Communication Drives Culture Part III

Parents. For every coach I know from youth through high school levels, parents are their biggest challenge to the culture they are trying to create within their team. Whether it is the absence of parents or the misguided ambitions of the overly-involved parents, their impact on a coach and a team is undeniable.

Like most who have been coaching for any length of time, I have had parents meet me at the edge of the court/field as soon as the clock said 0:00, and even some come to the sideline while the game was still in progress. On the other hand, I've spent hours waiting for someone to pick a kid up after the practice/game was long over. Refusing to believe this is an inevitable part of coaching, I stepped back to reassess and proactively address the issue.

The root of the issue: Communication.

Just like any relationship, unmet expectations create all kinds of bitterness, resentment, loss of trust. And yet, how often do we clearly define and establish expectations? The parents I communicate with most frequently, always seem to be my biggest supporters and contribute to the team culture in positive ways. Those I don't...the aforementioned sideline experiences! So how do I apply this knowledge in a practical way? 

Here are a few of my more successful strategies:

  1. Parent Evaluation. Just like I have my athletes complete a preseason evaluation so I know their expectations, this simple 5 question survey begins the conversation of clarifying expectations. Having parents articulate their goals and expectations in writing is often a great priority check in and of itself.
  2. Weekly email. Each week we have a different focus and emphasis for our growing process as a team. Sharing that focus with parents and proactively communicating some of what their kids will be hearing in practice allows the parents to engage in the process with us, and creates allies for when challenges arise.
  3. Team dinners. Food, like sports, is a universal language. When we sit down together around a table of food, barriers fall away and communication thrives. In this type of setting, we often revisit preseason goals and assess our progress as a team (yes, coach and parents working together as a team in the lives of the kids). This allows me as a coach to pick up on feelings that may be shared with multiple parents and distinguish them from isolated incidents. It also allows me to articulate what I am seeing from the "coach's seat" on the bus about our progress and specific areas where parents can engage to help. Without fail, this is always one of the highlights of the season and a galvanizing experience that enhances the second half of the season.

Ultimately, this level of communication eliminates the opportunity for kids to try and play both sides against one another and lets them know they have a team of adults in their corner. Literally, COMMUNICATION DRIVES CULTURE. The result is kids who are more engaged, more confident, and more focused. 

Have some tactics of your own? Please share them in the comments!

Communication Drives Culture Part II

How do we help our athletes learn and develop the skills of healthy communication? While this has always been a challenge, in this day and age where most communication is electronic (like this post), it is even more challenging and more critical. 

During my first practice I always lay a few ground rules:

  1. Live with integrity and you will earn the respect of others.
  2. Regardless of what else is happening, we always have control over our attitude and our we all commit to giving our BEST effort and having a positive respectful attitude.
  3. When you speak to someone, especially me because I am deaf in one ear, look at them and speak clearly.

Incredibly simple "rules", but the key is the consistency in applying them. If I bring my best effort and attitude each day to practice, then I am also living with integrity because that is something I committed to doing. Thus, we start the cycle of healthy communication.

If you leave it to your athletes to make the team rules, almost invariably they will come up with something about being encouraging and positive toward their teammates. The desire for healthy communication is already there! As a coach, it is my job to create the environment and opportunities for them to practice this. Here are two practical ways I like to do that...

At the end of each practice I ask my athletes, "What did you see?" This reinforces that the team is bigger than any individual, and by forcing them to keep their eyes up it increases their awareness of what is happening around them (great skills for our actual competing as well). They usually start with simple things like, "[So and So] played really great defense today." Instead of letting it stay there, I make them look at their teammate, use their name, and tell them what they saw them do. The simple shift from an announcement to a personal compliment carries a ton of weight! After this level of communication becomes normal, the level of compliments increases as a result. By the end of the season we get things like, "[So and So], I know you have been working on your confidence all season, and today I saw you compete without fear for the first time...and you did awesome as a result!" (Now, imagine not just teams, but homes full of that level of awareness and healthy communication...that's one of my goals as a coach!)

Another method is "the spotlight." As much as people often pretend to want the spotlight, when it comes we don't know how to handle it...partially because it is usually negative. In this case, I will have one athlete stand in front of the rest of the team. They must keep their eyes up and look at whichever teammate is talking to them. Then their teammates take turns complimenting that one athlete about any positive things they can think of (hairstyle, shoes, smile, skills, role on the team, personality, etc.) Each compliment they receive, they must look at their teammate and tell them, "Thank you." Not many things will help you build team cohesion and healthy communication habits more than this type of activity. It is a huge confidence boost for the individual and doesn't take long before it becomes a highlight of your practices.

Do you have other ideas or ways you like to help your athletes learn and develop the skills of healthy communication? If so, I'd love to hear them! Leave a comment...

Communication Drives Culture Part I

"The quality of our CULTURE depends on the quality of our RELATIONSHIPS which depends on the quality of our CONVERSATIONS." 

Whether we are talking about the culture of our team, or the larger culture in which we live, this statement holds true. Thus, one of the most powerful and practical tools we can teach our athletes is how to be good communicators. In team sports the ability to communicate effectively during competition is critical, and often the determining factor in the outcome. In our locker rooms the communication that takes place will either enhance or undermine all of the work we build in practice and our team activities. In our homes, both scenarios are true...when times get tough and urgent decisions must be made, poor communication leads to mishandled situations; and unhealthy communication will destroy even the best of intentions and efforts. Unhealthy communication ultimately produces losses, dissension among the team, and broken homes. 

So how do we build effective communicators? For starters, we must model the kind of communication we want to establish as the norm. How and what we communicate to parents is often the first (and most critical) building block. Communicating clear boundaries and expectations will alleviate countless problems that become pitfalls for building healthy culture.

One of the most effective ways to ways to do this is by being direct and not allowing things to fester. Do not avoid conflict or run away from uncomfortable situations. Step into them with calm, clear communication and purpose for the greater good of the relationships. Healthy relationships lead to healthy cultures. Healthy cultures built on healthy relationships lead to an incredibly powerful united group of people! And as the great Coach Lombardi said, "People who work together will win, whether it is against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society."

Lombardi Quote.PNG


In summary: If you want to win (in competition, in building healthy culture, in building good communicators), then you must start by modeling healthy effective communication. 

In part II we'll focus on how to build healthy communication skills with your athletes...