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In my early coaching days, I spent a lot of time thinking about how my decisions over things like starting line-up, play time, being subbed would affect my young players. I wrestled over it a lot, but sadly the end decision often still was based on two things: what players’ parents might say and what was most likely to result in us winning. But frequently I felt uncomfortable with the decisions I made, and years later, I still remember certain incidents as if I was there now.
What does coaching mean to you?
Coaches often talk about their coaching philosophy, or perhaps their beliefs and values. It really comes down to what does coaching mean to you? As a beginner coach, I wasn’t really sure what it meant to me and this lack of clarity lead to conflicting thoughts of what the ‘right thing’ was.Having coached for 20 years, there are some events that linger in the memory. Despite being fortunate to experience plenty of highs as a coach, some of my strongest memories are unhappy ones. Not ones where we lost a game we should have won, but the times when I feel I made a bad decision; where I feel that my decisions let people down – usually just one individual within a team of 15 – but an individual that I should have been supporting and helping.My Dad was a great man who gave great advice. When seeking his help on how best to respond to a situation, he frequently told me “Just do the right thing”.It sounds so simple, but in coaching where things are messy and complex, what you perceive to be the 'right thing’ can vary greatly depending on how you look at it. And the times where I feel I haven’t done ‘the right thing’ are the times that linger in my memory.
Playing well but feeling bad
As a 22 year old, I was coaching a team of 12 year old girls. After several seasons of consistently being in the top two teams in the state, it was decided that they would venture to a prestigious tournament in Washington DC – many miles and a 3 hour flight away. The girls had played well and by late afternoon had won their way through to the final. With 10 minutes left to play, the score was 0-0.Although excited at how well the girls were playing, and how well we’d done so far, I wasn’t enjoying the game. I was conscious of the 12 year old girl sitting to my right. She was a much weaker player than the rest of the team, and had minimal playtime throughout the tournament. She was now wondering if she was going to play any part in the final.Now the answer seems so straightforward – of course she should! We’re talking about 12 year olds here!But in those minutes I didn’t find it straightforward at all. I wasn’t sure what the 'right thing' was… I couldn’t not put her in, but who would I take off? What would the parents of the girl I was taking off think? How would she feel not being on the pitch at the final whistle? Being substituted for a much weaker player? What if I put her in and we lost?If I was in this position again, I wouldn’t even have to answer these questions…
Be clear on your purpose
For a start, I probably wouldn’t take a group of 12 year olds that far to play in a tournament! But beyond that, I certainly wouldn’t be worrying about what parents might say or think. Up front I’d share with potential players and parents what the team was about and what that meant in practice. For example, every player on the team is as important as the next and play time and starting positions are based on things other than just perceived ability. We’d talk as a team and agree how that would work.Therefore, this girl would have already have played lots during the tournament, and in fact, would have probably been on the pitch at that precise moment!If you’d asked the players, most of them would have probably volunteered to come off to let their friend on – because, although they enjoyed winning, for most it came second to playing a sport they loved with a group of their friends.But for these decisions to become more straightforward requires us to be clear about why we coach and what that looks like in the specific context we’re in at that time.Different coaches will give different answers. Indeed, the same coach may give different answers based on different contexts.
Having a reference point
For youth players, its pretty straightforward for me now – I want to create an environment which helps develop good young people who love playing their sport. When it comes to making decisions, then that’s my reference point for 'doing the right thing'. If that’s always there in the forefront of my mind, then hopefully more often than not, the 'right thing' will be fairly obvious.In order to get a clear answer, you need to be clear on why you’re coaching that particular group of players – you need a reference point. Then the answers are much easier to find. Of course, you still have other decisions you need to make – but it takes away that initial layer of decision making - “do I put this player in?” - to allow a greater focus on the effective implementation of it. You free up your thoughts to focus on other aspects of coaching.I also know that if I base my decision making in situations like this on that reference point, then, that whatever the outcome, I can be comfortable with myself – because my actions are aligned with my values. If I know I did the 'right thing' then I can be comfortable with my decisions, even if others may not like them.My memories from that tournament should have been good – but the enduring one is the team photo of the girls smiling with their runners up medals, and the sad, disengaged face of one little girl who hadn’t felt like she’d played a part in the success.So ask yourself, what does being a coach mean to you? And importantly, what does this mean for your players, and does it shine through in how you actually coach?
So, one of the best things written on CC, well done, impressive honesty, that illustrates many things, one of which being the depth of thinking that any coach that wishes to be any good must go to, although in my experience, the vast majority of coaches are dishonest and shallow. It’s the only reason I can think of as to why this article has had 123 views and only 3 likes, what’s not to like about this article is beyond me. Apart from that, I’d have thought coaches would support the tough job you went through, as we all have to make those decisions.In terms of the problem with the side-line girl, there was only one mistake.You momentarily forgot, it was a team sport.If she is not part of the team, what did you bring her for?If she is part of the team, then that TEAM which includes you the coach, has to accept, incorporate and make accountability and responsibility for that member, because that member is part of themselves. Deep down the basis of why you were in conflict is this, but you knew this, without me telling you.“When you point the finger, three of your own, are pointing back at you.” I’m not sitting here criticising, I’ve made this mistake, anyone that coaches to any level, probably will have, but most won’t even know, it was a mistake. Yet “cutting off your nose to spite your face” and pretending it’s for the greater good, is why it’s called The road to hell.That’s why the base line philosophy, (believe in EVERY child) works, there is no conflict of thought in belief. Acceptance of your strong points whilst being in denial about your weak points, will always limit your success.Your story illustrates this; a) the girl didn’t get to represent, and the team didn’t win, so it wouldn’t have changed the outcome anyway, if she had played.b) Theomania. It is entirely possible, yet less likely, that that girl could have made the difference and the outcome favourable, but more likely unfavourable, if you have assessed her ability correctly, I have no doubt, your assessment is correct. The point is, you stopped her, yourself and the team from finding out. I’ve had countless teams that have won, when being a “man” down; it’s the ultimate test of a true team, winning when the odds are against you.What isn’t correct, is probability. There are infinite possibilities, within probability. As infinity is a large and complex number, randomness and chaos can exist within it, you’re right, it’s messy. As coaches, we can play God, assuming we are right, doing the right thing, when in actual fact, we are just playing the percentages. What’s going to give us the win rather than, what going to keep the team, a team. Whatever the outcome.There is no right thing, just as there is no such thing as perfection, fairness or justice, these are all human constructs that enable us to ignore how random and chaotic, life can be. Of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Those things are the destination, the direction, we are just really bad at accepting we will never get there. Persians sew in a white thread, to their carpets, they are made so well that anything perfect offends god as only god is perfect, whereas a samurai sword is made perfect as it celebrates god.I suspect, your dad, being an amazing man, was talking about ethics, another human construct, and something all coaches should listen to (your Dad), when he told you to do the right thing.Children and your Dad get this, as you said: “If you’d asked the players, most of them would have probably volunteered to come off to let their friend on – because, although they enjoyed winning, for most it came second to playing a sport they loved with a group of their friends.”Yet another reason to believe in every Kid (and your Dad). Children and parents tend to be naturally or age related ethical. The rest? not so. Ethics also solved the contextual problem. There’s an Army test question for Officer recruits, which goes something like;“You’re at a cross roads. Intel reports; “the left path leads to certain death for all your men or certain success. The other path guaranteed success but for only half your men, the rest will perish.” What path do you take and why?
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