Expanding Understanding of Athlete-Centered Coaching

Road Trip to See Dave and Adeline

I took a trip to Southern California to meet with a few people that I consider to have among the great mindsets for athlete centered coaching. I spent three days with Dave Borelli, who in 25 years of coaching won 18 Conference Titles and 7 NCAA National Championships. You can see videos from these talks soon when our course on Athlete-Centered Coaching is ready. The amazing thing to me, is how fluid the subject of athlete-centered coaching is when people first encounter the phrase. It seems that when people here the phrase it excites them, but they might not have heard it before, and when they do it fires up their imagination. Its fun to see the moments when players are quickly processing their interpretation of it. I imagine that the first thing about athlete-centered coaching as it pertains to how they feel as the athlete, then in turn, project that onto others. After a little more challenge, people necessarily have to consider that athlete centered coaching may mean something different to someone else. This brings the empathy back into play. Quite often we begin with what something means to us, then we tend to project it out on other people. When we listen and become more empathetic and understanding of other people’s mindsets, then we have a choice to adapt what we do for that person or not. Choosing to adapt is not always a great idea, but many times it is.

Adeline and Team Dynamics

When talking with Adeline Arjad-Cook, author of I Love My Doubles Partner, our talk was mostly about a coach knowing the relationships between players. An athlete-centered coach knows their team, and the dynamics that exist between players. They will know how to put the complimentary personalities together. Great coaches also cull players out of their personal comfort zone, and help them to play well with a partner with whom they initially might be uncomfortable. Maybe the partner is non communicative, or perhaps they are very abrupt or forceful in their style of interaction on court. Great coaches help players to branch out into a wider range of possibilities in their relationships. I know some doubles teams I have had, created some comedy because of the odd couple dynamic, but those teams found a way to succeed. Poor coaches accept a fixed mentality from their players, and have rigid guidelines. Great coaches foster a growth mentality, and the team grows closer together because of it.

My Team Ad-Nauseum?

I had a team that was made up of small groups of cliques, and they all seemed to get along fine, but each little group had different interests in terms of the outcomes for the team. Some players wanted desperately to succeed, others wanted to succeed, but were not very driven. A few girls wanted their own way, their own mind. This small group of girls would miss practices, come late, not practice with full intensity, lie to me, the coach, about their whereabouts and the like. When things finally came to a head, because trust was broken with me, and their was not much hope that two of these players would follow through on their promises, an intervention took place. I asked the team captains who had a strong drive to succeed to run a team only meeting. They did so, and in that time, those relationships amongs teammates were solidified, redirected to common goals and players learned to appreciate the drive of those who wanted to win, and were inspired. We had no further problems, and our team finished the season much stronger than in recent school history. The following year they won the section title, which was not something that the school had come close to achieving in school history for that team.

Back to Dave B.

Dave Borelli a great college coach of men and women, but mostly women’s teams spent time at USC and TCU. He would tell his players, “It’s not like we are much better than out opposition, but lets just act like we are better.” When I asked Dave to describe how his athlete centered coach helped cultivate these championship performances, he told me that there is no way he could give a simple answer or even answer that in an hours time. Bottom line it was the close relationships he had with each player that allowed him to know when to make a technical change, boost up their confidence, ask for more discipline, help a player through a tough time of life, etc. When players did not buy into his program, then he also faced some difficulty. As a college coach you recruit your players, but sometimes you get some unwelcome surprises. Dave is happy that he had great relationships with 99% of his players.

Bill’s Imagination

The image that keeps coming to my mind is a horse trainer and the keen sense of observation and the training of minute changes in behavior until maximum speed, balance, and maneauverability are achieved. Of course, people are not animals, but there is an element of knowing when to push, chide, wait, question, listen and all the other small activities that go into coaching a player for many hours over four years.
In each case the athlete centered coach is mindful and takes the time to know who they are dealing with, and helps them find a place in which they can succeed. There is also an element of not always being in control, but allowing the players to show leadership, developing stronger relationships amongst themselves. Sometimes the athlete centered coach is not present, not involved in something that they can’t help, only the players can help those things. I know that in every one of my most successful years as a coach, the captains on those teams were also good people. As you have seen in previous chapters, the captains can also make things more difficult for a coach to work on those relationships with the team at-large.

Engage, Disengage, Observe

To conclude, perhaps the most important aspect of being an athlete centered coach is learning when to move a relationship forward and closer, knowing when to stop, and knowing when to pull back, giving players room to establish their own identity on the team.

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