“You haven’t taught until they’ve learned.” – John Wooden
How much learning takes place in your practices? How much thought do you give to creating the best possible learning culture for your team? Early in my coaching career, a wise, highly successful Hall of Fame coach (Olympic Gold medal and multiple NCAA championships) told me that, “Players will do what you train them to do.” When I put this simple statement into practice, I quickly discovered just how powerful this idea was. It suggests at least three things:
1) That everyone can learn well… if I can find the best way to teach them. Recent research about multiple intelligences concludes: “It’s not IF someone is smart…it’s HOW they are smart.” Get to know your players well enough to understand how they best learn instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to your coaching. Recently I was talking with a good friend who said, “If they don’t learn the way we teach, then we need to teach the way they learn.” So true…
2) Effective teaching and coaching IS a direct function of the motivational environment created by the coach. Coaches create culture. They set the standard and the tone – and players respond during practice, games, and throughout the program. This statement frames the coach-athlete relationship as one where teaching and learning are inherently interactive. It isn’t just coach-to-player…or player-to-coach.
3) Relationships, based on mutual respect, trust, and shared responsibility are the most powerful of all. How much does the athlete learn to “trust” the coach, and the coach “trust” the athlete?
The one guarantee in competitive sport is that everyone will experience a lot of failure…both player AND coach. Improvement is a process, with failure being an important and inevitable part of the improvement process. Perfection is impossible. An athlete’s response to failure will be strongly impacted by the response of the coach to that athlete’s “failure”. If an athlete is unable to successfully do what they have been asked to do, responsibility for that “failure” also rests with the coach. How well has the coach taught the athlete? Remember: “Players will do what you train them to do.”
The popularity of “growth mindset” with its emphasis on effort is rapidly becoming the new normal in the world of coaching. Dr. Carol Dweck’s powerful framing of the “Not Yet” style of feedback is growing more common with coaches. The essence of coaching is teaching, and we want our “students” to learn! Other authors worth reading on this topic include Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, who explores practices used in “talent hotbeds”, and Trevor Ragan’s “TrainUgly.com” which takes an attitude-oriented approach to learning. The conclusion these authors reach is that all people – both coaches and players – can do far more than they think they can.
For years, in our practice sessions, we intentionally worked towards a culture that made “failing” OK. I loved saying to players: “It’s OK to fail.” At first, most of our players weren’t quite sure what that statement really meant…or how to react. But over time, as their trust in our sincerity and commitment to that learning approach grew, so did their rate of improvement and their overall enjoyment. This has been one of my great joys in coaching. The players learned to embrace the growth mindset that Dweck and Ragan espouse. Our goal was to make our practice culture one that was highly competitive, filled with deliberate learning, and a safe place for the athletes to play at the edge of their abilities.
As Trever Ragan states, “The growth mindset is the key to becoming a great learner and achieving our goals in sports, in school, and in life. We believe that developing a growth mindset within yourself and your team is THE most important job.”
The best teachers and coaches are very intentional about their own learning. They recognize that any growth, and achievement of goals, any improvement by them and their students or athletes begins with an attitude committed to learning, If you want to be a better coach, learn about your “learners”. Players will do what you train them to do.
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