Many people are enjoying the youtube series “Darkhorse” with Shane Tusup and Ilaria Cusinato. I am not one of those people. Through five episodes I had completely avoided it. On episode six, a friend texted me and finally broke my will.
In the case of (former) Indiana Associate Head Coach Mike Westphal, I found out his fate after one of my coaching friends jokingly texted me that he would “squash” me. Confused, I ended up getting him on the phone.
But I digress, this blog post is not about all that. I was speaking with someone (vague stories are all the rage now) who was curious about why a certain international team was essentially getting their PR done for them by a certain Swimswam “reporter”. I’ll explain all the scare quotes later, I promise.
I got my first “assistant” coach in 2013. I was an assistant myself, coaching at Georgia Tech. I had a big group (18 swimmers) and therefore I often found myself in the company of our volunteer assistant at the time.
I didn’t know what to do with her. I mean, I had ideas like holding a stop watch and taking times, sometimes I would assign her to work with a certain swimmer on a certain thing. I now realize that having an “assistant” in that capacity is a massive waste of resources.
As I stand here in 2019, I simply don’t believe in the concept of assistants. Nicholas Nassim Taleb sums up part of why in this tweet:
Now, I say partially because there is a second part of this. You may infer from the above that I believe in working alone almost exclusively. Not at all. What I have come to understand is that no matter the relative level of experience or skill or knowledge, you should look for partners in what you do.
This is no semantic difference. An assistant is part of a hierarchy. A partner is not. The nature of many of our sporting structures is that they are very hierarchical, and for reasons well beyond pure performance, I think there’s a much better way to do it.
In order for someone to be at their best in a workplace, there are three things I find absolutely critical. One is that they are highly motivated to do good work. Another is that they have applicable strengths to bring to the table. Finally, that they can work autonomously, that is, they can apply their strengths without constant supervision.
Let’s talk about autonomy first, because it bleeds into the other two. Autonomy is about the ability to make decisions for yourself. None of us have “full” autonomy. We are always limited by external factors in our ability to make decisions.
However, you want someone that works with you, even if you are the boss, to be making a lot of decisions for themselves. Otherwise, you will waste time with them checking back with you about what way they should go, often missing critical windows to do the right thing.
In order to cultivate that kind of autonomy, you’re going to have to let go control a bit and be willing to have your assistant/partner do things differently than you. You’re going to have to have a forum for discussing those differences which both recognizes when you know better but also allows you to be wrong.
Which brings me to my second point. The great part about working with other people is that nobody has identical strengths. So, the synergy of two or more people working together is incredibly powerful. Hierarchies diminish the potential to leverage different strengths by creating more fixed paths for problem solving.
Again, you’re going to need a way to evaluate and discuss what strengths each of you bring to a partnership. I am a fan myself of the VIA Strengths, but you may find your own model.
The great thing about a model like the VIA strengths is that no matter the experience, knowledge or skill level of who you partner with, they have strengths. Knowing what they are is key to understanding how they might work autonomously to apply those strengths to the problems and challenges that you face.
Motivation is such a tricky subject. It often gets mixed with other terms. I don’t really like when it is used as a verb or an adjective. Let me give you a couple of examples:
“Coach is not motivating me”
“I don’t find this environment very motivating”
What I really think the two statements above are conflating is inspiration. Inspiration is very much about how external factors augment internal drive. Motivation, while influenced by external factors, is far more about internal emotional states and thinking.
How does it feel to be trusted and treated like a partner versus an “assistant”. Better yet, how does that feel when you’re keenly aware (and the person you work with/for is keenly aware) of just what strengths you have to bring to the table? I’d argue that’s an environment where I would feel a lot of motivation.
Let Them Draft Their Own
Within the first year of coaching in Denmark, I found myself pulled away for Junior National team duty. On training camp with the National Head Coach, he walked up on me with a furrowed brow typing a workout into an e-mail.
“What on earth are you doing?” he exclaimed. I explained. My assistants couldn’t write workouts themselves, so I just HAD to do this.
“Why have assistants if they can’t write a bloody workout?” was his retort. And he was write.
Later on in my coaching career, I actually scheduled a practice where I was not present, but my two assistants were. They designed the entire workout and coached it cooperatively.
They loved it, the swimmers loved it, and I should have found ways to do more of that or incorporate the same energy into the practices that we coached together. Good thing there’s still time.
Chris DeSantis coaching is currently on vacation, so if you have specific questions regarding this or other posts, expect some delay in response.
This is the second in a series that started in June 2019. As we discuss what boundaries should be set on coaching behavior, it’s also useful to have a positive direction to move in. For the first in this series go here.
I had a coach once that demanded we call him Coach (Last name). When asked why, his reasoning was simple. He believed it was a respectful way to address him.
Personally, I’ve never insisted on such, even though we see the same thing in pretty much all schools. Still, I would say the majority of people I have coached have addressed me in one of two ways, either “coach” or “sir”. The first one is obvious, but why the second?
Well, a few years into coaching I decided to flip the above scenario on its head. Instead of demanding that people I coached address me in one particular way, I started to sprinkle it the other direction. I called people “sir” or “ma’am” or “ms”. Always with my tongue firmly in my cheek.
The kids picked it up pretty naturally, and pretty soon I was getting called “sir” all the time.
Leading by example is a concept with 100% approval but lots of murkiness when it comes down to actually defining it. So I’m going to try to. When it comes to coaching, you’re never going to do 100% of the stuff that you ask your athletes to do, and it would be dumb to do so. So you can’t exactly “lead by example” by simply modeling all the tasks you assign.
You can, however, model behavior and decision-making in the types of situations that your athletes will face on a daily basis. They will see and judge your behavior and decision making far more than you likely give them credit for. You will also see some of your own greatest vulnerabilities manifest in the people you coach.
Here are a few categories where I believe it is critically important to lead by example:
Emotional Regulation- As a coach, emotional regulation is a headline skill that you want to develop for yourself and see in your athletes. Often misunderstood as “controlling” your emotions, it is actually about responding to your emotions. Modeling how to respond to your negative emotions, be it anger, sadness or fear in a way that both allows you to express and deal with those emotions without “acting out” on those around you is crucial. On the flip side, I’ve struggled myself with capitalizing on positive emotions, often feeling most uncomfortable when things are going well. When I coached in Denmark, I took my coaches on a retreat to plan for the year. We ended up discussing for an hour how much our athletes collectively worried about competition. At that moment, I knew one of the biggest problems was how worried I was about competitive results.
Work/Life Balance- Many athletes, especially elite athletes, struggle to find the balance between outworking their competition and leading a healthy life. Coaches face the same struggle. The higher level I was coaching, the more I felt pulled in two directions between my life outside of work and the competition I was engaged in at work. But if we truly want our athletes to lead whole lives and grow up to be great people, they need to see us doing the same. You don’t need to regale them with stories of your time away from the pool, but having the athletes know that you have interests outside of coaching, things that you do for yourself sends a powerful message that they should do the same.
Relationships- These of course are not distinct categories. Relationships are the key to true emotional regulation, likewise an important part of work/life balance. As a coach you have a really unique opportunity to model good relationships for the people you coach. Many may come from abusive pasts whether in sport or at home, and this can warp their sense of a healthy relationship. Showing care for other people in your life, talking about it openly and modeling respectful boundaries can be hugely influential.
Self-reflective- A key part of working on something and improving is the ability to be self-reflective. I think many worry that if they do some of this self-reflection out in the open, it will be perceived as weakness to those they coach. I disagree. It took me ten years, but I finally noticed that coaches often end up “frustrated” with athletes that mirror some of their own quirks as an athlete. I was a mouthy back-talker as an athlete, and found myself perpetually vexed by kids who ‘didn’t listen”. I knew one coach whose youth coaches deemed “lazy” that was always frustrated by his own athletes lack of determination. If you are secure enough to reflect on yourself, it can actually be a starting point for good empathy with the most “frustrating” athletes you coach.
Showing Up- So obvious that I almost left it out. Want to set an expectation that people arrive and are ready to go by a certain time? If you want consistency out of those you coach, you have to be the most consistent person on the team. Consistently on time, there when you say you are, following through on what you said you would do. As simple as that, sort of.
As I said above, I once spent an hour discussing how “worried” athletes were on the team I led. Although I made improvements even during that time, I didn’t make the big leap in progress for helping people I coached until I actually started working on solutions for my own anxiety.
Leading by example is about more than just specific actions, and far more about modeling (and explaining) the complex decision-making process you use as a coach while being open to improvement.