Around a year ago in Winter 2015, I was looking for a new project to get involved with. I had just left Young Entrepreneurs Across America, where I spent 2 years recruiting and coaching college kids through running their own painting business. The time spent coaching and helping these students realize their potential was so rewarding both for me and my mentees (I hope), I wanted to continue developing my skills in leadership in a new area by filling middle-schooler’s brains with my kooky ideas and enriching their lives with anecdotes on my questionable life decisions. Since sports have always been a passion of mine I figured coaching a familiar sport would be a great way to have fun and try something new.
How could this possibly go wrong?
Though I had never coached sports before, I knew it was something that I was passionate about – so I went on Amazon, ordered a ton of books on coaching, and read until I felt like I had a plan. Little did I know I was about to embark on one of the most powerful and eye-opening experiences of my life.
Fast forward 1 year and I am now the Head Varsity Coach in charge of the entire lacrosse program. I remember my HS coach vividly, and it’s crazy that I’m going to have the same impact on both these kids and a program as a whole.
Here are just a few things I’ve learned about leadership in my short time as a coach:
Positive reinforcement works better than negative.
You can’t treat everyone on your team the same because it’s a simple fact that people are different and respond to different things across a very wide and sometimes unpredictable spectrum. You might have to be harder on some people and softer on others, but do not underestimate the value of simple positive reinforcement in almost every leadership situation. The great thing about positive reinforcement is that it can be so subtle and easy to use to get people feeling good about doing what you want them to do. The trick is to make sure the beneficial action is reinforced immediately. You don’t have to go all out on this, usually a brief acknowledgement or “That’s what I like to see” is enough to make someone feel so good about what they did, that they want to do it again.
People usually know when they have screwed up and hammering home how much of a failure they are often makes people shut down and stop listening. Move on from mistakes quickly, and focus on the positive.
By providing players a safer place to fail, they became more confident and tried new things to get better, trusting that I wouldn’t rip them apart if they failed. A positive environment will always breed trust and a willingness to push through the inevitable failures that come with any endeavor whether you are running a multi-million dollar company or coaching a youth sports team.
Decisiveness is more important than getting the answer 100% right.
When you are in a leadership role, and especially coaching sports, it is almost always better to make a decision that may be wrong than to make no decision at all. A lot of people, myself included, have a tendency to be democratic in our decision making processes especially in group situations. You don’t want to be that guy who makes a decision for the group and is an arrogant dick about it, and you don’t want to step on other people’s toes.
Here’s the thing though — people want to be led. I found very quickly that being the ‘cool coach’ who reaches team decisions by democracy doesn’t work (anyone who has parented a middle schooler is probably laughing their ass off at this mistake). Of course you take input from the people under you. Of course you try to let everyone feel valued by taking in all of the opinions. Of course you have to understand how your decisions affect others. But the burden of the leader is that it is not only your responsibility to make those tough decisions, but your responsibility to own up to those decisions when they blow up in your face. It’s a tough job, but deflecting praise and accepting responsibility will put you on the right track to becoming a leader worth following.
Being honest with everybody (including yourself) is the best way to get people to trust you.
Never underestimate the importance of honesty in leadership.
One thing that I found is that kids are often even better than adults at sniffing out BS. People appreciate honesty and the only way you can get people to follow you is by being honest. I used to think that by inflating my accomplishments and appearing that I had all the answers, people would trust me by authority.
Leadership doesn’t work this way. Be honest with your flaws, have integrity, and be consistent. People will respect you and follow you no matter what your resume looks like. I built up so much trust through honesty with my MS team, that even after tough conditioning sessions I would have kids come over and thank me, because they knew they were working for something bigger, and that the conditioning was in their best interests.
There’s no better feeling as a coach.
If hope you found these insights valuable in some small way, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of my coaching experiences as the 2017 Varsity season gets under way.
Feel free to reach out at any time – firstname.lastname@example.org