If you read my last post, you know that I am a huge proponent of a coaching style that revolves around the athlete and not the coach or coaching staff. I know that there are many different styles, and many people have success with all kinds of different methods. I don’t even know if an athlete centered style is the best way to get the most out of an individual team in a given year. It is very possible that a much more demanding “motivate through fear” style may very well work better than an athlete centered coaching style in terms of wins and losses. So why, if I am not sure that this method gets the most out of players, and if it may be possible I could have more successful teams in other methods, do I believe that this coaching style is best for me and my teams? It is the best method for me because it is the best way to teach young athletes how to be problem solvers, how to think on their feet, how to play under pressure, and how to develop as people.
Before I get to some of my tips for how you can foster this on your team, I want to give you a few examples from a few seasons ago that will give you an idea of the reasons I chose this type of style. At the beginning of our season, our coaching staff had several discussions about the lack of heart we were seeing, about the lack of leadership among the players, and about some of the off field decisions that were being made amongst some of our players. A prime example of this took place at the end of our Spring trip. We were to leave at 7am the next morning and we had a 5 hour bus ride ahead of us before playing a game against a very talented team. On the bus ride up, it came to our attention that several of our players had stayed up well into the early morning hours in their rooms the night before. We came out very sluggish, and played very sloppy baseball that next day. We did actually win that game, but keep in mind that this coaching style is not about wins and losses, it is about how do you play on a given day, and what can you do to make yourselves better.
After this game, several others like it, a few disciplinary issues, and a few of those sloppy games that turned into ugly losses, we were at a crossroads in our season. It seemed as though this group was not capable of developing leadership, and was not developing the internal motivation that is necessary to be successful under an athlete centered leadership style. As a staff we discussed abandoning the athlete centered coaching style and taking more control of the team. The players on the team were very talented and we would have been able to have a successful season from a wins and losses perspective had we turned to a coach centered style. And while we did take a few steps to correct some of the minor disciplinary issues we were seeing, we ended up going in the opposite direction. At our next practice I publicly challenged each individual player and coach, including myself, spelling out exactly what that individual needed to do to make us a successful team. After doing this, we stepped back further as a staff and let the players make or break their season. To my surprise, the players that we challenged to become leaders did. They began holding others accountable for their effort, their off field actions, and their contributions to the team. The effort in practice was elevated, the level of play on the field was elevated, and we focused on our play on the field, not the results or what others thought of us. In the end, it turned out to be arguably the most successful team in our school’s history, and certainly the best success story of a team coming together that I have seen as a coach.
The second example of how an athlete centered coaching method worked for us this year was on display in one of our biggest plays of the season. In the Sectional semifinal, with a runner on third and one out in a one run ballgame, our opponents attempted a suicide squeeze. Our pitcher threw a pitch high and inside forcing the batter to abandon his squeeze attempt, and leading to their runner being out in a rundown between home and third. This was the absolute correct play by him, but he had never once practiced that in practice and had never done it before in a game.
Why was he able to make a play that he had never practiced before in the highest leverage situation of our season? I believe it is because he was not afraid to make a mistake. We had discussed that situation, and every time we are simulating suicide squeezes, I jokingly told our pitchers that if they buzzed the tower on me (I simulate the hitter in our bunt defenses) it would be the last last thing they did. This obviously stuck in his head, and combined with the fact that he knew that if he took a chance, and it didn’t work, I would not breathing down his neck dwelling on his mistake, and he would not be blamed for a loss, led to him making our play of the year.
Here are a few of the things you can to do move toward this athlete centered coaching style.
1.) Clearly define roles for each player (and coach) at several points during the season.
2.) Give each player a path to success for them to maximize their potential, then put the ball in their court to follow through on it.
3.) Have athletes (not just captains) lead as many activities as possible in practice.
4.) Create a competitive atmosphere in practice where players have to make decisions, and make plays, not just follow the coach's instruction.
5.) Put pressure on players in practice, make it as game like as possible.
6.) Treat mistakes as learning opportunities, not as punishable offenses.
7.) Allow athletes to make choices whenever possible, listen to their input, and take what they have to say seriously.
8.) If you raise your voice, make sure you do so at a meaningful time. If you constantly yell, it will lose its effect, and your messages will be lost.
9.) Discern between mistakes that are made because of a lack of knowledge, a lack of skill, or a lack of effort. If a mistake is made because of a lack of knowledge, teach. If a mistake is made because of a lack of skill, practice. If a mistake is made because of a lack of effort, motivate.
10.) End practices and/or games on a light note. We end ours with a joke because no matter what happened in that practice or game, there are more important things in the world than baseball. It should be kept in perspective. I believe this also helps with players not being afraid to make mistakes.