Wednesday, July 16, 2014


In his remarkable TED talk called “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” Simon Sinek calls us to the attention of what kind of leaders are willing to sacrifice for the good of the unit/team/business.

Sinek points out it’s not just because they are better people but that if the environment is right, everyone can become this kind of leader; an environment of “deep trust and cooperation.” But these are feelings and not instructions.  He points out that going back to the earliest part of our civilization, with the dangers of weather and elements and  animals, they created a ‘circle of safety’ and built a tribe and it’s in that safety we felt a sense of trust and cooperation.

In a way, it’s the same thing in a team’s locker room.  Coaches have to make our athletes feel “safe” in order for them to trust us as coaches. As Sinek eloquently puts it, “When a Leader makes the choice to put the safety and the lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice their tangible results so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

 We have to make them know, not just think but KNOW, that we want what’s best for them; as athletes and more importantly as people. As SInek points out, the variables outside the tribe can’t always be contained but the “conditions inside the organization, that’s where leadership matters because it’s the LEADER who sets the tone.”

Sinek points out that “If the conditions are wrong we are forced to expend our own time and energy to protect ourselves from each other and that inherently weakens the organization.”

Sound familiar?

Do we as coaches communicate at a high enough level with our athletes to make them feel safe and give them a sense of belonging? In some of the Region’s preseason Parent presentations, we ask the athletes to tell everyone what it is about Youth sports that disturbs them the most; about parents, coaches, officials, etc. Their number one answer about coaches is, “the coach doesn’t tell me anything when I get subbed out. What I did wrong or why? Why I’m not playing?”

How can an athlete feel safe if they aren’t given the most basic answers to being an athlete?

Men’s National Team Assistant Coach Andrea Becker, in a blog here a few months back, talked about making sure athletes feel safe. “They’re all athletes. They all want to be great and they all have different issues that they work through. So what I try to do is work with that person individually and figures out what’s best for them in that moment whether it’s the National Team level or the College level or even high school level. It’s just about figuring out what that person needs in a given moment of time and doing what helps meet those needs.”

She also mentioned substitutions as being a fragile element into athletes feeling safe. “What you might do is sacrifice a point in the short term to get what you want out of the athlete longer. Most coaches won’t make that sacrifice because they are so focused on the outcome: they want to win NOW. When you don’t fear losing you’re able to make decisions that are long term decisions instead of reactions in a moment. And that allows you to stay with kids and they’re not going to always be at their best and they are going to have an off day and it’s hard to build trust and confidence in them. You sometimes have to stick with them so they know in the end that you believe in them, and that’s important.” 

Joe Ehrmann is a former NFL football player and the author of “InSideOut Coaching: How sports can Transform Lives.” He talks about Coaches on two sides of a road. One is the Transactional Coach: the self centered coach, ego driven who uses intrinsic values to guide his coaching style and philosophy. The other is the Transformational Coach: the coach who is egoless, who works for others and is a mentor, using those principles to guide his coaching style and philosophy.

If athletes think you are coaching them in a Transactional way v. a Transformational way, how will you be perceived, not only by them, but by Parents and your peers? Can anyone feel safe in an environment where YOU, the coach, puts himself first?

Sinek asks the question that those CEO’s that are laying off people, those managers that are downsizing, would they react differently if those were their children? We do everything we can, (sometimes too much) to make sure our children are successful and are able to thrive in the world ahead. That is what Parents do.

So imagine that one player that gives you attitude at practice, the one that mopes on the sideline after getting taken out of the front row or the player that just seems disinterested at practice anymore. Would you, if they were YOUR child, just ignore them? Tell your assistant coach that kid is too much drama and I’ve taken too much time on them already?

USA Volleyball’s John Kessel makes a great point on the topic. “I think that you can identify how good a coach is by how he or she teaches the weakest player, the most challenging player. Anyone can coach the kid who comes early, stays late, trains extra and loves the game. What we do to make practice and training safe for ALL players matters, for after all leaders eat last.”

We want what’s best for our athletes and as Sinek says, “When we feel safe inside the organization we will naturally combine our talents and strengths and work tirelessly to face the dangers outside and seize the opportunities.”

High school season approaches. Boy’s club season approaches. City and Rec programs, middle school programs are ahead. If you are coaching, how can you make your team feel safe?

What do you have to do to create that sense of trust and cooperation?

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Lamar Experiment...

In a tiny Midwestern town called Lamar, Missouri, a wonderful experiment took place.

Lamar is 45 minutes south of Joplin, the city that was leveled by tornados just a few years ago. It’s a small town with one main road, one Mexican restaurant, one Chinese restaurant, a McDonalds, a Denny’s and a local barbecue place called Tractors.

It’s a place of southern accents and where people use the phrase, “We’re getting some weather” in place of “It’s raining.” The local furniture factory moved out two years ago taking most of the town’s jobs with it. Lamar is trying to rebound. They take great pride in their local High School football program that is a perennial State Champion. They hunt and fish and fix things around the house themselves.

It’s also the birth place of Harry S Truman.

None of this has to do with the experiment that took place in the Lamar H.S. gym.

The first morning of camp, the high school varsity and JV players were encouraged to warm up. They grabbed their friend, stood on one side of the net and began throwing and tossing and bouncing and finally peppering to each other. The energy was low, the voices hushed and mumbled. It was a chore, and the net was treated as if it were radioactive.

Later that night, a middle school camp came into the gym. Girls as tall as a haystack and some so thin you were afraid a tough serve might snap their arms, the girls ranged in age from 8-14.  Some had never been coached before; they were just trying the sport on. In Lamar, very, very few girls can play just one sport; too many sports and too few girls. Coaches share athletes like neighbors share a cup of sugar.

As the middle school girls started flooding in they started throwing the ball over the net trying to pass and serve and hit. They broke off and played two on two and three on three and one of the courts became six on six in less than 5 minutes.

This was all done BEFORE their clinic started and BEFORE a coach had said anything to them.

The gym was loud, the voices laughing and screaming and had a blind man walked in, he would have thought he had crashed a birthday party. It was the soundtrack of kids having fun.

The next morning, the older girls lazily oozed back in. They fitted themselves in shoes and knee pads and ankle and knee braces and began the drudgery of warming up. This time though, their coach stopped them cold. They were encouraged to grab a partner, or two, or three, or even four. Stop being afraid of the net, use it! Then the word was uttered that changed the gym’s mojo…


Confused glances shot around the group. They slowly backed up and grabbed a ball and waited for someone to yell, “Just kidding! Pepper!!!”

But it never came.

Two girls started a rousing one on one game, pass-set and roll shots back and forth in a confined space near the antennae. Beside them was a two on two game with one setter dipping under the net to set both sides, a game that started as a cooperative effort but quickly turned into a game of torture the setter as the action got faster.

A three on three game started on the other court and soon melded into a 6 on 6 game featuring a few girls on the same court that weren’t facebook friends! Imagine that!

The cacophony was the polar opposite of the lifeless gravedigger’s cricket chirp the morning before. The girls came out of their warm up sweating and smiling and laughing and ready for a long day of camp.

What did this show? The girls on the older court had been coached, for years in both school and club ball. They were told how to warm up, what to do, what the coaches wanted which was regimented and structured and controlled.

The middle schoolers were for the most part too young for coaches yet and did what kids do…play.

We continue, as coaches, to suck the fun out of our game. We talk collectively about how more touches are good but then limit the opportunities for more in something as simple as just playing as a warm up. Queens, speedball, dog house, mini tournaments, 10’ tournaments: they are fun because they are play.

If you ask your athletes which they would rather do, pepper or play, what do you think the answer will be? What would YOUR answer be?