The Dragonfly Forest

They have been given names such as devil’s darning needle, ear sewer, horse stinger, skeeter hawk, and the snake’s servant. Actually, Dragonflies are beneficial, peaceful, and stunning. You are a Dragonfly if you are: ADD/ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic, Asperger’s, NLVD, autistic…

Monday, March 21, 2016

5 things a great coach needs to know!

Spring sports are starting!! I wrote this article because I understand sports from a varieity of perspectives! I have 3 children who have played almost all team & individual sports 2 of them are die-hard soccer players.  I have been a coach's wife for many years as well- my husband coached our children in some of their little league sports but mainly coached middle school teams.  Finally, I have a Ph.D. in psychology with a specialization in educational psychology.  In an interview regarding the 2014 World Cup the US Men’s National Team Soccer Coach, Juergen Klinsmann stated – “We cannot win the World Cup because we are not at that level yet.  For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament.”  This comment and some personal experiences got me thinking about sports psychology.

Sports psychology is vital in the world of sports just like educational psychology is essential in the world of education.  The two are almost identical except in different arenas.  Sadly, both of these psychologies are not utilized well and most of the time the key figures (administrators, teachers, coaches, and directors of sports program) have little if any knowledge of how utilizing psychology is the first pathway to success.  True, these people may have had some exposure to the concept of psychology in their fields (education or sports) but they all seem to lack an in-depth understanding so they can proficiently incorporate it in their teaching and coaching. 

What is even more devastating is how people in the sports world are even more ignorant about people with hidden disabilities; Asperger’s, Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyslexia…  A person may have exceptional athletic talent but they will never reach their athletic potential because coaches along the way are uninformed and ill-informed about these types of disabilities.  Coaches often don’t even realize that a player has one of these hidden disabilities because these disabilities are not often obvious just by looking at the person.  Just as a teacher can make or break a student, a coach has the power to make or break a player.  I know many great athletics who never made it to their highest level of performance all because they had uneducated coaches along the way.  A team can have all highly skilled players yet not win games because an ineffective coach is damaging the players psychologically.

I’m pretty sure the US Soccer Coach, Klinsmann was telling the world his team isn’t as good as the other teams and has no chance to win the World Cup because he is using psychology to get into the minds of his players and opponents.  The opponents will come into the game of play overconfident and this may be their downfall.  Coach Klinsmann may think that he is doing what Herb Brooks, Coach for the US Men’s National Hockey Team did years ago.  In the 1980 Winter Olympics, Coach Brooks publicly belittled his players and even stated “Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle, as did the American squad in 1960, the Russians are expected to win the Olympics gold medal for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments.”   The Russians were overconfident and the players were upset with their coach so they bonded together and did create a miracle by winning gold.  What Coach Klinsmann  actually did though was creating a self-filling prophecy.  Remember, I write frequently that “What we focus on we expand.”  Coach Klinsmann got exactly what he has predicted because that is what they were all focused on, especially if the coach and the players believe there is no chance of winning. The USA Men's team was knocked out by Belgium in Round 16.  

These USA soccer players were supposed to be the top players in the US but maybe these soccer players are not the best of the best athletically but the players who with more athletically skills had a bad coach or two early on and was never given a chance or they quit. Some coaches believe that this is a good thing because the weak minded are weeded out.  Unfortunately these are the players that could be the best in the world if coached with a positive psychology approach.  The brain is not designed to handle being broken at such a young age. Being broken early is very common for players who have a hidden disability.  I have worked with some very talented athletics that have been broken by coaches or not given a chance because the coach have a negative confirmation bias or the player is struggling academically and doesn’t have the GPA to even be allowed to play. 

There are athletics with disabilities that have become very successful such as: Michael Phelps (ADHD), Terry Bradshaw (ADHD), Bruce Jenner (Dyslexia), Greg Louganis (Dyslexia), Molly Sullivan Sliney (Dyslexia), Anthony Crudale (Asperger’s), Clay Marzo (Asperger’s) – the list could go on and on…  But for every athlete that reaches the top level there are hundreds of talented athletes who never make it that far because of negative experiences often related to coaching.  

The reason these players made it this far is they had some coaches that believed in them and helped build their self-esteem.  They had at least one coach devote time to their development.  When a coach takes time to really focus on developing a player they get better.  If the coach doesn't put effort into the player and treats the player poorly then they don't improve or get worse - it's the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer). 

Many assume that all a coach needs to know is the sport and how to teach the players the technical and tactical aspects of the specific sport.  This is wrong, the most important part of making a successful player and team all relates to psychology. 

So, here are 5 things every coach needs to know to improve players and have a strong winning team.  Since the coach has the power to create or destroy a player’s athletic success it is vital to know what to look for in a coach or things to strive for if you are a coach. 

1-   Every team will have players with a hidden disability.  Yep, that is correct!  One out of five is dyslexic so if you have a team of 10 players there’s a good chance at least 2 are dyslexic.  Parents are often not going to disclose their child has a disability for the following reasons: they may not even know their child has a disability, they may be afraid their child will be labeled or stigmatized, they know that the coach isn’t as knowledgeable as they are so the coach may be very misinformed (the coach may believe that if a player has dyslexia that means they are not very bright), or they may worry that their child will be treated differently.   What a great coach should do – become educated on ADHD, Dyslexia, Asperger’s… there are plenty of resources on the internet.  A good way for clubs to educated their coaches is to have someone like me (an Educational Coach & expert on all types of hidden disabilities) come in and do an educational professional development workshop to teach the coaches about these disabilities; what they are, how they may appear on the field/court, and strategies to use to help these players reach their athletic potential which in turn will produce more successful teams. Coaches often ask why they should care if a child has a hidden disability and the answer to this is - if you know then you will be a more effective coach.  For example, if you know that a player has dyslexia then you will have a better understanding why they confuse their left and right and they will learn quicker if you demonstrate using the foot/hand you want them to use instead of telling them with words (or telling the player to go "inside" instead of saying go left).

2-   What you focus on will expand – so focus on what you want and refrain from focusing on what you don’t want.  Having 3 children all involved in sports this is a common mistake I see from almost every coach.  What happens is a coach will tell a player to stop doing something or to not do something.  For example, on the soccer field I have heard coaches say things like: “don’t kick to the goalie,” “don’t kick the ball more than 2 times,” and “why did (or didn’t) you pass.”  These type of comments cause the player to focus on what you don’t want them to do.  The way the brain is designed, the brain will focus on the action you are describing and the words they can visualize as pictures. So, if you want a player to perform a specific action then you need to tell the player explicitly what action you want them to perform.  If the coach tells the player “away from the goalie” the player will still be focused on the “goalie” and therefore will kick the ball to the goalie (it’s just the way the brain works).  So the best way to phrase this would be “Kick to the net, shoot to the net, focus on the net…” See, you get the picture – YOU can create the picture.  This is especially true for players with hidden disabilities because they respond best when given explicit instructions of what to do and can visualize the play.  What a great coach should do – Pay attention to what you are saying.  If you want your players to perform well then what you say to them matters.  Tell players explicitly what you want from them in a positive way. 

3-   Belittling, degrading, and demeaning does NOT work!  There is some old-school belief that coaches need to ‘break’ their players or berate them – think Bobby Knight.  What we have learned via sports psychology is that this makes a player and team less productive, especially if their frontal lobes of their brains are still developing.  This form of coaching is actually a form of emotional and mental abuse.  This type of coaching does not build a better player.  If a player or team is successful and the coach behaves this way know that it it was not the coaching. It was other factors because effective coaches are positive and motivating for each and every player.  Most of the time when a coach uses this abusive style they are damaging a players self-esteem and these wounds can last a life-time.  This type of coaching will also produce inconsistent and poor player performance on the field/court.  Here’s why this happens.  When the brain is learning a physical skill it uses the outer part of the brain to process this skill.  With repetition these skills develop into muscle memory which is in a deeper part of the brain.  When a coach uses these negative coaching strategies the player experiences an anxiety (fight or flight) reaction and the player’s brain changes causing them to have to use their outer brain to think about the athletic skills they are trying to perform.  Their performance becomes inconsistent and inadequate AKA- performance anxiety.  Some coaches believe that their belittling is actually making the player better when in fact the coaches are making the player worse.  Most players brains are NOT able to handle this kind of coaching style.  Watch a player’s body language after the coach berates them.  If you tell a player they will perform poorly then it will happen (what the player focused on expanded).    What a great coach should do – Know it is not making a player weak if you provide positive feedback, inspire, & motivate players.  This will make players better!  Positive begets positive!  Yelling, belittling, and berating distracts the player from their skills and abilities while it damages their self-esteem.  Teams will win more with a positive approach instead of a negative way. 

4-  Players need to know what skills they need to improve, how to improve these skills, and the opportunity to practice this skills in games.  Often coaches want players to improve or play better but they never take the time to explicit explain to the player what they are doing well and what they need to work on.  I don’t mean telling a player to work on their dribbling, I’m saying that a coach needs to tell a player why their dribbling needs improved and specific skill drill to make it better.  By the time a player reaches adolescents, coaches think it is not their job to teach the players skill because they should already know them but this is inaccurate.  Everyone can benefit from learning and improving on skills.  I’ve seen many coaches at the older level run a practice of a few skill drills and then some small sided scrimmages.  They believe they are coaching because once in a while they tell a player what to do or what they did wrong.  This is NOT coaching-- this is babysitting.  Good coaches watch players, know what each player needs to improve, and then target training specifically on these areas. Players with hidden disabilities often need a lot of repetition and over learning to put information into their long-term memory (or in the world of sports – muscle memory). Players cannot improve these skills only at practice sessions they need game time experience.  Coaches who only play the "good" or "talented" players during the game are abusing their power as a coach. The coach who only wants to win so they only play the "best" players and leave others on the bench is NOT an effective coach.  The goal of youth sports should be player development and NOT winning. Sadly, some coaches and clubs think that winning is evidence that they are a great coach or club but that is not true when not every player is getting equal play time on the field/court. What a great coach should do – meet with your players individually at the beginning of the season and then every 2 weeks.  As the coach you should know what each player is doing well and what each player needs to improve.  Focus on at least 3 positives and then 1 goal for improvement. Put the positives and the goal in writing (along with steps you will be helping the player reach this goal) – this way you can review it again in a couple weeks and so the parent knows.  Focus on player development over winning games and assure that each player receives fairly equal play time on the field/court because that is the best place for players to learn, improve, and build their confidence (remember no yelling). When you demonstrate that you believe in your players they will start believing in themselves and strive toward their athletic potential!

5-  Finally, listen to parents.  Yes, there are parents out there who think their child has athletic talent when they really don't but most parents understand what their child needs to improve.  We as parents want our child to improve.  Parents of children with hidden disabilities also have a wealth of information to share so coaches need to listen.  Coaches should be able to tell the difference between a parent who wants their child to improve and a parent who thinks their child is athletically gifted.  It is not easy for parents to advocate for their child athletically because coaches are not receptive to this discussion.  There is often a preconceived idea that the parents are trying to suck up or get their child more play time.  Sometimes a parent just wants a coach to know that their child will shut down if yelled at or often confuses their left or right.  I happen to have a child that does not feel comfortable talking to adults and will avoid the coach.  Coaches may perceive this as rude, arrogant, or apathy but it isn’t – often players with hidden disabilities have learned to shy away from speaking with adults.  Many coaches are not receptive to discussions with parents and only wants to communicate with the players.  Just like the teachers need to keep parents informed about what it going on in the classroom, coaches need to keep parents informed about how to help their child improve athletically.  What a great coach should do – At the beginning of the season email parents a questionnaire and ask them to share with you information about that player.  Let parents know that you are open for conversations.  Be receptive and listen to parents.

A special note to parents – Your child is important so do not allow another person to mentally or emotionally abuse your child.  If your child has a bad coach then try to see if you can move to a different coach.  I’ll be frank here, talking with the club director will probably not work!  Club directors are often focused on the money and the business side and do not want to have to take time to find a new coach.  Club directors also have positive confirmation bias about their coaches (if they like the coach they see most things the coach does in a positive light) so they will not do anything about.  Furthermore, you as a parent will be perceived as difficult.  This isn’t reality but this is often what happens when a parent advocates for their child athletically.  From personal experience I regret not removing my child from the bad coach.  I’m still dealing with the damage the coach has done and guilt that I allowed my child to be exposed to this kind of treatment. 


A special note to Club directors – there are great coaches, good coaches, and bad coaches.  Your club will be much more successful if you do not have bad coaches on staff.  Just because a person is a "good person" does not mean they are a good coach.  If you have parents contacting you about a coach then that coach is a bad coach.  If players are quitting a team then the coach is a bad coach.  Often directors don't want to get rid of the coach because they like them or because they report that they are "good" or "effective" coaches with a great record of success.  My comment to that has and will always be - "think about how much more successful this coach (team & players) would be if this coach understood and utilized all aspects of Sports Psychology!  Think how much better the whole club would be if every coach practiced positive sports psychology.   

Here's a great must watch video: 
video

Here's a quote I share with teachers and administrators when helping teachers understand educational psychology and the importance of empathy.
(Image: yellow/orange dragonfly on a stick with quote from Haim G. Ginott: "I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.  It is my personal approach that creates the climate.  It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized.  If we treat people as they are, we make them worse.  IF we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming."



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