Years ago, I began to look for patterns of conduct in the finest coaches from college and professional sports. I met John Wooden, Pat Summit and Sue Enquist. I read of others like Vince Lombardi, Joe Paterno, Jim Valvano, Kay Yow and Dean Smith. All of these people were not only great coaches, they’re great people.
While their styles varied, I found one common thread in all of them: they found a way to inspire action. By this I mean, they didn’t just execute X’s and O’s on a chalkboard — they kindled a fire inside of players that enabled their teams to “own” their destiny. They passed responsibility for great performance on to their players. The vision started inside them, but they were able to give it away.
The key was inspiration.
What Exactly is Inspiration?
Author Simon Sinek reminds us that there are only two ways to influence behavior: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it. When we default to manipulation, it’s usually because we don’t have enough time to lead well; we feel pressed to win now. No doubt, we’d rather inspire our athletes, but we’re not sure how to do so in the short amount of time we have. We’re at a loss. So… we bark out orders.
The fact is, effective leaders inspire action when they practice five behaviors. This is especially true with young team members. Leading your team is not the same as being the leader. If you’re a coach, you’re the leader, simply because of your title or position. You have the badge. But many coaches don’t even possess the influence some of their senior players do. Good or bad, being the leader doesn’t automatically earn you the right to lead young players. We must learn to lead our team well.
Five Ideas to Inspire Athletes
So, how do we inspire young team members? Here are five big ideas.
- “Why” must precede “what.”
Effective coaches share the “why” before they tell the “what.” If you only tell people what to do, you engage their heads. When you tell them why, you engage their hearts. Too few teams can clearly articulate why they do what they do. (By why, I mean your purpose or your belief.) Why does your team exist? Why do you build the traditions you do? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? Why do you care? Young athletes are more apt to buy what you do if they get the why first.
- Belief must precede belonging.
Every coach wants players to feel like they “belong” to the team. Among this young generation of athletes, this means they usually have to be believed in before they will buy in. In other words, you can speed up their sense of belonging if you first convince them you believe in them. Articulating a belief in someone accelerates them believing in themselves. Players get inspired when someone they admire expresses belief.
- Equipping must precede expecting.
Third, inspiring leaders actually equip team members, not just expect something from them. They get more out of their players because they provide resources and ongoing instruction. In short, they inspire because they impart. This is more than mere drills. They create the sense that a player is learning new things and improving their game all the time. This creates happy team members who produce happy teams, fans, parents, alumni and customers.
- Trust must precede teamwork.
Many coaches make the mistake of assuming that followers should immediately trust their leader. That rarely happens in today’s world of self-interest and distrust. Even though you have the position, you must approach your team as one who’s willing to earn their trust. When you don’t assume it, you actually garner it more quickly. Good leadership operates on the basis of trust. We earn it through listening, asking for input and ideas, trusting players, and through making good decisions.
- Attitude must precede aptitude.
Great coaches (or any leaders) always insure they balance enough good attitudes on the team with aptitudes. In short, you need talent to win, but talented players without the influence of players with great attitudes can lead to an unhealthy culture on the team. You must recruit for both competence and character, for aptitude and attitude. Both are necessary to inspire great teams who consistently win.
I’ll never forget the story of Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who once blocked for a running back in a tight game. The play went well, moving the ball downfield. Afterward, Coach Bud Grant was encouraging and thanking players for their effort but never said a thing to Tarkenton. Later, the quarterback said to Grant, “Hey, you never thanked me for blocking on that play, but you thanked everyone else.” Coach Grant smiled and said, “I didn’t because you always do what you’re asked. I didn’t think I needed to say anything.” Fran Tarkenton smiled as he said, “You need to if you ever want to see me do it again!”
It’s the job of the leader to inspire and empower the team.