Coaching is all about REALTIONSHIPS

I recently spoke with a coach who expressed concern that he didn't have the teams undivided attention as it concerned soccer.  Tom related although the boys were attentive while he addressed them a couple seemed to take the first opportunity to consult with their parents about what was just discussed.  Tom went on to tell how he first noticed this during a match when after the half time discussion a player turned to his father in the stands behind the bench and asked for input - both for himself and his team.

This is a tough one.

I'm not sure I have a standard answer ... or remedy... to offer on this subject.  Instinct tells me to return to asking questions. And again, the most important question is probably going to be "why?" 

I have seen this happen before.  Most recently this past fall with my son, Lance.  His high school program had long since lost energy and momentum as a legendary coach hung on far too long. It was with excited anticipation that Lance embraced the new coach.  I watched that excitement lose its luster and fade quickly as Lance realized he knew more about the formation and system of play the new coach was implementing than the new coach himself did.  As the season wore on, Lance began turning to me, in the stands, looking for ... I'm not entirely sure.  Support, I suppose.

I was myself very uncomfortable with Lance, in full view of coaches, parents, teammates turning to me in the stands.  To begin with, I simply gave a thumbs up and clapped my hands in encouragement.  These were delaying tactics on my part. I don't think I fooled anyone, especially Lance.  There came a point in time when Lance did not hide his disdain or frustration any more and simply asked out loud after the coach's half time discussion what he and his team needed to do.

Well, that certainly put me on the spot. 

It also was a clear single that the coach had lost, if not the team, then certainly its best player.

(We later discussed this situation in private as a family and modified behavior accordingly.)

Now, I am unsure of the exact circumstances surrounding Tom's situation, but it sounded to me like certain players, if not the entire team, had lost confidence in his abilities as a coach.  I know Tom to be more knowledgeable than the average high school coach. He's a bit inexperienced but is finding his way. Tom is very open to asking for help in seeking to improve his own abilities and those of his team.  So, where the disconnect with players / his team originated from, I am not sure.

I believe Lance's perspective in his own situation was basically two-fold.  First, he felt his coaches underestimated the team.  At one point early in the season Lance stated he felt they were being coached like a U12 team.  Secondly, Lance believed the coaches lack of experience in coaching the system they were installing hampered the teams ability to an extreme degree.  I would concur on this second concern.  The correct strategies were in evidence but the timing and rhythm in the execution of these were quite off.

Attempting to figure out how to advise Tom while these thoughts are caroming about my mind was difficult enough, but my mind also wandered back to my stint at LCC. That girls team was rolling and, I believe, on its way to playing for a state championship at Crew Stadium in Columbus.  Then the wheels fell off.

There were parents of a couple of players who did not want me coaching.  They did not like the hire. They did not like that I was brought back for a second year despite having guided the team to its first ever winning season and rewriting the school record book in both offensive and defensive categories.  That's ok.  In fact, it's part of coaching. Some like you as a coach. Some don't.

I "lost" two key members of that team who then openly and actively sabotaged the teams efforts.  Why did it come to this?  I put the programs interests first, the teams interests second and the interests of individual players third. The players in question were third and that resulted in bruised egos and hurt feelings. They, and one specific parent, made it a priority to win a battle not caring about losing the war.

I felt I could not allow this to become the situation with Lance and his team.  It was not an easy thing to do.  I could not simply support the coaching staff because Lance would know I was being disingenuous - after all, over the past three club seasons I had taught Lance (and several of his high school teammates) the formation and system his high school team were attempting to play.  My strategy as a parent was to cheer what was being done correctly - positive reinforcement.  Of course, this was avoidance of the issue - those simple things that needed to be corrected to achieve success on the field.  It's a helpless feeling.

Lance's coach lost the team. The team lost the season.  The coach took it out on Lance.  It was a disaster.  Somewhere between Lance's situation and the LCC situation lay the answer, imo.  In fact, I knew what the answer was - cut the players who did not buy-in to the coaches vision. 

After an in-season drinking party on the LCC practice field, several inappropriate pictures posted on social media and one player telling me to "go fuck yourself" I went to the athletic director to have the trouble makers removed.  This was a private Catholic school dependent on tuition and donations to survive.  I lost that battle due to fear the school would lose the student / athletes in question and the associated revenue.  The team lost an opportunity to play for a state championship.  Individual awards were lost or diminished.

Lance's approach was to stick it out and be the best captain on and off the field he could be.  Lance was moved from position to position as the coach attempted to "stick a finger in each new leak" that sprung open.  Lance went willingly along with this even while he knew this was not the proper way to address the teams issues. Unlike with the girls at LCC, there were no grounds for the coach to dismiss Lance other than possibly for seeking in-game advice from his father.  The season was lost.  The boys had a chance to win a league title, but ended with the worst season in decades at the school.  Lance was passed over for awards. It was a disaster.

That old coach who over stayed his welcome and usefulness?  He used to cut talented players in the preseason. I never understood why... until recently.  This is my advice Tom - if he knows a player / parent will be trouble, cut the player and move on.   This would have even worked in Lance's predicament. Lance would have moved and transferred schools. He might have had to sit out a few games but the happiness factor would have more than made up for that.  Instead, the rookie coach could not let go of his most talented player, but also could not fully embrace him. 

I believe coaching is ALL about building relationships.  That is what we are discussing in this article. Failed relationships to be exact.  Here's a secret, no coach has a perfect record in the area of coach / player or coach / parent relationships.  Coach / assistant coach relationships also fail. This is why it is necessary at times for coaches to cut talented players or fire competent assistants.  It can be a simple matter of addition by subtraction.  And this is not necessarily an indictment of player, parents, assistant coach or coach - it just means the fit was not right.  We have all seen the coach who moves on from one failure (Bill Belichick with the Browns moving to the Patriots) to success somewhere else or the underachieving player who changes teams and suddenly begins realizing his potential (David Oritz moving from Minnesota to the Boston).  Or in life, a first marriage ends in divorce, but a second marriage celebrates a 30 year anniversary. Not every relationship can be saved, nor should every relationship be saved. Sometimes the parties just need to go their own ways for the benefit of all.

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