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Team Coach 10 The Power of No

“The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.”

~ Tony Blair

Having definite goals is an important part of leadership and team building. Our daily goals can also be under attack from the most innocent requests. Defining a goal means not only saying what something is, but also what it is not. When we pursue a goal, during that time we are excluding all competing goals. Therefore, when we have a defined plan for the day, then our first instinct should be to say no to anything that diverts away from the plan. Saying no ends the initial threat to the plan for the day. Keep in mind the goal, that saying no to the wrong or ill timed things help us to say yes to the right things and the right time.

Let’s remember who we are dealing with in our coaching. For the most part, we are coaching players whose brains have not fully developed yet. Teenagers have a fully developed threat detection system in their brains, but not a fully developed regulatory system to moderate the responses. As he adults, we help them form more synaptic connections so that they can use their cerebral cortex better to make good decisions. Another major theoretical underpinning comes from social psychology where studies show that well defined limits help create greater security. Where there are not limits, players will sometimes create their own. When the limits are changeable, players find it difficult to cope and the team becomes a more stressful situation.

Well Defined Boundaries Help Athletes

In saying no, we create well defined limits. However, we can always say yes later, after a period of thought and planning. Which things and people should we say no to? How should we say no? When and how loud should we say it? How often will we need to repeat it?

Saying no to undisciplined behavior is an important part of keeping players on task. Even the very best teenagers that we encounter on our high school teams can open the door to some chaos. At the most innocent, a player that we respect and admire, may make a request that would change the plan for the day. It may seem like such a nice thing to do. They may express their enjoyment for a certain challenge (drill), or game, and ask, “Can we do _____ Today?” It seems so easy and natural to trust and listen to your best citizen, but really what often happens is that it sets a precedent for being open to changing the plan. The inner conflict we may feel runs counter to the ‘people pleasing’ part of our inner self when we say ‘no’ to such a kind hearted request. However, it opens the door to another player, who is less disciplined, who has not such a good idea to have theirs accepted as well. If not, then they have a claim in their own mind as to ‘favoritism’. I tell my players, “You know the answer is going to be NO for today, but go ahead and ask your question, then I will take it under advisement for another day.” Very, very rarely I may change they day’s plan, but only if what the player offers is true genius and far exceeds what I had on the agenda. The number of times that has happened in 28 years has to be less than 5. A very important part of saying no, is to first listen. Players want to know that their voice will be heard, but there is little or no leeway for today’s plan to be changed.

Say No to Distractions

Its best also to say no to the behaviors that can ruin a plan. Lazy movement between activities, a lack of following directions, and distracting or off task behavior can ruin the practice environment. Saying ‘no’ to undisciplined practice, is actually saying ‘yes’ to a more fun practice, because once the days objectives are achieved, then each practice ends with a large group game. Sometimes saying no can be a game. At one school, I had 26 players on 6 courts, with two banks of three courts. I mainly operated from the three courts where varsity players were practicing, and the JV players where on the other three which had a pretty tough egress over to the three courts I was on. Early on when I wanted to bring everyone together it would take a few minutes. I said no to that by counting down from 45 seconds expecting everyone to be on court before I got to zero. If they didnt make it there were some light consequences. We might do some ‘fast feet’, because ‘we need to be more quick’. So simply by setting a standard, on the one side is yes, and the other side is no. Examples of other behaviors that need to end are: arriving late to practice, not giving best efforts, creating distractions or getting distracted by outside circumstances like school friends walking by and starting a conversation. Countless times I have had conversations with players to say, “No, that’s not O.K.” Like missing make-able shots, not giving full effort, because the player is not excited by the challenge presented. Hitting inappropriate shots, or acting in an inappropriate way with team-mates.

Don’t Allow Needless Skipping

A handful of times in my coaching career I have had a certain player in mind in developing a special practice to meet that player’s need, mostly because other players also share the need to work on that item, but also because there are times when building one skill into a one or a few players on the team can have a major impact on the team’s outcomes. It seems like almost every season that I create one of these special practices the player in my spotlight are not present that day. Had I known that they would miss, I may have created a completely different plan to work on another skill in another pivotal player. Which brings up another point, it’s not ok not to communicate. Things come up, players get sick, family emergencies, that annoying dental appointment that can’t be any other time, etc.

Developing the commitment and discipline to coming to practice every day is a much more difficult thing in individual sports, because tennis players don’t see themselves as being vital to the way a practice continues, like a center on a football team, point guard in basketball, or catcher in baseball whose presence comparatively is vital to the team. What we need to teach is how our practice structures depend on certain numbers of players paired in certain ways. One missing player can be a major disruption to our plan, and create a need to completely rework it on the fly. Teaching the kids that it’s not ok to miss, and that they should say no to other activities so they can say yes to full commitment to the team will serve them well in their future lives as leaders.

Style Points

How we say no is also important. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. They probably also don’t admire your discipline very much if you don’t show caring. It’s not a good idea to be the coach who automatically says no without listening or thinking. When we can explain exactly why we are saying no, players can accept that much easier. We want to encourage our players to have voice and choice in how they are to train.

Even choosing fun things to do can be source of conflict. I find it amazing that the sequence and enjoyment of certain games of drills changes every year. Every team, every group, and every group minus one player can have a completely different list of preference for games. Some of my teams love ‘cupcake’ to the point of addiction, some take a while to warm up to it, before beginning to enjoy it. Other teams love ‘attack’, and would play it until the cows come home, others think it’s silly, and still other teams love ‘stations’ the best. When we have a menu of a wide variety of games from which the players can choose, they have the freedom to say no. Now and then I may open it up and ask “Did anyone learn a game since last season that you want to teach us?” At that time I am saying no to my own desire to be completely in control.

Zero Tolerance for Team Cancers

There also comes a time, when something serious happens. Sometimes players can treat each other very poorly in a way that is completely unacceptable to a team, or really any group of civil people. A major safety issue that could lead to injury, and liability can arise, it must stop immediately. When a coach can be called negligent, grossly negligent for not addressing major issues, they can lose they job, come under legal scrutiny, or even be arrested. Thats when a really big loud ‘NO!’ Is very important, along with a meeting that goes like this, “No,No,No,No!”. There was a coach in my area whose team created vile nicknames that were overtly sexual and perverse. It was quite disturbing and very embarrassing for that team to share the nicknames in the introductions prior to a sectional playoff match. My athletic director was present, and I asked him to follow up with that school’s athletic director. That coach was fired by the school, and later they no longer fielded a team. Recently, a friend of mine has begun coaching at the school and has reinstituted the team in a more sporting manner. Every team at all times should keep in mind their ambassadorship for their school.

Story Time

I had a team captain, who was among the worst team captains I have ever dealt with, who threatened a player loudly as a match progressed. She, yes she, threatened physical harm to the other player. The incident escalated quickly, and as we left the scene, my player shouted more threats to the other player. I contacted my athletic director and immediately suspended her from the team. As the situation progressed, she lost her captaincy, and was only allowed back into competition after her apology was accepted by the other school and the player in question.

Our Fun Need Not Be Condescending to Others

I have a fun game that I play with my teams that helps them learn to be good front runners, and save time and energy during the season. Many times high school players race out to a big lead, then become bored, and their play can go down to the level of the opponent. To combat that I give a reward to the first player who comes off the court winning at least one set 6-0. If a player takes a bit longer but wins 6-0,6-0 they can trump the player who finished first, but had only one bagel set. This is a lot of internal fun for my team. They can win an energy bar, or an over-grip. But now, here is what I say no to:

* Don’t rub it in the opponents face.

* Learn not to rush so fast that you lose points.

* The opponent must not know about our game.

* You must not tell anyone about our game.

Invariably, there is a player who talks loud, brags, or makes it obvious what is happening. Early on the players rush to fast, becoming sloppy in their play, until they discover an ideal pace of play for front running. If players do brag, or expose the game, it stops there, if the coach of the other team becomes aware of it I apologize and explain why we do it, and its nothing against their team. One time, my players came to me to say “The other guys on that team have a bet going about who will beat our guys faster.” Similar behaviors go on in teams all across the U.S., let's say no to that for the sake of respect.

In conclusion the best way to say yes to all the great things we want to do and experience, is to say no to anything that would confuse, ruin, compete or otherwise interfere with moving in the direction we want to go with our teams. Of course, when there is a major injury or some type of civil disruption, everything comes to a grinding halt. We can’t say no to protecting our players at any expense.


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