Good or bad – every team is known for something. Every team, in fact every school has a reputation. Your team’s reputation is a reflection of your team culture. As a trainer for Positive Coaching Alliance I learned an awesome definition of “culture”. PCA defines culture very simply as “the way WE do things HERE.” I believe that shaping the culture of your program is your most important job. Effective coaches are thoughtful about their culture and they intentionally create and manage that culture.
My question for you is – “What’s your team (and program) known for?” If I were to ask your competitors to describe your program and the teams you’ve coached, what would they say? (You know they’re saying something.) Is your program known for what you’d like it to be known for? Is your reputation as a coach in alignment with your philosophy?
Unfortunately, most coaches (schools and leagues) are haphazard and sloppy when it comes to cultivating a culture. If you developing a strong culture and creating the reputation you want is important to you, you MUST be proactive about it. If you don’t intentionally create the culture you want, you will most likely end up with whatever baggage your athletes bring with them. They will bring stuff from other teams they’ve been on, stuff from home and all the wonderful things they see on ESPN. So, unless you proactively create a different culture, one that puts your philosophy at the forefront, you’ll end up with a hodgepodge from your current players.
I’d like to share a powerful culture-shaping tool known as a Signature Statement. A signature statement answers the question “what do we want to be known for as a team”? Humans are verbal creatures. Creating and using a signature statement (or slogan) shapes the way a team thinks of itself.
Here’s how I recently implemented this tool with a team I’m consulting with. I asked the players to think about what they’d like their legacy to be as a team. Specifically, they were to brainstorm the following question: “Aside from results, what do you want folks to say about you and this team 20 years from now?” I let them think about it for roughly 5 minutes and then had them write down their words or phrases on big (4×6) note cards.
Next, I set up the following non-alcoholic “cocktail party”. We had access to a fairly large room and the players were to mix and mingle with each other. They had 3 minutes total to introduce themselves and discuss what they written on their card. I called time after three minutes and the athletes moved on to mingle with another teammate.
After everyone “met’ and shared notes we gathered back as a group. Now the fun started. The team had to come up with a minimum of three and a maximum of five words to represent the legacy they wanted to leave. The initial list consisted of twelve words and a few hours later we narrowed it to four. I framed the discussion with my favorite Cheri Huber quote, “How you do anything is how you do everything”.
The team exhibited many classic group behaviors including: friendly chit chat, heated debate, the same people always speaking up, quiet freshman, folks checking out when the conversation dragged on, giving in on a point just to make everyone happy to name a few. Not only did the exercise generate a signature statement the athletes created (and thus bought into) it provided the perfect experiment to observe how these players dealt with adversity and frustration.
Here’s the signature statement they created: The xyz team of 2008/2009 is a united, competitive team who represents our school in a world-class manner.
Finally, I wanted to tie the team’s statement back to the idea of culture and “the way we do things here.” Culture is about action. It’s about doing. I wanted to provide the team an opportunity to practice “walking their talk”. Here’s what happened.
I divided the team into two groups. I sent one group out in the hall and then set up the remaining athletes in the room as observers. Next, I met with the group in the hall. I instructed them to go back in the room and role-play the worst, most half-assed way to conduct a team meeting. Needless to say the actors went for the Oscar. It was a riot. At the end, we debriefed and the observers shared what they saw.
Following the first performance, I switched the groups. The original observers were now the actors. Their job was to go in and role-play a “world-class” team meeting. I gave them a few minutes to plan their performance. The second group also gave an award winning performance.
But wait, we weren’t done. I wanted to give the first group of actors a chance redeem themselves. We switched groups again and now the actor’s were to take it up a notch. The instructions were to act out an even greater world-class team meeting. The actors dug in, got creative and delivered a top-notch performance.
The exercise was a huge success. I didn’t have to lecture. The athletes generated all the content and had a great time doing it. They verbally and visually defined the legacy they wanted to leave using their own words and actions.
NOTE – we also had the team go through the skit process demonstrating what a world-class training session (vs half-ass) would look like.
I guess it’s only fitting that my first book review discuss Dr. James Loehr’s The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental, Emotional and Physical Conditioning from One of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists. This little red book profoundly impacted my coaching career.
I knew of Dr Loehr’s work prior to the publication of this book – most of his early clients came from the tennis world and I’d heard Jim speak at a few conferences. When the book finally came out in 1994 I devoured it from cover to cover. I wanted to synthesize the various material from his presentations and discover the big picture. I wanted to figure out the model.
Growing up, I didn’t consistently exhibit the “killer instinct” (as it was called way back when) so I was so relieved to learn that one’s Ideal Performance State (IPS) is a learned response, not an inherited one. Dr. Loehr defines toughness as “the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances”. I wanted to know how to teach this skill to my athletes. This book showed me how.
Even though I’d been in Berkeley for a few years, Jim’s book showed me how the mind and the body are one. His “performance triad” shows that toughness is mental, physical and emotional. When you impact one sphere all are impacted. Thoughts, feelings, health, happiness and performance are all intimately interconnected and influence performance on and off the playing field. Being a bit of a geek, I loved that he discussed the science behind this seemingly “woo-woo” phenomenon.
I loved learning the connection between acting and competing. A successful actor is a person who is able to summon whatever emotions and physiology are required to bring the script to life. Great actors are so convincing they get us to shell out $12 to watch them pretend to be someone else! How do they do that? Well, acting skills control our physiology. I learned how to help my athletes become top-notch performers.
A major key to the Toughness Training Program is to create rituals of success – ones that will summon the most appropriate and adaptive response to whatever life throws at you. A ritual is a “controllable sequence or disciplined pattern of thinking and acting that enhances your ability to perform at your best”. A big part of my coaching is helping athletes (and coaches) discover their success rituals on and off the court.
This book has been around a while and I still think it’s one of the best performance training books to date. I can’t tell you how many copies I’ve purchased over the years. It is a constant staple in my lending library. You can order it below.
One of my goals for this blog is to share best practices from the world of college and high school coaching. Today I want to present a real life case study of a coach putting a new tool into action. In this case study, one of my former players, Amy Jensen, now the head tennis coach at Denver, implemented a unique tool for selecting a team captain. Here’s what happened.
Amy called me late last fall. Her team was experiencing what she called “The Perfect Storm”:
- Her team was coming off the best year in the history of the program without having a formal team captain
- The team consisted of seniors and juniors
- The year started with conflict that was still unresolved
- Her top player was resisting coaching and leading a mutiny among the players
- The coaching staff was changing how they wanted to do things
- There was a lack of leadership among the team
- An “us (players) against them (coaches)” mindset emerged
Amy told me, “We need more structured leadership and I want one of my players to step up and take on the role of coach/player liaison if you will – to bridge the gap between our coaching staff and the team. I’m not thrilled about letting my players pick a team captain. What do you suggest?”
Here’s what we came up with. We decided to treat the role of team captain like a real job opportunity. The coaching staff would gather input from the entire team and then create a team captain’s job description. The job would be posted and anyone interested could apply for the job. The applicants would then go through an interview process. Finally, the job would be offered to the most qualified candidate.
Here’s Amy’s report of what happened:
- We sat down with the whole team and brainstormed the roles and responsibilities of a team captain. We wanted the players’ input in creating the position. Our hope was to foster a sense of ownership among the team and eventually better buy-in once the captain was selected. The coaching staff then created a detailed ‘new position’ similar to a traditional job opening.
- Next we posted the position and invited any interested player to apply by the end of the week. Half of our players applied. This provided great information for our coaching staff. We now knew who had an interest in a leadership position.
- We scheduled interviews for the following week and “coached” our athletes on how to prepare for a successful interview. We talked about what to wear, how to write a cover letter, how to put together a resume and how to prepare their own list of questions to ask the committee.
- Our “hiring committee” consisted of my two assistants and me. Our athletes arrived for their interviews in formal attire and brought their resumes. We conducted formal interviews asking a range of questions about their perceived strengths and weaknesses. We also posed a few scenario questions to see how the candidates would handle such situations. The process was fascinating. We learned so much about each athlete and discovered new things about our team. We gathered great insights into the group – their struggles, what’s missing, and the strengths of our athletes. In addition, it was great experience for the four candidates given that most of them had never interviewed for a job before.
- Once we completed the interviews, the committee met and reviewed the candidates. We offered a co-captaincy to two players and asked them to think about the offer. They both accepted immediately. We gave the other two candidates supporting roles and suggested additional ways that they might be able to lead. In addition, we gave each candidate feedback on their interviews, which they appreciated and felt was very constructive. The new captains then scheduled a team meeting to introduce themselves and discuss their vision for the team.
The last six months have been amazing. We have transitioned from a team in “warfare” to a cohesive, championship caliber team. Our co-captains continue to do an incredible job. We (the coaches) meet with them every two weeks. They call team meetings, they meet with players individually (players know where to go with questions and concerns), they help with scheduling and some administrative items, they bring wonderful ideas to the table in terms of what’s missing and how we can be better as a team.
Denver Women’s Tennis
During the heat of battle we have minimal time to instruct; our athletes are busy preparing for plays, executing them, or recovering from them. Some experts argue that coaches shouldn’t instruct at all during the competition, allowing their athletes to retain a feeling of control. In some sports like tennis and golf, “coaching” during the match is forbidden. If you do choose to give game time instruction, it is must be kept short and sweet. It still cracks me up to watch coaches yell out instructional monologues from the sidelines during games. In addition to the fact that they probably can’t hear or understand you, there’s a very good chance you are distracting them!
Trigger words will help. These are one or two-word phrases designed to “trigger” an athlete’s memory of a specific instruction they learned in practice. Here are some examples:
- Basketball. “Dig!” = Knees bent, hands up and get in low defensive position.
- Softball. “Middle!” = With two strikes, just try to make contact up the middle.
- Football. “Stay sharp!” = Use proper footwork and cuts on your pass routes to get open.
- Soccer. “Pressure!” = Move up field together to give the ball handler many options.
To create a trigger word or phrase, visualize how you want the athlete to look when performing the task. What is it you want them to do? In the basketball example above, a player would crouch low and put their hands up … the phrase “Dig” relates to body position and is completely within the athletes’ control. In the softball example an athlete can easily visualize a part of the field, so “Middle” can be the trigger word.
Be careful. Don’t assume that trigger words are obvious. This season in the NBA, Blazer coach Nate McMillan found out the hard way. During an early game against the LA Lakers coach McMillan stood on the sidelines and shouted “Match”, “Dig” and “Dive”. Unfortunately, his players did not match, dig or dive. Coach assumed his players knew what he wanted, well you know what happens when we “ass-u-me”.
If you want your trigger words and phrases to be effective in the heat of battle, you must explain them, use them at practice, during scrimmages and during games. You may even ask your athletes to tell you what the words mean to them.
NOTE: I know some of you want to know, so here you go:
“Match” = this is used when the team is likely to be in a zone and coach wants players to match up, man to man with the nearest opponent.
“Dive” = coach wants his players to dart to the basket.
Every athlete experiences mild to severe anxiety when faced with the pressure of competing. When the game is on the line and the pressure’s intense – many athletes experience fear and anxiety. When nerves go unchecked it often leads to choking – the most feared state in athletics. Choking means performing poorly due to fear. When we choke our muscles get tight, we can’t think straight, things go too fast and we feel out of control. Choking is the “pink elephant” in sports – it happens all the time yet no one wants to talk about it. Worse yet, few athletes or coaches know how to deal with it effectively.
Remind your athletes that nervous is normal.
The first thing we need to remind ourselves as coaches and in turn remind our athletes is, that NERVOUS IS NORMAL. It is not a sign of personal weakness. While the feeling of choking unpleasant, it is a completely normal and natural physiological response – even elite athletes get nervous. The difference is they don’t keep their attention on it. They acknowledge the “butterflies” and move on quickly – they do not allow negative self-talk in to their minds. Great coaches recognize the emotional flow of a game and help their players manage it. They know how to help their players “snap out of it”.
Teach the four emotional responses to pressure.
According to sports psychologist, Dr. James Loehr, athletes learn to respond emotionally to the pressures of competition in one of four basic ways. The least effective way is to give up, often called tanking in sport. Excuse making is the most common form of tanking. Once tanking is handled, the next obstacle an athlete will face is the anger response. Athletes may see this as an acceptable excuse for poor performance.
The third emotional response to the stress of competition is choking. It is important to note that choking is higher on the evolutionary chain of emotional responses than both tanking and anger. Believe it or not, choking is a sign of something very positive – the athlete cares about what they are doing. It is a sign that they are facing their fears and not copping out with excuses or anger. Choking is only one step away from the most desired emotional response to competitive stress – challenge.
The most effective way to respond to the stress of competition is to become emotionally challenged by the situation. Competitive problems become stimulating rather than threatening and athletes in this state love to compete as much as they love to win.
There are many remedies for choking just as there are many causes. Unfortunately, most of the cures – goal setting, affirmations and visualization, call for the work to be done off the field away from the heat of the battle. How can a coach get a player back in the game once they start choking? This is one of the greatest challenges a coach will face.
Teach the 3B’s
The 3B’s represent an on-the-field, “quick-fix” tool designed to “snap” an athlete out of choking and to help get them back in the game mentally and emotionally. Each “B” can be used by a coach as “trigger words” during competition – depending upon the specific situation. It is important that both of you are on the same page regarding what each trigger word means and what it looks like in action.
Here are the 3B’s:
Let’s look at each B.
Unfortunately many athletes hold their breath when they get nervous or uptight. If they do breathe, it’s usually shallow, which causes an increase in muscle tightness and blood pressure -making the situation worse.
With proper breathing, athletes can actually increase their endurance, lower reaction time, and stay calm, cool and collected in competition. Nothing controls and calms the emotions like full, deep breathing. When we breathe deep – into the lower lobes of the lungs, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which produces endorphins, which in turn make us feel relaxed. Breathing can help athletes let go of distractions, get re-centered and refocus on the task at hand.
“A deer in headlights” – a fitting description for an athlete who’s choking. They often appear frozen, stuck or moving in slow motion. Bounce means getting your athletes to “bounce” around or move their feet like a boxer. Jumping up and down on their toes increases blood flow and energy levels.
Choking can lead to decreased blood flow to the hands and feet. Athletes experience this as tightness and may say they “can’t feel” their hands, their stick or the ball. “Bang” – clapping, slapping one’s thigh, high 5’s help athletes to get back into their bodies and to feel their bodies again.
The 3B’s help athletes act challenged even though they don’t feel like it in the moment. We can change how we feel on the inside by “faking it til we make it” on the outside.