In sports there is an ongoing debate about which style of coaching works best. Some think you need to be tough on players while others think you need to give them a bit more freedom and allow them to motivate themselves.
In other words, on one end of the spectrum we have this guy:
While on the other end, there is this guy:
Most modern coaching philosophies suggest that there needs to be a bit of a balance between being “tough” and being “soft” on players. The best coaches know when the time is right to apply appropriate methods and that it’s not a one-size-fits-all deal. That’s what makes great coaches so great. It’s the “feel” they possess for keeping their finger on the pulse of the team. Great coaches get to know each player to understand how to get the most out of their potential.
Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports once said: “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” He was exactly right. Anyone who has played sports and felt that euphoric feeling of “being in the zone”; that place where everything goes your way, knows the immeasurable value of confidence. Teams that have a strong culture and confident players are the teams that win.
Knowing this is paramount to success, how can we focus on building and maintaining a high level of confidence in our players without entitling them? Here are 7 simple methods:
- Build a Culture Around “Continuous Improvement”
Ernest Hemingway said it best: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” It is imperative to success as an individual or team to continually climb the mountain. If this is deeply rooted in your culture, it will make all other values much easier to instill. There is nothing more satisfying as an athlete or human being than progress. It’s like when you finally hit that first pure golf shot. It’s what hooks you and keeps you coming back. If you build your culture with a prioritized focus on sound process, then the results will take care of themselves.
- Understand What’s in Your Control and What’s Not
In hockey, or any team sport, there is only so much that you can control. You can play the game of your life and your team can still lose. One book that really helped me narrow my focus to make me more mindful of what I could control was “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” by Dan Millman. There is a great quote in the book:
“The time is now, the place is here. Stay in the present. You can do nothing to change the past, and the future will never come exactly as you plan or hope for.”
The one thing that you can control without waiver is your work ethic. Teams that prioritize and reward work ethic are teams that are scary to play against. Opponents hated Pete Rose far more for his work ethic than they did his gambling.
- Focus on Processes, Not Outcomes
There is a common saying that goes something like this: “Dream big and achieve big.” While I don’t have a problem with lofty dreams, there is something about this cliché that bugs me. It glances over the most important part of setting goals: the process. It’s like trying to drive to Disneyland without a map.
Great coaches are able to help players map that process and stay focused on working through it. Outcomes can often be overwhelming, producing a feeling of doubt in players when they aren’t able to quickly achieve them. By having a plan with achievable milestones and working through the process, you are able to focus on what is within your control. A series of “quick wins” creates a positive momentum.
- Set Small Segment Goals
Building off of the last point, when working towards your outcome goals, make sure you are working backwards and setting small segment goals. Small segment goals allow you to achieve quick wins, building confidence along the road to achieving bigger goals. One of the best pieces of advice a coach ever gave me was to sit down before each game and map out 5 process goals for the upcoming game. These goals were always focused on things I could control and if met, always added up to a strong performance.
For example, my goals for a game might look like this:
- D-Side on All Battles
- Zero shots blocked on shot attempts
- Zero turnovers at any line
- Zero Missed Checks
- Zero Missed Passes
This exercise helped me to stay focused on short-term, priority processes and to avoid being overwhelmed with outcomes that might be out of my control. If I were able to focus on these 5 goals and achieve them, in turn, my ice-time would increase, I would be given more opportunities and responsibilities, and I’d achieve more personal success.
- Preach the Positives, Teach the Negatives
Everybody likes being recognized when they’ve done a good job. Recognition is always the first thing that is brought up in workplace culture discussions. There is no reason to be shy about it. We all like to get a pat on the back. However, there is this odd, yet popular myth out there that states that you should hold back from telling people they’re doing great. The fear is that if you blow too much sunshine up their butts, they will get complacent and soft. I understand the fear. It’s a concern that too much praise will inflate the ego and people will become arrogant and entitled. I think the best way to avoid this is to set the standard early that everyone will be praised for a job well done and will equally be accountable (respectfully and constructively) for failures. If you’re open, honest and respectful in addressing the positives and the negatives, you will have a much more accountable and engaged team.
The one thing I can’t stand is when coaches project their anger over a mistake onto a player who is already beating themselves up about it. Nothing good comes from this. If anything, it creates anxiety, resentment and fear. All of these feelings will have adverse effects on athletes, pushing their confidence levels even further into the ground.
The best coaches I’ve ever had are the coaches who preach positives and teach the negatives. They don’t let you off the hook when you mess up, but address it in a way that keeps your confidence from plummeting while showing you that they respect you. A good way to address mistakes is to talk about the mistake and give them some effective guidance and tools to achieve a better outcome. It’s also beneficial to remind them of another time when they achieved a better result or highlight another play from the shift that they did well. Nobody wants to screw up. It doesn’t feel good when you do. How you decide to handle these situations will often dictate confidence and consistency in your team.
- Be the Best at What You Do Best
In sports and in life there is always an obsession with being better at what we suck at. If I’m slow, I want to be fast. If I’m small, I want to be big. While we should always be trying to continuously improve all aspects of our game, there is something to be said about being the best at what we do best. What I mean by that is, If I’m 5 foot 9 and 150 pounds and can skate like the wind, should I really be focusing on outmuscling guys in the corner? Conversely, if I’m 6 foot 3 and 215 pounds, a decent skater who doesn’t really have a knack for scoring, should I really be trying to become a dangler on the first or second line? Why not focus on being the best at your role? If you’re a great penalty killer, focus on being great at all the skills that the role requires.
Hockey is great in the sense that there are so many roles on a team for players of all skill sets. Realizing what your strengths and knacks are early and doing your best to hone and showcase them will get you much further in the game than trying to be something that you’re not.
- Celebrate Key Values
Recognition has a lot to do with confidence. Try scoring a goal in a lunch-hour pick-up game and then compare it to scoring a goal in front of 18,000 screaming fans. There is a significant difference. Players love their accomplishments being celebrated.
A great way to ensure you’re instilling confidence in all your players is to find unique ways to celebrate all of the values that are key to the success of your team. If you value hard work, you can give out a symbolic token to the game’s hardest worker. The same can be done for sacrifice, leadership or any of the other intrinsic values you want to prioritize in your players.
You don’t always have to celebrate positive outcomes or processes to get positive effects, either. When I played in the ECHL in Augusta, GA, we used to give out a green jacket to the player who had the worst plus/minus on the team (a playful twist on golf’s ritual of awarding Masters Champions with a sacred green jacket). That player would have to wear the jacket into the booster club functions after games and get a playful ribbing. It was a fun way of motivating players to work harder and smarter.
A lot of companies who value initiative and progressive ideas will reward employees for the “best failures.” In doing so, they encourage their employees to take risks and think outside the box.