A few years back, I coached a talented, yet underperforming 16-year-old girl I will call Maddy. She was incredibly inconsistent in her play and often looked very depressed. She was definitely lacking in confidence. Her friends told me she was unsure whether to continue playing or not. After trying multiple ways to help her play the way I believed she was capable of, I called her in for a meeting.
I spent the first 30 minutes of our time together offering my thoughts and suggestions, but as I rambled on and on I could tell she was simply tuning out. Here I was, the highly experienced coach, offering my years of wisdom, and she wasn’t listening.
“Maddy, if you don’t start taking my advice, I can’t really help you. I don’t know what else to say,” I shrugged.
Guest post by John O’Sullivan
John founded the Changing the Game Project in 2012, which promotes a child-centred approach to youth sport. The author of the book, Changing the Game, John is a training centre director for the Major League Soccer Portland Timbers. Follow John on Twitter, Facebook, or read more at his blog.
“It’s all good stuff coach, but none of that stuff helps me with my problem,” she replied.
“Really?” I exclaimed. “Then perhaps you better tell me what the problem really is, because I clearly am not helping right now.” I waited for her answer.
“It’s my dad,” she said. “Whenever you play me on his side of the field, he is constantly telling me what to do, where to be, when to be there, and I can hear him and see him getting angrier and angrier with me. I think I play a lot better when I play on the side where the teams sit, and away from the parents. At least that way I can’t hear him.”
I thought about it for a second, and she was right. She did seem to play better on the team side of the field. I could honour this request, without affecting the team much. “I can help with that Maddy, no problem at all. Why didn’t you ever say something about that before? I can certainly help you with your position, and more importantly, I can go and speak to your dad. Why did you wait until now to tell me?”
“Because you never asked,” she said stone faced.
My heart sank. She was right. All season long, I watched this girl struggle with her play and her confidence, and all I did was get upset and frustrated with her. I tried to solve the problem, without ever knowing the problem. All I had to do was ask one simple question, but I never did.
Questions lead to valuable insight
“What is one thing you wish your coaches knew that would help us coach you better?”
It is the question that changes everything. Not only for the athletes but for us coaches too.
Kyle Schwarz is a third-grade teacher at Doull Elementary School in Denver, Colorado. A few years back, she decided to start asking this question of her students in order to get to know them better, and the responses blew her away. As she details in her great book What I Wish My Teacher Knew, and as written about in this great article, the answers to this question open up a whole new level of insight from teacher to student, enabling a deeper connection, and the ability to teach the child, not simply the subject. As some kids wrote to her:
- “I wish my teacher knew that my dad works two jobs and I don’t see him much.”
- “I wish my teacher knew that I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.”
- “I wish my teacher knew that my dad got deported when I was 3 and I haven’t seen him in 6 years.”
- “I wish my teacher knew that my family and I live in a shelter.”
- “I wish my teacher knew that I am smarter than she thinks I am.”
Ms Schwarz has certainly tapped into something here, not just for teachers but for coaches. The more we know about the kids we coach, the better we can serve them as both athletes and as people. When I read her book last year, my first thought was of Maddy and her situation with her father. I thought, “Why don’t coaches ask this same question from their athletes?”
Putting it into practice
Recently on our Way of Champions Podcast, Dr. Wade Gilbert, Jerry Lynch and I discussed how this year I started asking the kids I coach to finish the following sentence. We have also been suggesting to coaches at our workshops to have their athletes finish the following sentence, in writing, to be collected by the coach:
“One thing I wish my coaches knew about me that would help them coach me better is …”
The insight this exercise has given me to the kids I currently work with is unbelievable. Coaches who have done this with their teams have shared some of the responses they have received as well. Collectively, to protect anonymity, some of the things we have learned from our athletes are:
- “I don’t like to be first in line to demonstrate new things. I usually don’t understand how to do things until I see them once, and it is kind of embarrassing when you ask me to go first.”
- “When I make a mistake I would much rather you pull me out and tell me what to fix than yell it out in front of everyone.”
- “I get really nervous when I am not playing well and my dad is at the game because he gets really upset in the car on the way home.”
- “I don’t like to shoot because my old coach used to yell at me whenever I missed a shot, so now I prefer to pass.”
- “I am sorry we don’t stay at the team hotel but my dad says we need to camp to save money.”
- “I would practice more at home like you ask me to but last time I went to the park some older kids stole my ball.”
Coaches, the more our kids know how much we care, the more they will care how much we know. When we connect, when we show them respect and encouragement, when we communicate well, and when we listen to what they have to say, we build trust and let them know we care. The best way I have found to be a better listener is to start by asking good questions. And the best thing I have ever asked my players is for them to complete the magic sentence:
“One thing I wish my coach knew about me that would help him/her coach me better is …”
Please try this with your teams, and share with me what you learn. Don’t make the same mistake I made years ago with Maddy, assuming she didn’t care or was simply unteachable. Ask her! I am confident that it will have the same impact on your coaching as it did with mine. Good luck.