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What makes a good coach (full text)

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What makes a good coach?

There are many theories and studies that explore what makes a good coach. It’s tricky because each coach’s style is different. Some are direct and outspoken, while others are more quiet and insightful. Some believe in offense, others in a strong defense. For every trait you can point out in a high-performing coach, it seems you can find the exact opposite in another coach that’s just as successful. It’s comforting to know that your coaching style isn’t the only factor.

So what’s the goal of a good coach? Putting together teams year after year that win and develop strong players is certainly a big part of it. But that’s really a side-effect of the real goal. These top coaches believe the same thing as you and I do! If you want those wins and outward success, you have to develop the person.

I’m so happy to hear more people talking about this topic in coaching nowadays. And it’s finally shifting away from the stigma that caring about your girls and showing them some understanding and support means you’re soft. You don’t have to coddle to protect player’s self-worth. You don’t have to sugar-coat to build confidence. Most importantly, you don’t have to lower your expectations just to make your girls feel better.

Learn what other good the best coaches do.

The best coaches know you have to have just as high of expectations and standards as ever. The difference is now we get to be the guide for this journey. That’s why most coaches get into the profession, right? To help develop young women. Make a difference in their growth. Help them enjoy and thrive in this game. The tricky part is how to go about this.

I find it’s best to watch and learn from those who are doing it well. We’re fortunate now to have more and more resources to learn from top coaches. We can watch them on TV and see their demeanor and hear how they approach the game. Seeing them in action, how they respond to tough situations and the product of all their hard work: players who are resilient, confident and have a ton of fun!

One of our favorite things to do is listen to podcast interviews with coaches on podcasts like the following. Because if you want to be one of the best, you learn from the best!

That’s why we’ve reached out to some of the top softball coaches for our podcast!

And there are more we are excited to interview in the future! We’ve even had some amazing guests who have been gracious enough to share how they bring the best out in their players.

Though their approaches are all different, they’ve all had the same core belief: you have to develop the whole person. And in some way or form, they and other top coaches focus on three main skills: 1) Connecting, 2) Developing and 3) Empowering their players.

Here are some examples of fantastic coaches:  

Lonni Alameda is a master connector, with her honest and patient style. If you haven’t already discovered it, check out the Coaches and Coffee podcast where she and her assistants chat in-season about all things softball. In her interview with us, she said “You can love your kids, you can grow them as people, and you can push them on the ball field to be the best skill player they can be.” This isn’t just some catch phrase she uses on interviews. The whole staff lives this philosophy of connecting with their players every day in order to make them better.  (listen to her episode here)

Ruby Rojas is all about development, both physically and mentally. We were so excited to have her on the show because she’s not only coached her team to the back to back national titles which contributed to her becoming the new assistant coach at Auburn University, but also because she is pursuing her Doctorate in Sport Psychology. She shared so many tangible drills and activities the combined both physical and mental development. Even though she only had her players for two years at the JuCo level, she maximized their talents by focusing on development.  (listen to her episode here)

Larissa Anderson is the poster-child for empowerment with her amazingly speedy resurgence of the Mizzou softball program. If you’ve followed the team at all over the past few years, they’ve had a tough stretch. In just one season, she’s brought the team back into the national spotlight. We give credit to her ability to empower her players. Their hashtag this year is own it. She didn’t come into the new position saying “I’m going to turn this team around.” She walked in confidently and empowered her players to step up and take ownership of their own journey.  (listen to her episode here)

As amazing as these coaches are, don’t put them on a pedestal.

They busted their butts and poured their hearts into this profession to get where they are. And that’s the beautiful thing: you’re doing that too! These things may seem like superpowers, but they’re really just skills that need practicing and refining. Coaching is a challenging journey. But you can be more successful and feel more fulfilled if you master these three skills.

Let’s dive in to HOW!  

COACHING SKILL #1 | CONNECT

Go to any coaching clinic or convention and the majority of the sessions are focused on developing physical skills. Pitching mechanics, hitting drills and defensive strategies are staples. Don’t get us wrong, we love that stuff too! But there is a huge piece missing from the instruction: the PEOPLE.

To illustrate the point, let’s talk about the movie Remember the Titans. Coach Boone’s tactics may have seemed revolutionary at the time, but they weren’t magic. They were psychology. Despite real challenges in society at the time, he used this process to achieve unexpected success:

Our personal differences bring up feelings that shape our thoughts, and behaviors which then affects the outcomes we achieve as a team.

(Jowett & Poczwardowski, Understanding the Coach-Athlete Relationship, 2007)  

We saw how this equation can go south when the team went to camp. When they arrived, they were still segregated and did not want to learn more about each other (individual differences). They felt frustrated by the new coach’s tactics, which led to them thinking and behaving selfishly. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone when they weren’t performing well (outcome).

Turning it around

It wasn’t until Coach Boone took them on an (exhausting-looking) early morning run that they made a turn. His speech to them was not just uplifting- it inspired his players into taking action and CONNECTING. Once they started to get to know each other, the equation that was holding them back before was now their superpower.

Valuing personal differences led to positive thoughts, feelings & behaviors which created a successful outcome.

That connection doesn’t stop with the players though. Most coaches will run team-building activities to improve cohesion. Other coaches will even hire professional consultants to help with the connectedness of the team. But many coaches are either hesitant or don’t know how to create a strong connection with their players.

“Without quality coach–athlete relationships, there can be no effective or purposeful coaching.”

(Sophia Jowett, Coaching effectiveness: the coach–athlete relationship at its heart, 2017)

Connecting in your own way

We encourage all coaches to connect with their players. However, the way people connect may look different. Here are some examples of ways you can connect based on the four coaching personalities:

  • You can connect with your players the relational way by talking about things other than softball. They want to know you care about them as a person– not just as an athlete. Start small by checking in with one player each day and asking what’s new with them.

  • Experimental thinkers would appreciate you discussing your big goals for the team with them. Talk to them about your coaching philosophy and how they fit into the dream. You can begin this conversation by asking what their big goals are.

  • Connecting with those who are practical might look like a planning session. Ask for their input on practice and what they feel is the best use of time. Begin by asking what they get the most out of and enjoy doing at practice.

  • When you want to connect with someone who’s analytical, discuss tracking progress and goals. They love their numbers and proof, so they can even be helpful when discussing scouting reports and game plans.

Practice it like any other skill

Whatever way you feel comfortable connecting with your players more, do it! It might feel awkward at first, but push yourself. It’s the most important coaching skill amongst these three. The best way to look at the relationship is to be a mentor to them. Lead them through their journey asking as many questions as possible along the way.

If you already connect well with your players, dig a little deeper to get to know what makes them tick. What scares them? When do they feel the most pressure? Why do they play? They want to feel more connected to you, too. So share some of your story with them as they open up to you. This doesn’t mean you have to be buddy-buddy and exchange gossip. Think of it as a mentorship roll. Even the smallest moments like this can add up to something BIG.


COACHING SKILL #2 |
DEVELOP

This skill is one coaches are very familiar with. It’s probably the reason you love coaching! It’s all about developing strong, confident athletes who go on to do big things. We’ve gotten pretty good at developing skills and strategies. There are amazing resources out there to help get our players into their best physical condition for competition. But that’s not the best we can do.

Imagine a large glass jar.

That’s the potential your athlete has to have a great performance. Our goal is to fill their jar with everything they need in order to succeed on game day.

Now imagine you fill the jar to the top with rocks.

These represent physical skills including strength, speed and agility. You build them in the weight room, using ladders on the sidelines and implementing dynamic stretching. You have enough of those to fill that jar, right? It may look like full, but we coaches know we can do more!

Next, imagine pouring sand into the jar and watching it fill in all of the nooks and crannies between rocks.

This represents the technical skills like throwing, hitting, pitching and fielding. You work on these with fundamentals and reps. The jar is looking quite full now, but you’re pretty savvy. Now you’re thinking, “What else can I fit in there?”

You’re right of course- there is still some room in there for water!

This represents the tactical skills players will need to know in order to actually play a game. Knowing what to do when the ball comes to you or what to throw to a certain hitter falls in this category. All of the strategies, rules and intricacies of playing our game.

Now what do you do with it?

  With a completely full jar now (really, this time!), pat yourself on the bat for a job well-done!

That’s not an easy task and you deserve credit. We haven’t finished with the jar yet though. Now the athlete must take it and pour it all out on game day. On those days where they seem to be running on all cylinders and everything is clicking, it means they emptied the entire thing!

And this is where we coaches have another (exciting!) opportunity to develop our athletes. We can teach them how to empty that jar on game day. You know how, but we’re still working on getting better at teaching it. That “it” is confidence, resilience, and grit. When they have these three things, they will consistently empty the jar and perform their best.

This probably sounds like a big task.

One that you’re very tempted to put off until you “have more time” so can really “sit down and figure it out.”  We completely understand that overwhelming feeling, but there are ways to start small and get working on it today!   Let’s look at it from the four coaching personalities again:

  • You can develop your analytical players by tracking their performance and progress. Keep stats like Quality At-Bats for games and have a discussion on how those numbers are changing over time. You can also keep score during drills and see how they improve!

  • Relational thinkers are developed best when you get to know their personal needs. Talk to them one on one between drills or innings if you see something they could improve. And definitely show them when you’re proud of them!

  • Developing those who are experimental is easiest when you use metaphors and explain the why behind what you’re doing. They won’t be hesitant to try something new if you give them a good enough reason to!

  • When you want to develop someone who’s practical, break it down step-by-step. Once they see how each link in the chain connects, you can let them go and they’ll work through it. Progressions work really well for these folks!

Remember, these are just preferences in how we learn.

Every single player can benefit from these tactics. So try one new thing each day. The key is to give them more tools and strategies for emptying that jar when it counts. Just like we tell our players: focus on 1% improvement each day.

You can work backwards from what your players need on game day. Are they struggling under pressure? Teach them how to deal with pressure in the safety of the practice setting. Are they afraid to fail? Make them fail more at practice and teach them how to work through it. The nice part is, these things can be worked on at the same time as you’re working on bunt situations or bullpens!


COACHING SKILL #3 |
EMPOWER

Now that we’ve got you chomping at the bit to put these coaching skills into action, we’re going to pull back on the reigns a little. This is likely the most difficult for coaches, because it means we have to let go of some of the control (gasp!) No joke, this is not easy.

Think about a child learning to walk. How do we teach that tiny human how to get from point A to point B while standing upright? We prop them up, step back, and let them go. And it works out pretty well!

That can’t be all we do though, right? Poor babies getting no help. What else is going on? There’s definitely lots of smiles and encouraging words. Usually someone is sitting about 5 feet away, arms outstretched, encouraging them to walk TO them. Even when they completely fail and plop on their diapered bottom, we CHEER for them!

Can you imagine doing that with one of your players learning how to get a squeeze bunt down? Most of the time we coaches sit there straight-faced because we’re trying to think of the next correction to give. We’re most likely standing to the side or maybe even sitting on a bucket. And when they pop that bunt up we most certainly do not cheer for them. When you think about it, the difference is dramatic.

Let’s be clear. We are not telling you to lower your expectations or encourage mediocrity. We always want our players striving for excellence at every moment. The difference is in the approach. With babies we are much more patient and supportive. We don’t try to control everything. We empower them to try, fail, try again, and eventually figure it out.

Here are some ways you can begin to empower your players to take more control over their own journey:

  • Empower players in a practical way by telling them what you want them to do and then letting them figure out how to do it. For example, give them a goal of making 10 clean plays in a row. When they make an error, they have to figure out the adjustment.

  • Analytical thinkers feel empowered when they see how the work they’re putting can affect the outcome. Tracking their progress and let them analyze why they’re getting those results. What’s working, what isn’t, and what should they do next?

  • Empowering those who are relational is easiest when you show them you’ve got their back. Instead of stepping in and fixing it for them, you can encourage them to try again. Even better: show them you believe in their ability to figure it out.

  • To empower someone who’s experimental, let the try new things as long as they’ve got a purpose behind it. If they seem stuck, encourage them to take a step back and look at the problem from a different angle.

To clarify, empowerment does not mean you stop coaching.

While you’re doing more observing, this is your time to notice things you might have missed before. Messing up once in a while is softball. When it becomes a pattern, you’ll be better able to understand what’s really going on from this point of view.

If your girls are really struggling to figure it out, pull them aside and guide them to the solution. Ask questions about what’s going on and see if you can lead them to the answer. Your approach may differ depending on the person or situation, but the key is to act as a guide. Then send them right back out to try again!


MASTERING THESE SKILLS TO LEVEL UP YOUR COACHING!
   

Hopefully by now the gears are turning and you’re thinking of ways you can use these skills more with your team. The reward is priceless. When you connect with, develop and empower your players, you’ll make a bigger impact than you ever imagined.

Mastering these skills is not a destination, however. It’s a journey. Start by implementing these tactics little by little, and over time they will become a part of who you are. Not only as a coach, but also as a person.

JOIN THE SOFTBALL MENTAL TRAINING MEMBERSHIP WAITLIST!

Get exclusive content until the doors open December 9th!

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