When is it Time to Become Athlete Centered?

The Wrong Time to Develop an Athlete Centered Approach

Is it advisable to free up a player in an athlete centered approach, if you don’t have a well defined coaching philosophy?  In a word, no. What are the parameters?  Without a well defined coaching philosophy, then you have none. Without well defined limits to exactly how athlete centered you become, then there are no limits to player behavior.  It would be foolish to read onward as we take things up a level, and begin the process of placing planks of major structural pieces of coaching in place, until you have created your coaching foundation. Everything we have discussed up until this point in this blog, which will soon become a book, leads to where we are now, and it is necessary to have build foundational truths and principles, so that you can take note of when a player in building their own way of playing is violating any of them.  An example of this is a former player who seemed to want hit Federer’s Forehand, Nadal’s Backhand, Andy Roddick’s serve, until he decided that he should try Federer’s serve and Nadal’s forehand, etc.  He wanted to play like anyone but himself. I had expressed to this player over and over that he would be best advised to learn his own strokes, rather than imitate others. Since he was unwilling to discover his style within the parameters of the program, he found that he was not a good fit and he left. So, being athlete centered does not necessarily mean kowtowing to the whims of a player at any given moment. What it does mean is giving voice to a players dreams, goals, and maybe even their preferences.  But, how will you know if a player is a good fit with your program if you don’t have a program?  How will you redirect them in their stated desires if what they want exceeds the parameters of the program?  Without the necessary grounding, to be able to be a rock solid influence in the work of a player in developing their own foundational work in how they want to play, there are no boundaries.

So, if you have not started with us on “Why You Don’t Need a Coaching Philosophy.” Either stop now and go there, or finish this article and go to that article next.

Big Decisions, Then Smaller Decisions

As with most things, making the big decisions first, helps guide the smaller decisions. The biggest decisions have to do with the major principles of a coaching philosophy. The next biggest decisions have to do with fitting inside the school, club, or facility culture, followed by what are the overarching long term goals of the program, then by the goals and objectives for this year that fall in line with the larger goals.

Now, in a team context, the first thing that needs to happen is for the team to decide exactly what does the team mission look like. As you saw in a previous article there are times a coach influences that, but mainly its the job of the players themselves to express how high of a goal to pursue. As a coach, it’s easy to have a challenging goal for yourself, but does the team buy into that?  Styrling and I have had a range of teams that are motivated to simply improve and not be so easy to beat, to try to win one match, teams that want to rise in the standings, groups that want to win championships, and those that want to win prestigious titles.  Some teams are full of players who just want to have fun.  What do you do there?  Well, your coaching philosophy will guide you there, but without one, then you or I would be rudderless, directionless, unable to steer those players.  I have my pillars of my coaching philosophy which I won’t share here, because I don’t want to give a false sense of completeness to this article. Instead I want to twist the knife and challenge coaches without a coaching philosophy to work theirs out first.

Failure to Prepare is Preparing to Fail

I realize this could be a painful thing to read, but now after all the prep work, lets get on with athlete centered coaching. Now, that I have developed my philosophy, I have something authentic to offer my players. Authority and authenticity, come from authoring the basic principles what are uniquely you as a coach and a program.  Authentic people are attracted to other authentic people, and they don’t always have to agree, but it sure helps when everyone agrees on the fundamentals of an athlete centered program.

From the beginning of my relationship with any individual player, I offer them this question: Of parents, coach, and player, who is the decision maker?  Almost always the youngster answers that the parent, or coach is the decision maker.  When I let them know that neither of those answers is correct, then they usually guess the other one.  When, by process of elimination, they come to the discover that they, the player, are the decision maker, they get a look of wonder, and empowerment. It truly is amazing that 99% of the time players guess wrong on this. Allowing the player to be the decision maker represents a paradigm shift in coaching. In a recent discussion with Izabela Lundberg who does coaching and consulting around the world, she found that the vast majority of athletes are dissatisfied with their training conditions. I would venture that one major piece of that is the relationship and power structure of the coaching. What is the coach’s ideal role?

The next question I ask the player is: Who is the expert consultant?  The player almost immediately says, “You!”, and I smile a knowing smile and say, “That was quick!”.

The amusing part now comes, when I ask the player “Who gives the final approval?”. Many times say “Me”, then “You”, then they give a look of dread, reluctant acceptance, being caught, or the small shame of not knowing that their parents really give final approval.  I say, “If they don’t approve of what is happening here, then its over!  So, whatever we do here better be worthwhile.”  But what happen’s next is what determines if we even have a chance to develop a balanced relationship.

After this first lesson, we go to the parents and I tell them what we talked about, that the player is the decision maker. Then I study the face of the parent. The reactions range from total affirmation, surprise, reluctant acceptance, to disapproval. When I share that the player decided that I am the expert consultant, the same range of emotions can be seen in the parent. When I share with them that they, the parents, give final approval, the same range of emotions are present, but for some there is relief that they still have a measure of control.

What I find shocking is that for some player’s parents this conversation is not acceptable.  Some parents want to play two or all three of those roles, and they either don’t want their child to be empowered to be a decision maker. They also don’t want the coach to be empowered as the expert consultant.  So with those families, I usually never see them again. Good riddance, or maybe ‘good luck finding a better fit’ as trying to get anything done with them would be a waste of time. Which, of course, does not bode well for the time when these players will join a team, because they are not team players, as taught by their parents.

Building the Bigger Picture: Creating Cohesion with Proper Motivation

The above background can be quite helpful to a coach who can start to see more about the ongoing battle of having their players participate in a cohesive group.  Truly winning the battle of hearts and minds is a big part of that.

To make this more applicable to high school coaching, its good also to find an entry point to develop a trusting relationship with players. Early in a season, I may discuss with my players the general stages in the motivational development of a teenager and a fully mature adult.  Ultimately, I want my players to be motivated to play and compete for their own enjoyment. In fact, just today a player said, “I just want to have fun.”, to which I responded, “Yes, I hear you and my job is to help you improve so much that you have even more fun playing the game, and I am never going to give up on that.” In contrast, many teenagers are still in a space of being extrinsically motivated.  They find motivation in the approval of others, and in gaining tangible rewards for a job well done. To these players, I make a blanket statement, while not specifically calling anyone to attention. I say to the group, “If you want play to please me, you can, but know this: As long as you give 100% effort, I am always pleased. The rest you can learn.”  Players will test this, they will try to find if they can disappoint me, and lose my approval.  When I prove to them that they can’t, then they normally stop trying to do that, moving in a more positive direction. When my players get to the place of playing for their own enjoyment and success, that’s when they have achieved the height of the athlete centered approach. Of course, all of this occurs within the principles and foundation set by my coaching philosophy, because without that, there is nothing solid to build upon.

Coaching with a Growth Mindset for Future Equality

A large part of my coaching philosophy is that I treat my players as near equals, I treat them in the way I want them to be. A major part of treating my players with this respect is that I trust them to learn the lessons that come with being a smart tennis player.  I can see that they appreciate that, many of them, while, of course, there are a few who don’t reach that level quickly, or don’t appreciate it. Even so, winning the hearts of minds of the majority of my players so that they can play their own match is very satisfying.  One of the rewards is when the players get to a place where they play so well, that you can simply watch them play.  As John Wooden said, “If I have to coach them during the game, then I haven’t done my job.” That statement is one of the pinnacles of a high level coaching, which I have experienced only a few times in my career.  One of those was in a match against a close and bitter rival team, where theoretically that team had a chance to beat my group.  On that day, my players were so empowered to play their game, and they played so well, I barely felt it necessary to talk with them as they dismantled the second place team 7-0.  Again, that would not have been possible without first having a well developed coaching philosophy, teaching it to my players, then freeing them up to play as they wish within those parameters.  It’s my greatest joy in coaching, I hope you experience it.

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