need to stop doing to become better than the player who is playing ahead of you?
  • And what do you need to keep doing?

After listening to the player’s answers it is important that the coaches also share their thoughts to make sure everyone is on the same page. I took this approach with a player who came into our meeting thinking I was going to say that she needed to completely overhaul her life. By thinking of the changes in these three ways it became much more manageable for her and we saw good growth in the off-season.

3. “What are you willing to sacrifice?”– I have found that this is a great option when you have an unhappy player who has not yet realized that she needs to quit. Unfortunately, many coaches are working in environments where they are told to try and talk players out of quitting. I’ve been there, but I hit a point where my own integrity mattered more than the unwritten department policy.

The first time I used this approach with a player I was amazed at the result. This player had no business being on a college team but I was told I couldn’t cut her or encourage her to quit. After the season she came in to talk about playing time and we began to talk about what she was willing to sacrifice in order to become better than the players who were in front of her on our depth chart. I asked her some of the following questions:

  • What have you done today to make yourself a better player? (She said her day had been very busy so she hadn’t been able to do anything.)
  • What are you willing to give up in order to get better?  (She didn’t have an answer.)
  • What do you get out of being on this team? (She said friendships.)
  • I told her that she needed extra ball work in the spring. I asked if she was willing to give up her part-time job to fit in extra ball work. (Her answer was no.)
  • I expressed that she needed to drop her fitness test time by a specific number of minutes so she would have the endurance to stay on the field. I asked if she was willing to stay on campus over the summer to achieve this goal. (Her answer was no.)
  • This player was very involved on campus and I asked her if she was willing to give up some of her clubs and organizations to focus on her develop as a soccer player. (Her answer was no.)
  • And I ended with this question; if you knew we would win every game next season but you wouldn’t play would you still want to be a part of this team? (Her answer was no.)

I knew it wasn’t my place at that time to lecture her on her answers, but I did request that she give some more thought the questions I had asked. It was just a matter of days before she came back and said she realized there were other things in her life that were more important to her than soccer; her part-time job, a summer internship, life off the field, and that she finally realized she was playing soccer for the wrong reasons. She decided to leave the team and she did it on her terms. And for the record, I did hear about it from my AD but being honest with this player and helping her make this decision on her own was more important to me than departmental numbers and a lecture on retention.

4. “What’s the real problem?” – I believe of all your options this one is needed the most often, but it is also the most difficult to facilitate. This approach requires a unified coaching staff and a coach who can lead a heartfelt conversation.

I strongly believe that most athletes want to talk about playing time because they don’t know how to talk about the real issue. We need to help them figure out the problem behind the problem so we can solve the correct issue. Here’s an example; I had a player who was coming off the bench for us and she was getting about 30 minutes a game. The starter in her position was simply a better player and she was getting about 60 minutes a game. This player came in and asked, “What do I have to do to be a starter, I really want to be a starter.” There were some hints in that statement since she didn’t ask what she could do to get better or how she could help the team. Instead, she placed a lot of value on being a starter. I had a healthy relationship with this player and I knew I would be able to push the conversation to a deeper level.

It wasn’t too long before we pulled back some layers and got to the real issue; she didn’t feel that her parents saw the value in playing college soccer if she wasn’t a starter. She believed they had invested greatly in her soccer career and she worried that by not starting they resented that investment. And lastly, through her tears, she said, “it’s just really important to my dad that I am a starter and I want to make him proud.” We finally got to the real issue. We talked about it from a rational standpoint and I asked some of the following questions:

  • I know your parents put in a lot of time when you were in high school, but who is putting in the time and effort now? (She said that she was putting in the time and that she needed to see this as her experience.)
  • Do you think your dad would be happy if you were a starter but played less minutes? (Her answer was no.)
  • So does being a starter really solve the problem here? (Her answer was no.)
  • Is it fair for your parents to love you more or less based on playing time? (Her reply, no, but that is how it is with them.)

We then talked about the value that I saw in what she brought to our team. I certainly couldn’t make her dad express that he was proud of her but I was committed to being more consistent about letting her know that I valued what she brought to our team on and off the field regardless of her playing time.

Each of these options can be useful and you may have to try several options with the same player. The reality is your players are coming to you for clarity and we have a moral responsibility to help them with this process.

My advice; be honest, specific, compassionate, and listen to your inner voice of integrity. If you focus on those things you can’t go wrong.


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