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The Secret Skill of the Best Coaches Today

Have you heard the news? California appears to be the first state to pass legislation that will compensate student-athletes for their names and images. California’s governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that allows athletes attending California universities to earn money from their names, images, and likeness rights, starting in 2023. This means jerseys, photos, signatures, and other products colleges use to promote their teams, student-athletes can receive payment from.

While many coaches who read this will not be directly affected by this law, the story offers a picture of the ever-changing world of college sports.

Couple that with last year’s NCAA ruling—allowing student-athletes to transfer on a whim to another school, giving athletes more control over their fates and their playing time—and you gain a glimpse of the world of a coach today. It’s shifting sand. Already, many coaches feel more pressure to win games than they feel the pressure to graduate career-ready students. Today, there’s the pressure of athletes who are more concerned with personal playing time than winning a team championship. Slowly, we are moving from “we” to “me” centered living.

Parents and students feel entitled to good “customer service.” They act like customers.

We are in a new day.

What’s a Coach to Do?

If coaches are going to thrive in this new climate, they are going to have to differentiate between two skill sets: adopting and adapting. Let me explain.

  • Adopting means you simply embrace any and all new trends in the name of fitting in. You feel that in order to survive, you must find a way to respond to all demands.
  • Adapting means you make changes to accommodate new realities, but you find a way to hold on to the timeless values and skills that make for successful teams.

I believe successful leaders learn to adapt, but they don’t necessarily adopt every new reality that comes along. We cannot live in denial that student-athletes now live in a new normal. So, we must adapt. At the same time, you know there are specific disciplines that are timeless and must not be discarded in the name of “customer service” trends.

The Secret Skill is Adaptability

The name of the game today for coaches and athletic staff is adaptability. It means learning to answer the question: How do we continue the positive traditions and disciplines that made this team (or department) great in the midst of a culture that’s shifting into hyper-individualization?

The answer is to adapt but not to adopt.

The clearest term to describe what’s happening today in our culture is hyper-individualization. Reflect for a moment. Athletes come with personal trainers and workouts tailored for them. They come with personal social media followers. They come with expectations to benefit from their time with you (guaranteed playing time) and gain recognition (perhaps even compensation for their jersey number). And they often come with parents who push for special treatment. Certainly not all of them, but this hyper-individualization is happening almost everywhere in culture. Kids may not even notice it, the way a fish may not be aware it lives in water. People are into themselves. Their personal benefits. Their future. Their notoriety.

We can either get mad or get busy. I say we get busy.

Stories of Coaches Who Adapted and Didn’t Adopt

Below are some examples to get your mind moving in this direction. Successful coaches always begin with identifying the outcomes and processes that provide the results they’re after. Then, they identify what their current reality is and what to do to reach those results in this reality.

1. Recently, some NFL coaches noticed their players were zoning out in the midst of their long two-hour meetings. Players were checking their phones, distracted within half an hour. Now, the coaches host four 30-minute meetings instead of one two-hour meeting. Each half-hour, they break for a quick social media fix then return to re-engage. They still get the job done.

2. Some baseball coaches recognized some selfish, immature habits in players, so they now host weekly meetings to talk about life and team culture, in a hotel room on the road. Several coaches start the discussion with our Habitudes® images in order to deepen their community. The discussion surrounds valuing each other as much as your selfish interests.

3. Several coaches (from multiple sports) have team discussions on being counter-cultural. If culture today fosters a life of ease and convenience, how do we cultivate tenacity and grit? Since most teams don’t win championships, how can we be counter-cultural and win? These discussions become reminders all through the season. We must be counter-cultural.

4. My favorite story comes from Coach Mike Krzyzewski from Duke University. In 2016, he coached the U.S. men’s basketball team and knew he’d be leading players who had done it all and made all the money they would ever need before they reached mid-life. He knew he must find a way to cast a vision for them to give their best. He decided to take the team to Arlington Cemetery and stroll through the graveyard where the bodies of soldiers who had sacrificed their lives on behalf of their country were buried. While there, Coach K noticed a young soldier in uniform looking down at some graves. When he approached the soldier, Coach K asked him whom he was visiting. The young man pointed to three tombstones, informing Coach K those guys had sacrificed their lives to save his. At that point, Krzyzewski knew that was the message his team needed. He asked the soldier to take five minutes and talk to his team about what it meant to go overseas and represent your country, something bigger than yourself. It worked.

The bottom line? Adapting means we may have to get creative, but equipping today’s athlete is worth the time and effort.

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The Secret Skill of the Best Coaches Today