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What If You Let Players Coach Themselves?

Did you hear what head coach Steve Kerr decided to do a few weeks ago? I had not seen a professional coach do this in decades.

His Golden State Warriors were struggling to win, and Kerr felt he was struggling to reach his young players. So, did he bear down on them? Did he get louder? Did he try some new trick play he had schemed up?

Nope. None of these. He did what good leaders do with a group of gifted young adults, who tend to disengage with someone older.

He let them coach themselves.

In an attempt to kick start their engagement and get over a lull in passion, Coach Kerr put his players in charge of coaching duties for their game against the Phoenix Suns. Three of his players got a turn at drawing up plays on the clipboard.

The result?

His plan worked. The Warriors slammed the Suns, winning by 46 points.

What in the World Was He Doing?

(Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP)

Old school coaches may question Kerr’s logic. After all, he’s paid to coach and the athletes are paid to play. But we live in a different world today. A young generation struggles to stay engaged with anything that’s downloaded to them, or if they have “no say” in how it goes. Youth attention spans are 8 seconds. Their world is “on demand” and “instant access” and “new normal” and “constant contact.”

The Suns forward—Jared Dudley—felt it was a sign of disrespect.

Kerr said the move was not about disrespect, but rather an attempt to engage his players. “I told him afterward that it had nothing to do with being disrespectful,” Kerr said. “It had to do with me reaching my team. I have not reached them for the last month. They’re tired of my voice. I’m tired of my voice. It’s been a long haul these last few years. I wasn’t reaching them, and we just figured it was probably a good night to pull a trick out of the hat and do something different.”

I remember working in partnership with the Texas Longhorn football team back in 2008-09. Mack Brown was still the head coach and the staff found they were struggling to engage their players, too. We discussed the issue with Assistant Coach Ken Rucker and talked about the team engaging in EPIC practices: Experiential, Participatory, Image-Rich and Connected. What would it look like to engage the players so that they would “own” the results on Saturday? Can you guess what they did? They turned over a good portion of the practices to key players. Upperclassmen decided how they would prepare for the following game. When I asked Coach Rucker how it was going, he replied, “Well, they don’t always make brilliant decisions, but we’ve never seen athletes so committed to getting into the end zone as when the method is left totally up to them!”

The Art of Metacognition

What the Longhorns did is a practice known as “metacognition.” It is one way to turn over the thought process to the learner. Instead of commanding the team or the classroom, the leader becomes a facilitator; a consultant more than a supervisor. While today’s young generation is used to adults simply downloading instructions to them, this method actually increases engagement and ownership. It just takes some time for a learner to get used to it. We’ve done it so differently in past generations.

The principle? Students support what they help create.

What are some creative ideas to stimulate metacognition in them?

  1. Start with a problem and some questions, but not answers.
  2. Early on, introduce a dilemma that they will have to resolve.
  3. Review a past competition or class. Have them correct what was wrong.
  4. Turn over a practice or class period to some of your students.
  5. Refuse to answer questions. Push them to come up with answers.
  6. Ask them how they would prepare for an upcoming test or game.
  7. Return a test, telling them the most common mistakes, but make the students or team members find them.

Here’s to becoming a “new school” coach who engages young teammates.


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What If You Let Players Coach Themselves?