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Athlete Centered Coach 17 Coaching Is Like Flying A Helicopter

It’s a Dangerous Mission

Coaching a team is a lot like going on a helicopter mission. No matter how good your skills as a helicopter pilot, that machine is unpredictable and dangerous. One of my favorite TV shows ever, “The Unit” portrayed special operations military personnel in action. In one episode, my favorite character, Bob, after crashing the helicopter, has to answer to his fellow crash survivor. His statement is a cautionary tale, “Look, from the moment that machine rolls off the assembly line, it has only one thought in mind, and that is to kill you.”(watch until the 6:00 mark) In dealing with creating our team mission, we need to plan our flight, know the conditions, and be prepared for sudden maneuvers.

Experts Still Face Adversity: Have a Plan to Mitigate Issues Moving Forward

The expert helicopter pilot cannot easily transfer all the subtleties of flying that machine to the neophyte, and in the same way, the leadership skills of the coach do not immediately rub off on the players we coach. The way we set our criteria for team selection says a lot about our style. Failure to set meaningful criteria is like flying directly into high tension wires. If our selection criteria is not in line with the overall objectives of the program and the school, then there is a strong chance for a crash. Going into a season without any selection criteria dooms a coach to selecting solely on results. When you have criteria, then you also have an opportunity to go over your initial evaluation of the player. Knowing the conditions which exist at the beginning of the player’s time, can help them to gain understanding, of the course you are flying, with your program. This also gives you a baseline with which to measure player growth. Be sure to have a criteria that is 50-75% based on playing ability. It’s a lot of fun a few years down the road to discuss with a player how far they have travelled. The next biggest chunk we work with is having a team first attitude and work ethic. A player’s coachability is important, but not always a vital factor to being a contributor on the team, as long as they are a good teammate. If a candidate’s raw athleticism were ignored, that would be a shame, because with good coaching they may have a much bigger upside than someone who can beat them by a few points this week. Recognizing players with a huge upside in their mental, emotional and physical tools is usually much more important, than if they can beat someone today.

Mission Planning with Your Unit Leadership

When developing the mission of the team the coach is best advised to have at least a first draft. Veteran coaches may have a final draft of their team mission statement. Without that, you are flying in fog, and we find it highly doubtful that you will fly in fog for a long period of time. If you have been coaching the same team, you know what they need. Even so, asking team captains to participate in final approval of the mission is important. Without telling them first, ask them what they see as the mission for the year. When they offer one of the items, then its as though they built it themselves. When they are done, it’s a great idea to offer, one at a time, items from the mission to discuss. If your captains aren’t buying in, good luck with that plan.

Bad Command Structure, Leads to Battlefield Chaos

Captains either help create order and unity, or chaos. They are your wind currents, when your captains are settled and calm, you can fly slow and easy. When captains cause turbulence, you may find yourself squeezing hard on the stick, flying fast to power through the bad weather. You should know before your season begins, who the likely captains are, and how you might lean on them or not. When you know you have great captains, it’s very wise to give them as much leadership as they can handle. When your captains are very new, or not fully signed onto the program, give them measured responsibility in areas where they won’t be subversive.

Caution: Young Drill Sergeants at Work

One of the amusing aspects of great captains early on, is that they tend to be a bit authoritarian, and I work hard to train that out of them. Sometimes, those captains have seen too many CGI movies where helicopters fly through tunnels for long periods and time, so they have an unrealistic view of the true danger of that airborne eggbeater. Help your captains appreciate the delicate nature of flight and the importance of that rear propeller which keeps then from spinning out of control. I do what I can to help build the team’s respect and admiration for the captain. Rarely, and only when necessary, I will criticize a captain publicaly, to create empathy for their teammates toward the captain. And I teach the captains to listen to and befriend their teammates as much as possible. They can be my eyes and ears for the team.

Team Cohesion is Vital to Meet Mission Objectives

The building of team unity is so vital in an individual sport turned team sport. I directly credit Jim Loehr for his chapter on team chemistry in his book Mental Toughness Training for Sports, which I then personalized a bit for The Art of Coaching High School Tennis. It’s a list of 14 things to do to build unity. When I present it to my team I ask each player to pick two of the fourteen items, that they think they are good at, and do those things. Then they are to select two things they are bad at and NOT do those things. Whichever activities are not picked up by the team in general, fall to the captain(s), or myself. An example of a conversation might go like this, “Bryan, I know you sometimes are a bit negative, and I want you to work on that. Let’s start with you not immediately verbalizing any negative feelings you have. Talk to me privately. Because negativity and positivity are highly contagious. Deal?”

Rules of Engagement

When it comes to sportsmanship, a coach better express that on day one, that, ‘we play fairly in this program’, and not allow any wiggle room. If any of the captains sometimes make bad calls or are unsportsmanlike, you must find a way to deal with that, or they must not be captains. I have a story I can tell where I took over a team that never called close balls in, making very tightfisted calls, and would sometimes call line balls out. Since it was many of them on the team doing this, I decided to deal with it case by case. Before long the amount of poor calls was diminished by 90%, while we weren’t perfect, we did play much more fairly than previously. Any coach who excuses poor sportsmanship for any reason, is really lost and will not be able to teach their team good sportsmanship at all really. That coach has entered the helicopter with no idea where they are going. The same is true if their team captains are noted for poor sportsmanship, its a conflicting message being sent to the team, if its allowed to continue.

Great captains will be a terrific support in helping develop team goals, and encouraging teammates to pursue them.

Now the Goals Can Best be Set

We have plenty of stories, but we will spare you at the moment, so we can give more of our general guidelines for team mission. We can assure you that if captains are not involved in the development of team goals, then there is a correct perception that they are merely the coach’s goals for the team. Team Goals, Player Goals must start with a process orientation. Outcome goals are fine, but process goals are more empowering, less pressuring, and more satisfying when people realize their growth. So process goals may include tracking improvement in different areas, like perceived effort level, agility scores, first serve percentage, return of serve percentage, effectiveness on ‘+1’ balls and other vital areas of performance. Mental game goals can be very process oriented. Trying to keep the goals to a few, make them more manageable for the team, or individual players. Its also very wise to make sure that players build on one strength and mitigate their most vulnerable stroke weakness in 10 weeks. Beyond that, it’s not realistic to expect much more. There are many different ways to approach it, based on your team’s culture, so we do not want to offer a cookie cutter approach.


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