Listening on Purpose for Purpose

“All behavior is purposeful.” Dr. William Glasser

Coach E had a purpose.  Her purpose was two-fold. She wanted to do what was best for the team, and she wanted to do what was best for her son. How can we measure the ratio between the two?  We can’t. Coach E was an assistant coach for a team that she had been an assistant during which time her son was on the team.  She is also an assertive communicator without a huge ego. She also came along and to be assistant on the girl’s team for which she had been head coach, but stepped into a lesser role to make room for the coach which she played a role in recruiting to the school. That coach was me, Bill Patton. Given the depth of involvement from Coach E in years past, far be it from me to deny her the opportunity to stay involved, even though I really prefer to coach on my own.

The previous year, my first at the school Coach E’s son,K, had struggled with injury, and his attempts to challenge for a singles spot on the ladder were cut short. As a part of my coaching philosophy, I want players to know their role on the team fairly early in the season. I also manage the challenge ladder, so that if a player has improved, they can have an opportunity to challenge, but only at a time that works within the overall plan of the season.  Over time, coach, parent and player came to an understanding that they best way to manage K’s injury was for him to play almost exclusively doubles, until he was fully healthy.  He played through injury the entire season, and yet with the help of a dynamic partner was on the winning end and almost an automatic win in the line up.

Flash forward to the moment early in the following season, when Coach E made the assertion that K should be granted a full opportunity in the new year to challenge for a singles spot. It was the beginning of practice, but I had already done my homework. I had asked K more than once if he wanted to challenge for singles spot, he went back and forth before deciding he was happy playing doubles. Oddly enough, when I did not acquiesce to Coach E’s assertion, she became upset and spent most of the rest of practice as far from me as possible.  In my denial of the assertion, I mentioned that K himself had said he wanted to play doubles. It didn’t take long for everything to return to normal and there were not a lot of hurt feelings, but I can imagine that things may have been quite different if I had not been assertive myself.  If I had been passive, then I would have had to take her assertion into close consideration, and most likely be obliged to offer a challenge match.

This first story serves to introduce the topic of communication styles, taking into account different states of people’s ego boundaries to understand the complexity of how to best listen.

In truly listening, we need to take into account our purposes, and the purposes of those we are talking with at any given time. Coach E, I could count on her to be sincere, and I don’t know to what level she was self aware of her strong advocacy for her son, or to what level she trusted me to do what was right not only for the team, but for her son.  Had I not really heard her out and allowed her to speak her mind, things would have been much more difficult.  If I had not proactively addressed her son about the situation prior to this talk, I would not have been fore-armed to deal properly with the situation. Two weeks ago, in our blog, we talked a lot about how the first answer should almost always be NO. Even so, the amount of listening and the value of the message and messenger should remain very high.

The amount of damage that is done when coaches seem to rule with an iron fist and do not consider the feedback, suggestions, crazy ideas, and complete trash that comes our way on a weekly basis is quite significant.  Real listening means listening carefully to the words, and working to discern the motives and understand the people. As it turned out, Coach E who quite often had suggestions for lineup changes that were shot down by me 98% of the time, made the suggestion ahead of tournament play that was a stroke of genius. In part her contribution lead to fairly miraculous sectional championship by our #3 seeded team that would need to beat #2 and #1 in the same day in 97 degree heat.  Coach E, by virtue of her constant commitment to leave nothing on the table, and my commitment to listen to her, and finally when everything lined up, this collaboration lead to an experience for young people that they will never forget. The previous year, her advocacy for a certain player saw him gain varsity status, and that player was pivotal in another upset of a #1 seeded team. It would have been a grave error on my part to completely shut her down. Additionally, influenced by her willingness to shuffle lineups, I was able to recognize an opportunity with our girls team to have two different lineups that would create great match ups with different opponents. Completely legal, it lead to a bit of element of surprise that also helped us to gain an advantage, and as a #10 seed to beat a #2 seed, and for that team to win section title the following year.

When dealing with players, it’s almost universal that a teenager is not going to be very happy if their idea is not accepted. Adults might be slightly better at accepting this. No matter who we are listening to, whether or not we accept and put their idea into play immediately, it’s almost always a great idea to follow up with a conversation later that says, “I did hear you and I am considering what you said.”  That kind of listening is so incredibly rare, that you and I can gain a considerable amount of relationship capital with our players when we do this.

Styrling and I were discussing this today, and we sometimes encounter players or parents who want to do us ‘favors’, but then its quite clear that there is some kind of catch. Be careful to clear up any potential expectations.  I often like to joke, ‘This is really wonderful what you are doing, but I think your daughter is still going to have to compete for her spot on the ladder. Haha, just so we are clear.’  ‘Wow, these things you do for the program are awesome, It would be tempting to show some kind of favoritism, but that would be wrong.’  ‘I owe you are really big thank you at the end of the season, because I think thats the only way I would ever be able to repay you.’

It’s also great to listen and acknowledge those who offer suggestions, feedback, and information expecting nothing in return.  These are the kind of people that we really want to reward, those are the ones for whom the work is all worthwhile. I once met a parent who came to visit one of our matches, and he was asking me hypothetical questions about what it would be like for a player to play in our program.  The next year his son transferred from a private school that played in another league, into our program which was completely legal and not at all solicited by me.  Did I recruit him? No! Now I had to be quite clear with that parent that where he and his son decide to go to school has no bearing on how this program is run. Setting that expectation turned out to be quite helpful.  The parent in question who was friends with the superintendent of the school district brought him by to see the deplorable and unsafe conditions of our courts, and shortly the district put up the money for our courts to be resurfaced. At the conclusion of pulling major strings for the good of the program, that parent stayed quietly in the background never looking for any kind of payback.  His son was a bit of a thorn in my side, but even though he was rambunctious, he brought a certain bravado that was the missing ingredient that helped boost the team to its first championship in 26 years.

Players may make commitments to do certain things, but then their actions may tell a completely different story. This brings us back to ‘all behavior is purposeful’.  “What you are doing talks so loud, I can’t hear what you are saying”.  I had a team that was not only a last place team, but in the years prior to my taking over the program they had not won a league match in 6 years.  We would talk about commitment, and being present every day, working hard to improve, but their always seemed to be a player or two who had an excuse for missing practice.  We would talk about it, players would commit, and the same thing would happen.  One day over half the team was missing.  I asked my captain, “Where is my team?”  “The chemistry teacher said there was a special lab to help with the upcoming test, they are all there.”   So I was making my way to the chemistry lab.  After the lab, the girls saw me coming toward them and they were scared and caught, before they could go home.  I asked them, “What does this do to our relationship?  Do you know how it feels when I am here to help you and you don’t even show the courtesy of letting me know where you are?”   As they were near tears, I asked them if they would commit to being at practice.  I knew that I was manipulating them, but at that moment, I had to do something to meet them where they were.  Their actions were speaking so loudly, I had to listen to what they were telling me, so that I could address it.  In a few weeks time, that team won their first match, breaking a 71 match losing streak, and our team captains and myself were interviewed on local TV.  It was quite a thrill.

There are factors in people’s personalities, and the way they choose to communicate that can help guide you as a coach on how to deal with them. People can be aggressive, assertive, passive-aggressive, passive or a mix of different styles in the way they communicate.  Sometimes this has to do with their ego-boundaries.  People with normal healthy ego boundaries are generally assertive, and sometimes passive in their communication. They wont stand to be abused by aggressive communicators forever, and they will call someone on their passive aggressive communication. With a healthy ego, sometimes being passive makes sense at the moment, because a short period of putting up with a bit of bad behavior is better than starting a full blown conflict.  At other times the conflict must be taken head on. People with stronger outsized ego boundaries tend not to understand where they stop and other people begin. These people can be aggressive, but they also can be passive-aggressive.  The aggressive communicator many times is giving orders, sharing opinions, and placing expectations on then people around them. People with weak ego boundaries tend to be passive-aggressive communicators and can express some hostility, resistance, or rebellion in their actions, but in their speech they feign passivity. Interestingly enough aggressive people people overly large egos, tend to be found with passive people with very little ego strength, as the one serves to have enough ego for the two of them. Weak ego boundary people are many times attracted to much stronger egos, so as to be absorbed. Passive aggressive people drive me nuts, because its so difficult to really talk about what is happening, as many times they will deny having any negative experiences or feeling any conflict.

Whichever style you are dealing with, consider again, ‘All behavior is purposeful’.  Why are they acting in this manner?  What do they hope to achieve?  Can we help them to really ask for what they want, and otherwise express that in a clear concise and respectful way?  What I have found to be most empowering and to ease the communication with any group, is to praise those who make attempts at proactive, assertive communication, and sometimes make it a lesson for the other players on how this is done.  It could be a major mistake to attempt to turn an interaction with a parent into a lesson.

When we listen to our players, parents, and coaches, its wise to consider these factors in how they communicate and what it says about their style. There can be ways to manage people according to their style, but Styrling and I strongly encourage teaching the players to have an appropriate amount of ego strength, and to be assertive communicators at the right time.

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