By Chris Carmichael,
Founder/Head Coach of CTS
The articles and responses about the toxic environment and abusive culture in the Nike Oregon Project have included a discussion about the line between tough and abusive. There is a benefit to holding athletes accountable to their goals, and to pushing them to reach further toward a barely attainable goal. There are frank discussions that have to be had. There is bad news that has to be delivered. Coaching – especially at the elite level – is not all sunshine and rainbows, but to get the absolute best out of an athlete you have to be tough in the right way.
Care about the person first
Professional football coaches do a lot of yelling, and much of it is out in the open in practices and on the sidelines during games. Yet, their players would go to the ends of the earth and lay down on railroad tracks for them. How does that work? It works because of what you don’t see. You don’t see the time and effort those coaches put in building relationships with their athletes. Players who know their coach cares for them and about them will give everything they have.
In endurance and individual sports, the coach-athlete relationship is different than it is in team sports. Yet still, the most important thing a coach has to do is build a close and trusting relationship with an athlete. You have to care about the person more than you care about the athlete. The goal is for a person to keep getting better, keep learning, keep making progress – as a person. You have to prioritize the person before the athlete, because a broken person will never be a complete athlete.
In either team or individual sports, negative comments or criticisms have to be paired with praise. The classic method is to praise what was done right (positive), point out what was done wrong (negative), and finish with what you want to see next time (positive correction). You have to adjust how you do this based on the athlete’s personality and what they respond to, but abusive environments develop when there is way too much negative and way too little praise.
Attack the reason, not the symptom
If an athlete isn’t getting the job done, whether that means lackluster training sessions, skipping workouts, making excuses, or not making progress, the first question has to be: “What’s going on for you?” Athletes are motivated, goal-oriented people. If they’re not working hard enough, calling them lazy or yelling at them won’t help. You have to find out why this person who knows how to work hard suddenly isn’t. The behavior you’re seeing from an athlete is the symptom, the outward manifestation of a reason they are probably aware of but haven’t shared.
Those conversations can be difficult, and they only work if you have built a relationship with an athlete where they know you have their back, through thick and thin. An athlete who fears retribution or negative consequences for revealing a problem isn’t in a position to tell you what’s really going on. Even when the relationship is strong, part of being a tough but positive coach is not letting the athlete off the hook with meaningless or surface-level answers.
Find fault with the action, not the person
Failing in a workout or a competition doesn’t make an athlete a bad person. Winning doesn’t make an athlete a good person. To be able to hold an athlete accountable to a high performance standard and have frank conversations about failure, a coach has to make sure the criticisms are about behaviors and actions, not about the person. The athlete is not a failure, he or she failed in this task and we have to find a way to do it better. When you maintain this clear distinction you can be very direct or blunt (often interpreted as tough) in addressing problems and necessary corrections because the athlete doesn’t feel personally attacked. When coaches do a bad job of maintaining this distinction, or just disregard it altogether, those same conversations turn hurtful.
Negative feedback is a terrible motivator
Fear, intimidation, and negative feedback lead to action, but you’ll never get the best out of a person that way. When coaches use fear and intimidation, athletes are only motivated to avoid the negative consequence of failure. They’re after the relief of not being yelled at, but that means they’re not going after the joy of success. They’re going hard because they feel like they’re being chased, not because they’re chasing excellence. If you want to get the best out of someone, they have to be chasing something great in front of them, not escaping from what’s behind them. A coach could use the following phrases with an athlete after a poor workout: “You’re not working hard enough” “You’ll never succeed if you keep this up” versus “I think you can do better” “I know there’s more in you.” All four phrases indicate a need to improve, but the latter two keep an athlete pointed in a positive, forward direction.
This is also something business owners and managers need to remember, too. Fear, intimidation, and negative feedback don’t work for getting the best from employees and coworkers. Even when emotions run high and circumstances are tense, your negative reaction will not yield the positive change you’re after.
Leverage data and science
In many sports, we can clearly show how improvements in specific facets of training will result in increased performance capacity. If you lose X kilograms, your power-to-weight ratio increases to Y and you can reach the top of the climb 2 minutes faster. If you get out of the blocks this much faster, your sprint time will drop by that much. If you are pushing an athlete to achieve the means to an end, they have to be informed so they understand and buy in to the process. And a coach has to be willing to adapt when the data shows the plan isn’t working. In abusive environments, it’s ‘my way or the highway because I said so’ and athletes are kept in the dark as to why they are doing what they’re doing.
We have long mystified the persona of the “tough coach”, the hard-driving, relentless, and loud leader who made practices miserable but managed to transform wayward youth into disciplined athletes. Their no-nonsense, no excuses, my-way-or-the-highway mentality is wistfully looked upon as the antidote for what some see as today’s hyper-sensitive, everybody-is-a-winner environments. Here’s the thing, it wasn’t the yelling or the suffering that forged character and made athletes give everything they had. It was the compassion, the caring for athletes as people first, and the trust that coach was as committed to you as you were to them. What has changed – and what needs to continue changing – is the understanding that you don’t need the yelling and misery in order for the compassion and caring to work.