"Coach, can I talk to you?" For players and parents ...

Last week I published a post called, “Coach, can I talk to you about my playing time?”  That post seems to have people talking, which was kind of the point.  In fact, my colleague, Betsy Butterick, posted some great advice to that very question.

While coaches need to do a better job navigating hard conversations the reality is, we need student-athletes and parents to improve in this area too. If we all commit to utilizing healthy communication techniques we will see a positive shift in our sport culture.

Here are some areas I think student-athletes can improve:

1. Get to know the person –  Often times, when I am working with a team a player will pull me aside and say that she just can’t talk one on one with her coach because she is afraid of her. She’ll say things like, “She is so intense” or, “You don’t understand how she is, you should hear her when she is yelling at the refs” or, “One day we had two players walk in late to practice and she went off.”

Well, I want to let you in on a secret … are you ready? Coaches aren’t that way 24/7, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. We don’t yell at people at the mall. We don’t lecture strangers. We don’t scream at the grocery store clerk asking her to pick up the pace.

The next time you see your coach being intense I want to invite you to think about why she might be acting that way. Also, the nature of the job sometimes requires intensity, but please know, we aren’t that way all day long.

Here are some moments when my players might have said I was “too intense”:

  • The time I yelled to the ref, “JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE HAVING A BAD DAY DOESN’T MEAN WE ALL HAVE TO HAVE A BAD DAY!!” The truth is, I felt like I needed to speak up and fight for my team. This is not a phrase I yell to the employees at my local bookstore.
  • The day I nearly lost it when our freshmen, for the second time that season, put their black uniforms in the laundry with their white uniforms. Here it is; we worked hard to fundraise for those uniforms and I didn’t want our white kit to turn into a gray kit. But in my personal life, I promise this stuff doesn’t bother me so much.
  • Or the time we picked up pasta, drove 25 minutes to the hotel only to hand out the food and realize some of it was missing. Yep, I looked like I could shoot lasers out of eyes and I was mad. My team played hard and they were hungry and I couldn’t give them what they needed. I promise, when I’m alone and my order is messed up, it’s no big deal.

Was I intense in those moments? Yes, no doubt about it. But I’d go crazy if I was like that all the time. If you feel like your coach might be intense I would encourage you to spend more time with her off the field. Stop by her office and talk about stuff that isn’t related to your sport.

Here are a few questions that my players asked me that I loved to answer. These conversations, ultimately lead by players helped them to get to know me as a person:

  • What did you do for the holidays?
  • I know you’ve traveled a lot, what’s the coolest place you’ve ever been?
  • What did you do this weekend?
  • What is your best college memory?
  • Are you still friends with your old teammates?
  • Did you always want to be a coach?

Get to know your coach as a person, see that she isn’t intense all the time and it will make the hard conversations a little easier.

2. Ask “and why does that matter?” – In my last posted I talked about the fact that coaches need to help their players figure out the “problem behind the problem”. Often times when a player wants to talk she is actually looking for a solution to the wrong problem. In order for there to be true resolution, we need to make sure we are talking about the actual problem. Using the question, “and why does that matter?” can help us accomplish this. Here’s an example:

Student-Athlete: “Coach, can I talk to you?”
Coach: “Sure, what’s on your mind?”
Student-Athlete: “You need to do something about Kristin. The way she talks to me on the field is not ok. She is so demanding and too abrasive and you need to tell her to stop talking to me like that.”
Coach: “And why does that matter?”
Student-Athlete: “Because it really bothers me when she talks to me like that.”
Coach: “And why does that matter?”
Student-Athlete: “Because I don’t play well when she talks to me like that.”
Coach: “And why does that matter?”
Student-Athlete: “Because you are going to sub me out if I’m not playing well.”
Coach: “And why does that matter?”
Student-Athlete: “Because I don’t want to be on the bench just because she got in my head.”

And there is it, we have finally found the real issue. This student-athlete needs help developing skills to deal with communication that can sometimes be demanding and abrasive on the field. The coach could tell Kristin to be less demanding but that isn’t solving the real problem.

Using “and why does that matter” before you speak with your coach can be a great way to make sure you are talking about and solving the real issue. You can use this process with an adult you trust or you can simply ask yourself “and why does that matter” to figure out the real issue.

By asking “and why does that matter” you’ll make sure you spend time with your coach solving the real issue.

3. Treat your coach the way you want to be treated– Let me share with you one of my finest coaching moments – insert EXTREME sarcasm here. Kate was one of the toughest kids I ever coached. She was a player who would do anything I asked of her. She was a competitor who would push her body to the limits. I never had to worry that she might not be game ready.

Because she was so physical opponents often tried to give it back to her. It never worked, but she did get more than her fair share of bruises. One season she took a hard elbow to the rib cage. While her ribs weren’t broken it was the kind of pain that would cause most players to sit out, but not Kate. Our Athletic Trainer created a plastic cover for her rib cage and held it in place with an ACE bandage.

In our game that weekend, for the first time ever, Kate seemed out of it. Her head just wasn’t in the game. In soccer, if you are subbed out in the first half you can’t go back in until the second half, so it’s a big deal to take someone out, but I had to get her off the field. I subbed her out and she came over to speak with me. I asked her what was going on and she said, “Coach, this bandage is so tight, I can hardly breathe, all I can think about is trying to breathe.” And I said, “Kate, maybe you should worry less about breathing and more about playing.” Yep. That’s what I said and in my head, it sounded like the greatest advice ever given. My voice was like James Earl Jones and those were awe inspiring words. Kate didn’t agree.

But here’s what didn’t happen…

  • Kate didn’t sit on the bench and complain to all her teammates about what I just said. She sat and watched and got ready to play in the second half.
  • She didn’t tell her parents what I said and argue that I didn’t care about her so they could claim that this was some sort of abuse. They didn’t go to my boss to talk about how I handled that conversation.
  • She didn’t meet with the Captains and ask them to come in and talk to me about how I managed that moment.
  • She didn’t post what I said on social media with the hashtag #StupidStuffMyCoachSays.

Here’s what did happen …

The next day during my office hours she stopped by. She sat down in the chair in front of my desk and had a big smile on her face. She said something like, “Coach, you told me to worry less about breathing and more about playing!” And this was the first moment I realized that my words weren’t the life changing, earth shattering, words of wisdom that I had thought them to be. Kate went on to say, “Coach, that’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever said. Please don’t ever say that to another player.” And by now she was all but falling out of the chair laughing as I processed this conversation. Yep, pretty bad advice on my part.

Her decision to treat me the way she wanted to be treated only made me want to treat her with that same level of respect when she wasn’t at her best. And let’s face it, being 19 isn’t easy so there were several opportunities for me to return the favor 

When you talk with your coach, please treat her the way you want to be treated.

Hard conversations are hard because our emotions are high when we are talking about the things that matter. But knowing that your coach is a person with a life off the field, understanding the real problem and treating your coach the way you want to be treated will make those hard conversations a little less painful.

We can do this.
We need coaches, student-athletes, and parents all making an effort to do better.
It takes work, but together we can do this.