Saturday, April 6, 2013

Impact of coaching styles

The Mike Rice coaching conduct video reminds me once again how lucky I was as an athlete.  And let me be very clear, I do believe I was lucky.  Lucky to have parents that were involved just the right amount – who knew when to stick up for me with my coaches – and lucky because my coaches were simply, fantastic.

First, it takes a special person to be a coach.  I am floored at the time and energy that my coaches poured into their “work”.  Yes, it might only seem like they conduct a couple of 2-hour workouts a day, but there is planning, prepping, recruiting, traveling and emotional investment, which can leave very little room for anything else.  To be a fantastic coach, I believe you have to pour a majority of your heart and soul into it.  And it takes a special person to be able to make that passion and commitment work in their overall lives and yours.

I had two major coaches in my swimming career.  One who came to our little swim team in Northern California when I was 10 years old. His name was Mike Hastings, and I had no idea of his credentials until much later in my life.  He had coached several Olympians and had just returned from a stint coaching over seas.  We knew the moment he stepped foot on the pool deck that he meant business.  His favorite word was “respect” and his biggest pet peeve was being late. Being late was disrespectful of his time and our teammates, and we would earn a minor punishment for it. One of those minor punishments leads me to the first time my parents stood up for me.

Because my parents were divorced, we spent six months with my mom and six months with my dad.  My mom worked very hard to make ends meet and even harder to get home from work in time to get me to swim practice.  One afternoon we were running late, and I knew what was going to happen when I showed up at the pool, but I ran as fast as I possible to get dressed and onto the deck. Coach Mike stopped me, yelled at me, and his tone made me cry. He said I was being disrespectful.  My mom immediately went up to him and said, “Don’t you ever yell at her for something that is not her fault. She was ready to go, and I was the one who was late. If you want to yell at someone, yell at me!” That was a big moment.  From that point forward, Mike put me in the respectful category because he knew that my parents understood discipline, but that they were also going to be just as involved in my life as he was as my coach. 

I chose my second coach when I committed to Stanford University. Coach Richard Quick was a

coach’s coach. By that, I mean many coaches learned the art of successful coaching from him. He also commanded respect without fear, but he gained his respect and through positive reinforcement and motivation. At 5:30 a.m. every morning he would show up to the pool singing his country western songs, holding the next two hours of our lives in his hands on a blue piece of paper, and when it was time to hop in the pool he would yell, “Let’s go swimmin’ women!” He was that coach that could make you believe you could accomplish the impossible.  And in my three years with him, he only yelled once.  I will never forget it.  It was frustration, and yet since we had never heard him yell with anger, it was extremely impactful. Instead of telling us what we couldn’t do, or criticizing us about our mistakes, he focused on positives, goals and improvement.

Throughout my career, I saw many coaches who used verbal abuse as their coaching style. Many of my friends would leave the pool in tears after almost every race. And I know if they had to do it over again, they would have stood up for themselves. There are many tools that coaches can use to be effective, even when dealing with different personalities.  Some athletes need the aggressive words from their coach to become motivated, while others crumble under that kind of intensity.  Some kids need every detail of information from their coach before they can perform at their best, while others just need to hear, “You know what to do, go get um!” The use of positivity in coaching is greatly underestimated.  I firmly believe that your kids shouldn’t fear you, they should respect you. There’s a HUGE difference.  And a good coach recognizes those differences, adjusts their coaching style to each athletes needs, and gets the best out of everyone.

As a parents, I know it’s tough to know when to step in as an advocate for your child versus when to stay out of it and let the coach, coach. It can be a very fine line, but my suggestion is let the coach manage the team, teach and make game decision, but always error on the side of protecting your kid when it comes to requirements and discipline. Discipline is required for athletes and teams, and as long as the discipline is fair, distributed equally, and respectful, don’t interfere. Example, disciplining an athlete for being late or not paying attention is one thing, but berating them with foul language for not making a shot is another. The negative, unconstructive yelling is ridiculous and cowardly. Physical abuse is never ok. So be sure your children understand that, and are willing to talk to you or their coaches about the situation. And be willing to stand up for your child if the coaching environment is not healthy. 
Sport is supposed to be fun. I know there is a lot of pressure to perform on the big stage, but it’s also about character and self-discipline and the love of the game.  We all need to remember that we got into sport because it was fun, and can achieve great things with respect and a positive environment.

To learn more about positive coaching and to find coaches in your area committed to teaching in a positive environment, check out the Positive Coaching Alliance.

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