It’s a common narrative you see with coaches who are struggling, especially coaches who have been around for a few years. You hear questions about whether or not he can “relate” to his players anymore.
Connecting with your players is certainly important, but it’s more than just being active on social media or having a conversation about Kendrick Lamar. I don’t really think age has much to do with it. To get the most out of any team, you need to be connected with them as people. I think there are certain ways to go about it.
Listen To Them
Telling your team exactly how to act 24/7 is a good way of putting up a stone wall between you and them. I’d imagine that many of the older coaches who fall into the “can’t relate to them anymore” category are those used to telling the kids exactly what to do and expecting them to do it. While you may get kids to do what they are told, you aren’t likely to get the highest level of buy-in out of them.
Asking questions of your team is a great way to understand where they are coming from. And you can’t run from the information. You can’t just decide “well, they’re kids, they don’t know any better,” and dismiss what they tell you. You actually have to listen. It doesn’t mean you have to do what they want or that they are running the show. But listening to them shows them a level of respect, and it shows them that you care. I’m pretty sure they know who is in charge.
Learning more about your team is a great way to develop trust and a true connection. Listening to them is a great way to learn, and show them you care about more than what they do in the gym.
Know What You Don’t Know
I’ve had great relationships with players over the years who come from very different backgrounds than I do. One of the keys to that is not trying to act like I know where they are coming from. It’s one thing to hear them, it’s another thing to tell them you know what they are going through.
It’s hard to come off as authentic if you really don’t know their situation. Resist the urge to tell them you have all the answers. You aren’t supposed to have the answers, but you are supposed to help them handle their situation and find a way to be successful. I’ve seen many players lose respect for coaches because they tried to act like they were on the same level when it came to adversity or challenges that the player was facing.
In fact, I’ve found it really impactful to tell them I don’t know what they are going through. To talk about my own experience and make it clear I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to handle that situation. At that point, they know you are being real with them, and they’ll start to respect and trust you.
The days of “My way or the highway” are long gone. I don’t think the kids are different these days, but so much around them is different. Their access to information is different. What they expect is different. If you expect them to just blindly do what you tell the to do, they are going to shut you out.
You can be flexible without changing your core principles. A great challenge of leadership is to stand firm on what’s non-negotiable but be flexible when things need to change. Leadership is highly contextual, and you have to be able to adapt. You’ll have new personalities, different levels of talent and experience year after year. You have to fit your approach to get the most out of the players on your current team.
Flexibility allows you to connect because it shows your team you are willing to work with them. When things need to change, it isn’t always you telling them what has to happen. Don’t get stuck in your ways. Stay willing to look at a different approach.
Tell Them The Truth
Your players want to hear the truth. Good or bad, they want the straight truth. They may not always like it, but they’ll definitely respect it. I can’t tell how often I’ve heard from players that the reason they loved playing for a coach was because they knew he was always going to be straight with them. But so many coaches are insecure, so it’s not easy for them to be direct and honest.
Don’t ever tell your team one thing and do another. If you make mistake, own up to it immediately. When they come and ask you a question about playing time, give them a straight answer. Don’t dance around the issues. They will see right through you. Make sure you are prepared and decisive.
It sounds pretty simple, but for some reason it really isn’t. So many coaches refuse to be direct for fear of painting themselves in a corner. The most important thing you kids relate to is the truth.
The most important thing you can do physically for your players is make them better. Get on the floor with them and show them how to become better players. Sweat equity is a great way to connect.
Players really respect coaches who are in the gym with them, teaching them stuff they can use to improve. As the head coach it’s still important to do it. Don’t let your assistants do all of the workouts. Take the time to set up intentional individual development plans with each one of your players, and get in the gym with them and put in the work. Players will buy-in to anyone who makes them better.
Give them the space to be themselves. Don’t feel like to connect with them you have to hang out with them during their free time. Let them play the music loud in the locker room. Let them talk on the back of the bus, and watch the movies they want to watch.
Trying too hard to connect is probably the worst way to actually try and connect. I remember hearing John Calipari talking about recruiting, and he said he’d tell the kids “Look, I’m allowed to call you once a week. But I’m offering you a scholarship. I’m 59 years old. You are 17. What are we going to talk about every week?” I thought that was pretty smart, and pretty real.
You can spend time with them off the court and talk about things away from basketball – I do think that is important. But don’t overdo it trying to hard to connect. Give them some space to be themselves.