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A New Coaching Style That Could Be a Game Changer

I spent two days recently at Indiana University. It was there I met Tim Hiller, who drove down from Michigan to join us. Tim played quarterback for Western Michigan University a decade ago and then played a year in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts. Our conversation was rich as we talked about the coaching styles of the past and how we’ve changed over the years.

I’d like to talk about one change that has been a trade off.

Today, when you watch almost any team of student athletes, you see players constantly looking over to the sidelines, seeking direction from their coach. For many teams, if coach wasn’t there—they’d be stuck, not knowing what to do next. It is rare that we see players today:

  • Think for themselves
  • Decide what play to call
  • Resolve conflict without help
  • Own the outcomes of the game

We rarely see what we saw when Peyton Manning or John Elway played, where veterans were trained to be leaders, and owned many of the decisions that took place on the field or court. Oh, once it a while, you see someone like Coach “Pop” allow team leaders like Tony Parker do the communicating with his teammates on the San Antonio Spurs. Usually, however, in almost all sports, the grown ups tell the young athletes what to do, especially when they are student-athletes.

We’ve Created “FOMU”

This is the new normal today. Parents prescribe every step their kids take and remind them of the quiz on Friday; to take their permission slip or gym shorts to school, or to not forget to put their books in their backpack. This mindset has expanded to teachers and even coaches. There is too much at stake, we tell ourselves, so we can’t let them fail. They actually need us.

And that’s not good in the long run.

It’s created a mindset in kids. My friend Leneita Fix calls it FOMU: Fear Of Messing Up. We’ve communicated that the stakes are so high (in games or at school), kids get paralyzed at decision time. They need someone to tell them what to do. They don’t want to fail so they don’t take risks. Or if they do take them, they’re uncalculated risks, because they’ve not been trained how to think.

A New Coaching Style

As Tim Hiller and I talked about this reality, he sees what I see and suggested a shift for coaches, from their current “norm” to a new “norm.”

Current Norm for Coaches: Command and Correct

This is where coaches get in the face of their players, drill them on specific practices without explaining why, and then correct them each time they step outside of the drill. It comes from a dominant coach, who usually yells and creates fear in players. This style gets mixed results. While I agree we need to build grit in players, this style creates a mindset that is counterproductive in the long run. The only one doing the thinking is the coach—who only communicates the “what”—not the “why.” Players only learn association: If you don’t want to get yelled at, just do what he commands.

New Norm for Coaches: Give and Guide

This was often what coaches of old would do, including John Wooden, Tom Landry, and Pat Summit. Oh, there were still some loud voices on the sidelines, but the difference was substantial. In this style, the coach actually gives responsibility to the leaders on the field or on the court. Players do their own thinking, based on the “why” their coach has explained to them between games. As players learn to own the responsibility, and make mistakes from time to time, this invites coaches to guide them in tweaking their conclusions. Ownership is shared.

Former athletic director, Dave Hart, remembers playing quarterback as a high school student. After his freshman year, his head coach told him, “Dave, if you’ll meet me all through the summer, I will teach you the plays and how I think. And when you’re ready, I will let you call the plays on the field during the games.”

Dave remembered being so excited about this leadership opportunity. He met with his coach all summer, but he didn’t get to call any plays the next season. His coach continued to send in players and relay to young Dave what the next play would be. When Dave complained about it, his coach smiled and said, “You’re not ready. You will be soon.” In a game during his junior year, Dave huddled up his team and a new player came in. When Dave asked him what coach wanted the play to be, his teammate just replied, “Coach said it was your call.” Dave smiled and called the play. And from that time on, he called the plays as the norm. It was “give and guide.”

Seth Godin asks: Which is worse…

  • Failure or fear of failure?
  • Trying and failing or not trying at all?
  • Caring and losing, or not caring at all?
  • Doing or wondering?

My challenge to you: Figure out what “give and guide” looks like on your team.


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A New Coaching Style That Could Be a Game Changer