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A Backbone of Humility

What do I do when my athletes don't want to play for me?

This is a common question that might be becoming even more common in today's society of transfer portals. We want our athletes to enjoy playing for us, but that is hard to do when part of your role is making them feel comfortable being uncomfortable.

Former pro and college football coach, Leeman Bennett, once said, “A coach is someone who makes you do what you don't want to do, so you can be who you've always wanted to be.”

Pushing your athletes, holding them accountable, and keeping them happy, hopeful, and engaged can be a tricky balance to find. But how do we do it effectively?

I recently attended a Human Resource training for educators that presented tools on how to retain teachers. They gave us 4 effective tips that coaches can also use to retain athletes:

1 - Understand What They Want

We want to win, and we want our athletes to become the best they can be. We hope that these are their main goals as well, but our athletes have many different reasons for why they play. Some want to win, but some just want to be a part of something. Some play because their friends play. Some play because their parents make them play. People become unhappy when there is a gap between their expectations and their experience, and we create those gaps when we make decisions for people without knowing what they really want.

Ask your athletes, "Why do you play?" and, "What do you hope to gain from this experience?"

This doesn't have to change your why or purpose, but it could help you better connect with and motivate your athletes.

2 - Understand What You Have to Offer

Know what your strengths are, and know what the strengths of your team and program are. Know what you are good at, and know what you can provide that no other coach can provide. If you have the tools to help an athlete get to the next level, capitalize on that. If you have strong relational tools, use them. The happiest and most engaged people do what they do best every day. They focus on their strengths. Know what your strengths are and use them!

3 - Define the Value They Get From Playing For You

Why should an athlete choose to play for you? Why should an athlete choose to play on your team? Why should people choose to play sports? Know and communicate why they should be on your team and why you should be their coach. Communicate what they are going to get from you, and why they should stay on your team. When you know what they want and what you have to offer, you can better communicate why they should choose you, choose your team, and stay on your team.

4 - Deliver on the Experience

Treat your athletes like they are customers because they can choose to play for you or choose to not play for you. This doesn't mean you have to cater to their every need - you have a job to do, and you have to motivate them, inspire them, and hold them accountable. Being great requires getting out of your comfort zone, and that is not easy for any athlete. Being great requires us to push them, and they won't always like that - and that is okay. But understand that their time with you is a part of their life experience, so deliver a good, meaningful, enjoyable experience.

A Backbone of Humility

Doing some of these things might take some vulnerability. It will require you to open up to young people in a way that you might not have done before. It will require you to admit that you don't have every answer to every question or problem. It will require reflecting on who you are and what you do. It might require some serious changes in how you lead, communicate, and interact with your athletes and their families. That is why being an effective leader requires having a backbone of humility.

Work hard and hold people accountable, but be humble and patient with people. When we think of strong leaders, we often think about people who know things that we don't know, who see things that we don't see, and who always know what to say and do.

But effective leaders and coaches in today's society know that the real power is not in any one individual, but is in how a leader can support their team. The best leaders don't have to walk around like they have it all figured out. The best leaders are curious. They are searching for opportunities to learn, grow, and improve.

The world we live in is a learning contest. How much can we learn and apply? Blow people away with your curiosity and your desire to learn. Be someone who connects with others, and coach and lead by aligning your personal interests with the interests of your athletes and the overall goals for the team. Then work together, not for or against each other, in the same direction, holding each other accountable when needed and celebrating each other's successes whenever possible.

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