Can you be demanding as a coach while also showing empathy to your players?

It’s a great challenge for any head coach. When I was the head coach at Maine I learned to coach with empathy. I took over a program that was in a terrible place, and as I set about changing the culture, I gradually learned that many of the players I was coaching couldn’t handle what I was asking of them. They didn’t have a bad attitude and they weren’t resisting the new approach. What I was asking them to do was very different for them, and many of them simply couldn’t do it.

I was always very demanding on my players and I never lowered our standards. I started out very rigid, dead-set on establishing a new culture and making sure the players knew what to expect. But it was harder to get buy-in from everyone right away, not because they didn’t believe in what we were trying to do, but because they couldn’t do it.

We had a timed sprint that we used to run as a team known as “11 in a minute.” The team had 60 seconds to finish 11 lengths of the floor in a dead sprint. It wasn’t easy to complete, especially after practice. It took a high level of conditioning and mental toughness to get it done. But most college basketball players who are in decent shape should be able to do it. My teams at Rhode Island College did it. When I was in college at Hamilton, I did it.

When our guys at Maine couldn’t do it, I saw it as a form of resistance. I didn’t expect them to get it right away, but after time and working on our conditioning we still weren’t making the time. I thought they just weren’t willing to compete, weren’t very mentally tough. But over time I realized some of them just simply couldn’t do it. They were slow, they weren’t in great shape, and they had never been asked to do anything that hard in their lives. They weren’t fighting me on doing stuff that was hard. Many of them were giving their maximum effort. They just couldn’t make it.

I learned that coaching with empathy was really important, and not just with a group that was struggling to meet the minimum standards. If you really get to know your players individually you can accurately evaluate what they are capable of and what they are giving you. When you let them know that what you are asking of them is very hard, and that you are proud of their effort, they will continue to give you everything they have. You can push them constantly while staying on their side.

Coaching with empathy does not mean lowering your standards. Most of those guys who couldn’t make the time didn’t last at Maine, because they just weren’t capable. You can coach with empathy and be demanding at the same time. The result in some cases may be a change in personnel, and that is fine. You won’t find success with a team of players who can’t meet your expectations. But your approach to coaching your team – understanding where they are coming from, evaluating their effort and communicating openly with them about it – goes a long way towards getting the most out of them.

You can be a demanding coach with high expectations and still coach with empathy. When they do meet your standards, celebrate it and make sure you stay aware that what you are asking of them isn’t easy. Get to know them, understand where they are coming from, and focus on evaluating the effort and approach.

Your standards can be demanding while you also recognize the challenges your players face. It will go a long way to getting the best out of them.

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