By KJ Conklin (Olney Central College)
As a college basketball coach, I can tell you with ease what I really want from a player that plays for me:
We have all encountered or seen the coach with the “Bob Knight mentality” and leadership style. This is where the coach tears down his players and creates a culture of fear to get the most effort and focus out of them. As a result of this players band together to survive the daily toll and win in spite of their head coach. While there are examples of coaches that have done this and racked up accomplishments, what is the cost of it? Did that team and the individual athletes ultimately become the best version of themselves?
This article aims to explore what athletes really want from their coaches and the alternative to the transactional leadership style mentioned above.
The Feedback From Athletes
A survey was sent out to over 20 men and women college basketball players asking two questions:
These surveys were given to participants with different backgrounds and roles within their respective teams. Despite this the answers and themes remained consistent from these surveys.
The constant themes in the feedback received from players on what they really want from coaches were:
Theme #1: A Personal Relationship with their coach and one that cares about them
Over 90% of the completed surveys included a player expressing his or her desire of a coach to care for them on a personal level and have a relationship with them aside from the sport. Below were specific responses from athletes:
“As a captain on a nationally ranked team I admire a coach who works to form a connection with their players. I found that I worked harder for coaches who took the time to get to know me and cared about me outside of being an athlete. It creates a form of mutual respect, which is crucial for a team to build trust with each other at all levels.”
“In a coach I am looking for someone who I can connect with on a personal level, so that i can feel comfortable to tell him things if something is going on.”
“You should feel like you can walk in the coach’s office at anytime and just talk about anything, not necessarily basketball. For example, how your classes are going, or if you’re feeling homesick and just need some reassurance that you made the right decision to come here. A coach has to be more than just a coach. I also want a coach to be a mentor, a teacher, and I would even go as far as saying a parental figure in a way.”
The process of getting to know your players is the first step in showing you care about them and you have their best interest at heart. Earlier this week I saw the following tweets by Oklahoma State Senior Bryce Williams and a quote by Jordan Schakel of San Diego State:
It all ties back to the Theodore Roosevelt quote, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Theme #2: A coach that EARNS their trust
Trust was mentioned in every individual survey by the athletes. Many of the athletes were specific on how some of their coaches expected to be trusted rather than earning it from their athletes and how that made them trust their coach even less
One player wrote on how trust can be earned:
“A coach who can sit down with each player and put their egos aside to take feedback is also one that is willing to do what it takes to be successful. To take feedback even when you think you don’t need it, because those meetings build trust and a deeper bond between coaches and players.”
Can we really expect our players and athletes to trust each other when we have not earned their individual trust as the models of the program? The “Do as you are told” and “My way or the highway” leadership approaches are not inspiring the athletes of today and the surveys say that. Trust in all walks of life is earned. It not entitled to anyone based on experience, accomplishments, or job title. Below is a tweet on coaching and leadership transformation from “old school” to “new school”.
Theme #3: A coach that makes the game fun
I have heard it so many times in my career: “The process of winning is not fun. It is hard.” “Winning comes at a price and is painful.” The list goes on and on. While that holds true for transactional leaders it is not always the case. Just like you do not have to be “hated” as a coach to be effective. Winning, improving, and excellence has its uncomfortable moments but why can it not be fun?
One player wrote: “My perfect coach would make basketball fun. I know they can get caught up in winning and losing because their jobs depend on it, but the athletes' jobs depend on their love for the game. If they lose the love for the game, you lose your team. Connect with your players, get to know them, mutual respect goes a long way on and off the court.”
But how do we make the game fun for our athletes while also improving? The first answer boils down to one word: PLAY. Breakdown drill after breakdown drill is not only boring for your athletes, research also shows that it is not as effective for in game transfer as live play. For example, shell drill for 20 minutes is not going to be as productive for in game transfer and engaging as structured shell for 5 minutes and then go live out of the same action the next 10 minutes.
Second, create an environment of learning and where mistakes are not held against them but rather opportunities for growth. No one wants to be harped on for a mistake they made. Guide them to the correct answer and use praise to shape behavior and habits. This all ties into psychological safety where the individuals on the team feel like they can be themselves and take moderate risks without being shunned.
Where do we go from here and what is the alternative?
The athletes have spoken. It is our job to get the most out of them and maximize their development on and off the floor. Are we truly doing that if we are not giving them what they want as well? In all of the surveys there was not one answer that said, “Playing time” or “more shots/plays drawn up for me.” The main answers and themes were human relationship based and had hardly anything to do with basketball.
Our alternative to the “old school” mentality of fear-based coaching is to be athlete centered instead. Get to know them. Create a personal relationship with them and become a listener first rather than a demanding boss. Joshua Medcalf and many others define this as transformational leadership. All great relationships start with communication, trust, and mutual gain. Are we as coaches and trainers earning and giving those?