We are all going to drive our team as coaches. We set high standards and we expect our team to live up to them. We hold them accountable if they don’t. We work in an intense environment, so driving our teams sometimes gets loud. We need to get their attention when they aren’t doing things the right way, and they need to know it’s not acceptable. Our tone usually reflects that.
One important distinction we often overlook when we evaluate our teams is whether or not their struggles are due to a lack of effort or buy-in, versus a lack of ability. Are they unwilling or unprepared to do what you are asking them to do, or are they just not capable? I think we miss this one a lot as head coaches. I know I have.
I learned this lesson when I became the head coach at the University of Maine in 2014. I took over a program that had really struggled recently, had a toxic culture and lacked the necessary talent to have a chance at the D1 level. The program wasn’t in very good shape, and I knew that when I took the job. I knew I had to connect with my players off the court first to get them to work as hard as I wanted them to on it.
The first year was a struggle, as we had expected. Everything we did was process-based, knowing the results weren’t going to be very good. I drove our guys to learn to compete every day. When we didn’t compete at the right level, I was very hard on them. They heard from me. We repeated drills over from the very beginning. At one point, I threw them out of the locker room and wouldn’t let anyone where Maine gear to practice. They had to wear their own clothes until they earned the right to get their gear (and locker room) back with they way they competed every day.
This is where I made a mistake in evaluating our team. Over time I realized that what I was seeing wasn’t a lack of effort, but really a lack of ability. Our guys were trying, they just weren’t capable of doing what I was asking of them. I wanted them to compete at a level they had never played at before, and they just couldn’t do it. As our practices moved forward, I realized I was trying to get blood from a stone. There was a limit to what our guys could do, and they are trying their best. I was seeing a lack of ability and evaluating it as a lack of effort or buy-in.
Needless to say my approach didn’t get the best out of our team early on. As we moved forward I learned to coach with empathy, and I became a much better coach. Our guys were used to losing and used to a ton of negativity from a coaching standpoint. There was no way that yelling at them for a lack of effort was going to turn those things around.
It’s really important to evaluate the difference between effort and ability with your team. Once I had a better feel for my team and what they needed, I became a big fan. I realized I had to be as positive as possible. We still had high standards, and we still held them accountable. But I tried to be the biggest cheerleader for my players. We celebrated the most minor successes. We made sure what we did was fun. I challenged myself to only give positive feedback, and to ask a lot of questions when things weren’t going well, to get them to talk about what they needed to improve.
We tend to evaluate our teams through a lens of effort, focus and commitment. When things don’t go our way, we challenge them to go harder. We say they aren’t tough enough. They lack focus. But it’s not always an effort issue that we can impact through yelling and screaming. Sometimes it’s just a lack of ability. Recognizing the difference is really important for you to become a better coach. I know it was for me.