"And that's why English is the official language of America...". I was doing my thing- staring right through my seventh grade history teacher as she droned.
"There is no official language in America!" I blurted out, with embarrassed blood rushing to my face. What was I doing?
"Chris, please don't interrupt, and besides, as I said, English is the official language of the United States of America".
I shook my head. The next day, when she admitted she checked and that, in fact, America had no official language, she didn't say I was right. Rather, she reminded all my classmates how rude it was for me to interrupt her while she was speaking.
That was the day I realized that anyone could be very wrong about something very basic, and would insist that they were right anyway.
But simply beating them over the head with the fact that they were wrong was not very effective. In fact, if the power relationship was imbalanced, it often made things worse for you. That's when I learned another way, a softer way of getting through.
A "Soft" Coach
As a coach, I've never been known for anger, or yelling, or for having the most torturous practices. In a meeting I will often speak far fewer words than whoever I'm talking to. I'm pretty proud of that.
I started my career at the University of Pennsylvania and was immediately thrust into a chaotic environment. Swimmers often got into the water late, sometimes not at all. One of my fellow assistant coaches showed up constantly late to morning practice.
Coaching there was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I learned that, if you made an engaging practice, swimmers were more likely to get in on time for it. I learned that swimmers were far more motivated by somebody that saw the best in them than somebody they feared.
I learned that drumming up the importance of a swim meet hurt athletes performance more than it helped. Much better to give a supportive hug and remind athletes every day that you care about them regardless of their swimming results.
I learned that the less punitive force you had to put on people to get them do what "needed to be done", the better. Nobody likes being backed into a corner, they like choosing their own adventure.
Taking Your Own Medicine
I've never understood the impulse in coaching: "do as I say, not as I do".
Why do we call young swimmers "student-athletes". Because we want to emphasize that they have a more important mission (education) than sport, even if sport is it's own education. Why then, do we just call coaches "coach"?
Don't coaches have a greater mission? Aren't I a Parent-Coach? Why do so many coaches tell athletes that they are doing sports for something bigger than sports, all while living a life so focused on sports?
"That's Not the Way It is"
When I hear one of my peers or elders giving all sorts of weird, pseudo-masculine advice on coaching, all because that's the "way it is", I'm back in my seventh grade classroom.
But instead of blurting out an interruption, I listen. What are they really saying?
"I don't know any better ways to do it, this is what I was taught".
So instead I try to show them another way. I don't expect them to take me on my word, but on the results. I'm still working on it.
Want to learn more about "soft" coaching?