Wednesday, August 28, 2013

#007 Coaching Families

One of the great challenges in coaching is taking a group of young people who may have a lot or very little in common and molding them into one committed, focused, and united entity.  You may have players who are highly skilled, highly motivated, determined, and you may have players just there to have fun or be a part of the team or, unfortunately, because someone is making them play.

In trying to build a group of individuals into a single unit, I have always used words with my team like "family" and "brother/sisterhood."  Most athletes quickly grasp to that moniker, and as the season progresses, you begin to see the same values and emotions most families possess:  generosity, support, standing up for each other, squabbling, jealousy, etc.  When you use "family" to help focus your team on an objective, you are then taking on the role of parent.

The hard part about being a surrogate parent to a group of young people is that they usually have their own parents/guardians, siblings, values, and problems.  I have had teams that didn't get along very well at all, but the individuals represented had such strong family values at home that the team started to grow as the season progressed because those "at-home" family values started to rub off and become the foundation of the "on-the-court" family's character.  Nevertheless, I have also had teams who were as thick and thieves and loved each other before the ball ever hit the floor.  I have seen the effect of what one or two individuals with weakened "at-home" family values can do to break apart that strong "on-the-court" family unit.

For any coach who thinks that they are only coaching the 10-15 young men or women they see in practice every day, they are turning a blind eye to what will probably become their biggest problem.  You are never truly just coaching a player.  You are always coaching his or her family as well.  Mom, Dad, Brother, and Sister may only be present at games in the stands, but they are always affecting your coaching or your ability to coach.

For example, you have had numerous and significant conversations with your 6th man (first off the bench), Teddy, and you and he have developed a strong role for him on the team that he has learned to accept and be very proud of.  He knows the impact he has in every game and is excited about that role because the team is winning with him in that role.  However, the person he normally subs in for, Billy, is on a bit of a cold stretch.  Granted, the team is still winning through this cold stretch, but shots just have not gone down for 3-4 games like they were previously.  Teddy, on the other hand, has played very well during this 3-4 game stretch and has even finished 3 of those games with the starters.

Teddy's parents are very proud of their son, and have high expectations for most parents do.  Because of this, they begin asking Teddy at the dinner table after practices why Billy is still starting.  They see how well their son is performing in comparison and are reading in the local newspaper about their son's strong efforts.

As a coach, you don't have any idea these questions and conversations are going on.  So my question to you is "Do you still think you are only coaching Teddy?"

You see, the problem with coaches who only coach to the kid is that they leave the kid vulnerable to these types of situations.  Teddy came home that night happy and proud and excited about his team and his role on the team.  His parents, because they love him so much and want him to have everything he deserves, completely wiped that humble, excited, and team-first attitude from their child's focus by simply asking a question they viewed as a compliment to their son.

So what do we do?  We coach the family through the players.  I spoke earlier about the conversations you had with Teddy about being the 6th man.  You convinced him this was a great thing, and he has now seen the fruits of believing in you.  He's playing well, playing more, and the team is winning.  It is not enough to get the player excited and inspired.  You have to teach them how to inspire and coach their support systems.  You have to help them have answers to the questions they may get asked before they ever hear the question. 

You might be saying to yourself, "Coach, how can I anticipate such things?"  You must put yourself in the shoes of your players and their family members, and you have to imagine how they might be reacting to what they are seeing.  This is why D1 coaches get paid so much and have such big staffs.  At the D1 level, everything is under a microscope.  Does the NCAA turn a blind-eye to Texas A&M when information is leaked that Johnny Manziel (the Heisman winner) took money to sign a few autographs.  Nope, the NCAA expects Texas A&M to prepare all of their players for the possibility of breaking a policy or rule.  The NCAA expects that Texas A&M taught Johnny Manziel about how he is not allowed to make money off of his likeness or name until his amateur status is complete.  Even if Johnny knows this and still breaks the rule, Texas A&M and the coaching staff, will receive bigger punishments than Johnny will.

As high school or small college coaches, we have to anticipate in the same ways.  We have to always be educating our players and their support systems about the what if's, the why's, and the why not's.  Let's get back to our superstar 6th man, Teddy.  It may have been wise early on to say something like this to Teddy:

Teddy, you have done a great job of improving your game, and you will be an essential part of our team and our team's success this year.  However, our team is nothing without a strong bench.  The team really does not have any reliable scorers on the bench, and I am hoping you will accept my challenge to be that person for us.  I know starting is a big deal, but I think the team will have an improved chance to win a championship if we can count on your scoring off the bench.  I know Billy does not have the jumper you have, but he is longer and a more physical defender.  With 4 other starters who can score, I think our starting group needs a guy who can focus on defending and rebounding.  With you playing in the second unit, we can focus the offense on you and get you much more opportunities than you would have received with the starters.

Teddy, now understands that his coach 1) has a logical plan, 2) thinks very highly of him, 3) thinks very highly of Billy, but for different reasons.  Teddy can now explain to his parents what the plan is, why Billy is starting and will continue to start, and the reason the team may be winning so many games.  You may feel comfortable saying to Teddy:

People may ask why you are not starting.  You can tell them that you are playing the same minutes as the starters and often on the floor at the end of games.  Ask them if they would rather start and sit in the end and watch their team win or lose, or be on the floor in the end and help guarantee a win.

If possible, I always recommend the coach writing and sending "communication guidelines" to the players and parents before the first practice.  If possible, I would also recommend having a meeting for the parents at the beginning of the season to talk about team rules, expectations, and communication.

It takes a lot of work, but always try and be proactive staying a step-ahead of your potential problems.  When you put the team first, you are always leading with integrity and that will always be respected by those in and around your program.
Have a great day!

Matt Rogers
Twitter:  @madcoachdiary