What A Coach Should Be: Leader By Example

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.