“You never truly know someone until you've walked a mile in his [or her] shoes.”
I have read the above aphorism attributed to everyone from Jesus to Native Americans, so I apologize for not being sure who to give the proper credit. The proverb has been quoted, misquoted, and changed thousands of times. What I am sure of is that the lessons to be learned from experiencing those words are immeasurable.
I have had numerous bosses over the years and have coached a very eclectic group of people. I have found that all of them have played a significant role in my growth as a coach, father, husband, and human. Some, I have clicked with from "hello." Others, I mixed with like vinegar and water from the get-go. As I can look back now, my perspective on most of them has developed and grown in many ways.
I had a conversation with a young coach last evening who was struggling with her role as a lead assistant coach. She was very thankful for the opportunity her head coach had given her, but she was having a hard time understanding the head coach's decisions and choices.
This young coach knows deep down that after a couple of years as a head high school coach and now in her second year as a collegiate assistant, she is ready to have and run her own program. In the meantime, though, she is having a hard time handling being in the middle of a head coach she doesn't always relate to and a group of girls that she probably would not have recruited for her own team.
I chose the proverb above for today's blog because I think it fit well with the conversation I had with this young coach. She was taking so much of the responsibility of the team's emotions and personal conflicts on her shoulders, and it was beginning to make her doubt herself. It was obvious to me that she wasn't allowing the burdens of others from becoming her own. She is a very empathetic person, so she very much wants to help solve the problems of those she cares about, but you simply cannot fix everyone or make everyone happy in a team setting. Compromise by all is essential.
As a former assistant coach who went through similar issues with a former supervisor, I asked her why she did this to herself. She said because she doesn't always know what the head coach wants or is thinking. So, instead of having these conversations with the head coach and asking specific questions, she often tries to read the mood or the moment and fill in the blanks herself. This only leads to more confusion.
I asked her to take a step-back and try and "walk in the shoes" of the two groups of people she has sandwiched herself between: the head coach and the players.
In regards to trying to get perspective with her head coach, I recommended that she begin thinking about the circumstances the coach is under. Is it possible that head coach is distracted on a personal level? We all go through break-ups, family health issues, trouble with policy and procedure, incapability with supervisors, or our own personal issues. Before judging someone for what they may or may not be doing, we should think about what might be driving them to be who they are. Once you have looked at your relationship with the head coach with humble shoes on, it may be time to ask for a one-on-one and make it clear to the head coach that you are confused and need more direction. What's the worst that can come from being honest and asking for more information in a respectful way? Only you can answer that question.
From her player's perspective, I told her to make the choice to start having fun each day by remembering that it is NOT her program. The burden of the team's success or failure should never be on the assistant coach. The decisions of the program are for the head coach to make and the assistants to follow and help make sure the players buy into those decisions. If the head coach does not do a good job of explaining roles to the players, it is not the assistants job to fill in those blanks unless the head coach specifically gave her direction to do so. When the players ask program-type questions like, "What is my role?", I always advice asking the question back at the player, "What do you think your role is?" "Have you talked to the head coach about what you want your role to be and how to get there?"
Players often want to be given all the answers. It comes from that "fear of failure" I discussed yesterday.
If the coach tells me exactly what to do, how to think, and how to react, I cannot fail.
Well, doesn't that sound like a fun way to live and play sports? It is up to us coaches to teach them to be independent thinkers, take chances and risks, and learn to accept failure as a part of their growth and education.
Yes, you may get yelled at when you think for yourself, but you will learn from that mistake and devise a better plan when you are in that situation again.
That is why taking the time to meet with each player before every season begins is a great idea. Talking about each other's goals and expectations is always a good idea and should be a part of every coach's pre-season routine. From there, have the team take personality and compatibility tests or take team retreats to talk about how you want to communicate with each other. From there, it is all about holding each other accountable. Some head coaches are great at it, and some are pitiful with it. My former players would probably say that I swayed between the two depending on the situation and time of season. They would probably be right on. I know that in the middle of the season I can come off as a compassionate teddy bear and a hard-ass dictator all in a matter of moments. I simply try my best to prepare my players before we get to that point for what I know to be my strengths and weaknesses.
Whatever you are going through in your relationship in life, in sports, in business...it is important to think about what the people you are dealing with are going through. That starts with getting to know them as best as they will let you. Never stop trying. Everyone wants compassion, respect, and empathy whether they say it or not. It is up to each of us to take the time to walk in their shoes a while to better understand why they walk the way they do.
Have a great day!