Coaching in a Pressure Cooker

Years ago, Florida State’s head football coach, Bobby Bowden, was fielding questions from an audience of fans. Their team was enjoying a run of several years, being in the top five finishes. It was a good time to be in Tallahassee. An elderly woman near the front raised her hand and said, “Coach Bowden, I don’t have a question. I just want to tell you how much I love you. I hope you’re here forever.”

Coach Bowden replied, “Well, thank you, Ma’am, but what if we don’t do as well in the future? What if we begin losing more games? What then?”

The woman graciously smiled and said, “Coach Bowden, I will still love you.” Then she paused and added, “And we will all miss you, too.”

That pretty much sums up what it’s like to be a coach today.

We love you when you win. We’ll miss you if you don’t. Today’s intercollegiate athletic coach (and sometimes even high school coach) works within a pressure cooker. They feel they must win at all costs, and sometimes those costs are their personal health, their family, their ethics or their athletes’ emotional wellbeing. Frequently, it creates a very poor environment on the team. Players may have no idea the pressure their coach feels to produce victories. I have met more than one coach who confessed to me, “I am coaching out of fear.”

Under Pressure vs. Pressure Cookers

I want to differentiate between working under pressure and working in pressure. All great coaches do well under pressure. This scenario is what forges champions, and it produces winning attitudes, work ethic and tenacity. What human beings were not designed to endure is living in constant pressure. By this I mean pressure and stress that is so constant, so demanding that it distracts us from doing our job. Our positive emotions become negative emotions. Instead of making us dedicated leaders, we become distracted leaders. Our attention shifts from doing our job to just keeping our job. The sources of this pressure stem from several places:

1. NCAA Compliance Issues

The rules and boundaries by which coaches must adhere to seem to become more complex each year. It’s all for good reasons, but several division one athletic departments have a full-time staff person just to remain compliant. The rules aren’t bad, but it becomes taxing to remember all the harmless ways a coach might relate to a prospective player that are illegal now. Minimally, it can add to the pressure.

2. Fan Base Expectations

Today’s fans have become less forgiving in too many places. Certainly not every city, but frequently if a coach doesn’t win specific games or achieve a conference title, their job is on the line. They may assume it’s an ungracious athletic director, but often it’s really alumni and fans that reject anything but being the best. Several are living out their pipe dreams through their college team.

3. Over Functioning Parents

Part of the fear stems from a new generation of parents who are over-functioning at times and overbearing when it comes to controlling their child’s life. Even as an adult, the young athlete isn’t free to navigate college life. One coach relayed to me some of the texts he’d gotten from his recruits: “I’ve checked with my parents and they are OK with you contacting me directly…” Some parents move near the university to be close to their child and some even text the coach during practice. It’s crazy.

4. Today’s Sports Culture

The pressure to perform perfectly in today’s society demands your very soul. One coach recently spoke of her fears of losing her job, saying, “Any little thing can do it.” I have several friends who are coaches who were fired this year, and many would tell you they coached in consistent angst of losing their job. I know female coaches who said they feel the pressure to be super-coach, super-mom, super-wife, and super role-model all the time. It’s difficult to relax and enjoy the journey.

Solution: Remember Your Three Buckets

One of our new Habitudes® is called: “Three Buckets.” (Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes). It’s simply a reminder that every experience you have as a leader falls into one of three buckets. Placing experiences or people in the wrong bucket is the source of most of our problems. Let me describe them:

  • Bucket One: It is in my control.
  • Bucket Two: It is out of my control.
  • Bucket Three: It is within my influence.

Items that are in our control require us to assume responsibility. These items are up to us to make something happen—like practice times, strategy and good staff. We waste energy blaming others for our failure with this bucket. We must take initiative.

Items that are out of our control require us to trust the process. We waste time worrying about these items because we can’t do a thing to control them, such as weather conditions, injuries or who’s in our conference. This is where faith comes in.

Items that are within our influence require a combination of the first two buckets. We must do what we can to positively influence a recruit, or a parent, or the effort our players put out at practice, but after that, we must lay the outcomes aside.

You will not be the best version of yourself if you’re coaching in fear of the pressures I’ve spoken about in this article. Negative emotions rarely produce healthy winners. You’ll burn out or die trying. Your young athletes need a healthy role model who prioritizes their family, has a healthy set of emotions and who has margins to live life well. Let’s get this right.

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Coaching in a Pressure Cooker