By Dan Bauer
With great power comes great responsibility. Most of us heard that for the first time when Uncle Ben lectured Peter Parker in the front seat of his car. Others cite Voltaire or Winston Churchill who said: The price of greatness is responsibility. As a blossoming Spiderman, Peter was just beginning to realize the power within him and the responsibility that would come with it.
I was a wet behind the ears freshman baseball coach when a player came up to me and told me he had a sore arm. Sarcastically, I replied that he probably tore his rotator cuff, chuckled and walked away. When the same young man missed practice the next day, I asked where he was. His teammates informed he was at the doctor because he thought he tore his rotator cuff. It was then that I got my first glimpse of the power my words had as a coach.
Power is best served by those who possess great character. And because sports build character, it should be a perfect match, right? However, somehow along the way sports have not just magically built character. In fact when we look at the most wanted lineup of professional athletes, we see a disturbing amount of cheating, domestic abuse, drugs and other criminal behavior.
So what went wrong? Like Spiderman and his Marvel Universe colleagues, power can be used for good or evil. The sports universe doesn’t automatically build character, but coaches who use their power for good do. In fact being an athlete will constantly test your character. Knowledgeable coaches, like those who take the 3DI journey, use the fire of competition to forge athletes of high character. When we see the big picture and realize our job is so much more than wins and losses, we are able to use our power for good.
Like Spiderman and his Marvel Universe colleagues, power can be used for good or evil. The sports universe doesn’t automatically build character, but coaches who use their power for good do.Click to tweet
Conversely poor coaching respects only athleticism and disregards character building in favor an insatiable desire to win at all costs. Athletes learn that what they do in the field of battle is what matters most. For decades I have witnessed coaches making excuses, rationalizing poor behavior and sweeping misconduct under the rug so their top players can keep playing. The message is clear that their athletic prowess is more important than their character development. Indiscretions and law-breaking outside the competitive arena will be tolerated, defended or simply ignored.
As coaches, we wield this power of good or evil.
When my twin daughters went off to college I got another lesson in the power of the coach. Each phone call I made inquiring about their new academic challenges was filled with one word answers like ok, boring and fine. Their lack of enthusiasm was stunning. That changed dramatically after they had their first hockey team meeting. Suddenly I couldn’t get in a word as they rattled on about how tough it was going to be, fear that they might get cut, and the coach seemed like a bit of a tyrant. Not one of their academic classes had touched a nerve like the words of their coach.
That scenario is played every day when your players go home. Somebody will always be upset, excited or unsure about something you had to say. The translation is where the message can often get misinterpreted. Your words matter and are always subject to the scrutiny of many different perspectives. This is especially important when things go awry, benching players, tough losses or difficult decisions regarding playing time. The first question asked by most parents is, “What did the coach say?” Your words matter.
The first question asked by most parents is, “What did the coach say?” Your words matter.Click to tweet
Building confidence in your players and your team can be one of your most difficult challenges. It requires an attitude of enthusiasm and a stream of positive feedback. When winning or losing dictates your emotions, each season can become an exhausting roller coaster. Coaches who have discovered and implemented the framework of 3DI don’t use the scoreboard to measure success. They are process oriented and set goals related to effort, improvement, team unity and building character. It provides a steady baseline that eliminates the overconfidence of the highs and the apathy of the lows.
Positive feedback is an absolutely essential component in using your power for good. It demonstrates your belief in a player and can spur their inner confidence. I recall a goaltender, who for three years had been quite a successful back up, but had only a few minutes of varsity experience. As a senior he had earned the right to start our first game, even though we had a transfer move in who had shown a great deal of promise. As he left the lockeroom the night before his first varsity start, I pulled him aside and told him that he was ready for this moment, that I believed in him and that he would be facing many of the same players he had faced in junior varsity games. He went out the next day and earned his first varsity win and shutout. He established himself as our number one goalie and never looked back.
Following the season, he pulled me aside and told me how nervous and unsure he was as that first varsity start was approaching. He said my words of support and confidence in him the night before made all the difference in the world and thanked me for believing in him. My last minute intervention wasn’t planned, but I am glad something inside me decided to speak up. We never know when something we say is going to impact a player, either positively or negatively. It is a power we must always be cognizant of and administer wisely.
We never know when something we say is going to impact a player, either positively or negatively. It is a power we must always be cognizant of and administer wisely.Click to tweet
There is no question that Spiderman has chosen to use his power for good. In the real world of coaching we have to make a similar choice and the consequences of that choice are significant. The web you weave through your words and actions can be one of character growth and achievement, or it can create narcissistic and entitled individuals that will inevitably give athletics another black eye.
Few would argue that coaches are superheroes, but in the eyes of the players looking to us every day, we do possess improbable power. We aren’t faster than a speeding bullet and can’t climb tall buildings or possess x-ray vision, but we can significantly influence our players by providing a positive and life changing experience through athletics.
With all due respect to the Marvel Universe, I‘ll stick with coaching.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org