Research and Development

By Dan Bauer

Through the grapevine, where many perceptions flourish, I was recently told that some of my articles were hypocritical. The critic, who had coached against me decades ago, said my philosophies didn’t resemble in any way shape or form what he had observed. Throughout my long and winding coaching journey I have changed quite dramatically from where I began. Growth as a coach is essential and I won’t run away from my unsavory past behaviors because they have been crucial in my development into transformational coach.

As a first dimension coach in my younger days I, like most everyone in that time, focused almost exclusively on developing physical skills. It is still where most of us put the majority of our time and effort. We identify player’s strengths and weaknesses and then assign them seats on the hypothetical bus. Each seat comes with a specific defined role on the team. When the bus is crowded, not everyone will be happy with their seat. Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls said, “Sometimes a player’s greatest challenge is coming to grips with his role on the team.”

My initial criterion for assigning roles was based almost solely on physical skills and characteristics. It is painful to admit that I made a very regrettable decision regarding a young man, who I considered to be out of shape. When he couldn’t meet my first dimension standards and I felt he couldn’t help us win games, I made it so miserable for him that he eventually quit the team. It was the way I had often been coached and was the accepted norm. Coaches were tough, demanding and quite frankly very often unreasonable. It was a different time and place in coaching history, but I will always blame myself for not knowing better.

It is an awful feeling when I dig deep into that buried memory and resurrect that story. Regrettably, I did not step into the lives of my athletes back then and it wasn’t until many years later that I discovered this young man’s family was going through a divorce. At a time when he needed to fill a void in his life, I turned my back on him and created another. The added weight of that knowledge has driven that memory to the darkest depths of my mind.

When we become so focused on what a player can do for us and the team, we can be blinded by the real reason why some athletes choose to be a part of our team. Sometimes they need the team more than the team needs them. This is especially true when the goal to win becomes more important than doing the right thing. Not all of the players that come to us are there because of their competitive desire to win or their love of the game. Some are there because of their friends, some because they crave a place to belong and some searching for someone to believe in them. They don’t always come with the mental and physical abilities to contribute to the team in a meaningful way. Some are properly wired and have great support systems at home. Others bring baggage that requires lots of attention, support and confidence building. It is the reason why it is so important to excavate into your player’s lives try to understand who they really are. Once you’ve done your research you will have a picture of what makes them tick and what makes them stop ticking. It is then that you can begin to find their seat on the bus.

Unfortunately my bus back then had limited seating and only one destination – winning.

Player’s acceptance of their role begins with defining what it is and excelling at their role comes from your appreciation and recognition of it. Convincing every player that their role is essential to the team’s success is a challenge most psychologists would run from. Developing and retaining role players is part of the formula for any successful team. It has become more problematic today as well-meaning parents try to bubble wrap their children from adversity. Role realization and acceptance sometimes requires hard and truthful conversations. I have always made it clear that accepting your role doesn’t mean that it cannot change, but that is dependent upon you demonstrating you can excel at it. The great Pat Summitt observed, “Role playing is uncomfortable, especially for people who are competitive.”  It is important that they know what you value and what they can do to increase their role. When a player asks “what can I do to improve my role?” you must have a specific, realistic answer. Every player should have a short list of things they need to improve upon.

Convincing the tenth player on the basketball bench, the fourth liner in hockey or third stringer in football that they are a valuable member of the team will require your best salesmanship. Not because it isn’t true, but because it is a process that includes practicing, learning from those in front of you and building confidence at the level you belong. Michael Jordan is the prime example as he used his junior varsity assignment as a sophomore as motivation and the confidence building springboard to his future stardom. This process can be grueling and its value can easily get lost in the optics of the depth chart. You will need extraordinary patience with younger players who become frustrated and feel they are being unfairly treated. This is where your role as a leader will be tested.

Your best intentions to create, define and reward a player’s role can be flattened like a blindside hit on a quarterback by parents who have unrealistic expectations for their athlete. Most players consistently know where they fit in the team pecking order and when the expectations between athlete and parent don’t align there will be trouble ahead. Mixed messages put players in a no win situation. It is another example of the skewed partisan vision that some parents cannot escape.  Coaching Guru Bruce Brown encourages his parents and athletes to sit down prior to the season and discuss the role and expectations for the season ahead. Because it will ultimately come back to playing time, it is a conversation I would strongly urge you to require from your parents. It is a preemptive strategy that can help eliminate future problems.

At some point we have all probably asked, “Why is this kid even here?” That is exactly the time when your role is more important than finding the player’s role. Don’t give up on them, keep digging deeper, to find their why. When players quit, what they find next seldom has the character building potential of the athletic experience. I believe if you create the right culture you can connect with virtually any athlete and get them on board. As we piece together the role puzzle of our teams we must never forget the real purpose and value of the athletic endeavor. This can be the greatest learning experience of their life, or maybe their last involvement in athletics. You have the ability to significantly influence that result.

Personal player research leads to specific individual development plans and properly assigned roles. Paraphrasing Good to Great author Jim Collins, if we get the right people on the bus, and in the right seats, we will figure out how to take it someplace great.

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at drbauer13@gmail.com

1 thought on “Research and Development”

  1. In coaching, it’s typical to focus on developing the physical skills of athletes. After all, it boils down to athletes being able to perform on a high level to get the results. However, there should be other areas of focus that a coach should focus on. I like to also focus on the drive, discipline, and determination of the athlete. That is simply a measuring stick to see how that particular athlete is built mentally.

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