Standards to Control or Empower

Every year around the spring, one of the most dominant challenges and topics of conversations I have with  coaches is getting “player buy-in” to an off-season program.

One feeling coaches continue to articulate is this: “I care so much more than my players. They just don’t seem to want it like I do.”

Does this sound familiar to you? Probably. I know, I can empathize.

When we are building a program, what is one of the first things we look to do? Set standards! We tend to believe everyone needs more standards and higher standards. We can all work harder, smarter, and more consistently! Right? And we seem to have this belief that if we simply raise standards kids will rise to that standard as if that is all it takes! But the flaw in this approach is that they are often done in a way to “control” behavior instead of empower individuals and build character.

And when we set standards in an effort to control or get compliance, we get relationships built on fear and players who see those standards as obligations instead of opportunities to learn and grow. Controlling standards are often set, communicated, and enforced in such ways that they fail to consider the circumstances and needs of the person.

The reality is that most kids have a lot going on in the off-season, other sports, summer jobs (which are invaluable life experiences), vacations, and just being a kid.

Leisure Athlete versus Performance Athlete

Mark Bennett, the founder of PDS Coaching, spoke about leisure athlete versus performance athlete on the Coaching Culture Podcast Episode 78.

If you were to categorize your athletes as performance or leisure, many coaches might classify them based upon skill level or ability, but Mark defines the performance athlete as an athlete giving his/her very best outside of “practice” time or the basic required training your team or club requires. When a coach is not holding them accountable, are they training hard by themselves, eating right, sleeping right?

Now, based on that standard, very few teams have performance athletes. Bennett suggests that we have almost two pathways or systems of support, one for those athletes who choose the performance pathway and one for those who choose the leisure pathway. The leisure athlete can and should be held to a high standard of giving their best in practices and games, but what differentiates the pathways is the support we give in training behaviors and the process outside of our required training time.

We need to be having this conversation with each of our athletes and supporting not shaming them in whatever path they take. Athletes shouldn’t feel ashamed to change their mind on the path they want to take, with both doors always being open.

Regardless of whether we are at youth, high school, or collegiate level, the truth is we don’t need or shouldn’t want a bunch of performance athletes. We need to be supportive of the holistic development of all the people we work with. Performance athletes will sacrifice and miss out on valuable life experiences: summer internships, trips abroad, mission trips, and other high school and college experiences.

So, the challenge is to have two pathways and let the path be the choice of the athlete. Some coaches are eager to design and implement the most complete off-season program EVER! Great, but don’t expect every kid to be brought in and have 100% commitment, because the reality is that it doesn’t align with their aspirations. Sure, he or she may want to win a championship, be a starter, or make the all-star team, BUT it isn’t the only thing they want in their life and it shouldn’t be.

Regardless of whether they are leisure or performance athletes, below are some ways to get buy-in and raise the standards and behaviors in your program.

7 Ways to Get Off-Season Player Buy In

1. Individual Meetings

Connect with them and work to understand them as an athlete and person. Ask questions like:

  • What are your aspirations for the upcoming season?

  • What other aspirations and goals do you have in life?

  • What are you commit to doing?

  • What are some of the challenges in following through on those commitments?

2. Team Meeting

Bring prospective players into the room and instead of handing them the plan for the off-season, start by getting their thoughts and ideas around what it should look like. Ask questions like:

  • What do we hope to achieve this off-season?

  • If you were the coach, how would you start to develop an off-season program?

  • What do we want to do as a team? Team camps, team retreat, strength program, skill workouts, pick-up games, etc.

  • What opportunities do we want as a team or individually?

  • What else should we be involved in to have an enjoyable and healthy off-season? Summer jobs, family vacation, other sports, etc.

3. Agree Upon Standards, Schedule, and Consequences 

  • What should the minimum standard for all players be? Are we okay with players not coming to anything in the off-season and then coming out for the team?

  • What are acceptable excuses for not attending our off-season program?

  • As best as possible, work to schedule off-season workouts and camps without creating conflicts with other sports, family vacations, and summer jobs.

4. The Path for the Performance Athlete

  • Meet with players who choose this path to set higher standards and make more commitments.

  • Offer them additional training, nutritional plans, off-season book, journaling, keys to the gym.

5. Communicate with Parents 

  • Share your final plan moving forward with the parents.

  • Consider bringing the parents in to discuss and take part in the summer planning as well.

  • Ask them what they expect from an off-season program? What challenges do they anticipate? What days are they headed on family vacation?

6. Empower them to Plan and Schedule

In one of James Clear’s recent blogs, he discusses a simple tool to double the chances of follow through.

“A study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that 91% of people who planned their intention to exercise by writing down when and where they would exercise each week ended up following through. Meanwhile, people who read motivational material about exercise but did not plan when and where they would exercise showed no increase compared to the control group.” – James Clear

So, it is great to talk with them about their goals and to encourage them, but one of the best things we can do is to have them not only write out their goals but very specific commitments and when and where they plan on following through on those commitments.

7. Address Incompatible Team Expectations and Individual Aspirations

At certain times we may need to communicate with the athlete and the parents that their individual goals and aspirations (or lack of) are incompatible with the teams. As the coach, you will work to create a culture of high standards in season and sometimes in the off-season.

These standards will depend on the level of your team. At the lower levels, your standards may be focused on development, but the athlete and parents want exposure. At the higher levels, you may have expectations of high commitment and performance, but the athlete and parents may be unwilling to make those commitments.

When this incompatibility arises, it is best to address it sooner than later!

A Friendly Reminder

Don’t just focus on player improvement! Create an off-season coach improvement plan for yourself with reading, clinics, and work with a mentor.

Also, don’t forget to enjoy your off-season as well! Start by scheduling time with your family and time away from your sport.

Works Referenced

James Clear Blog

Achieve Your Goals: Research Reveals a Simple Trick That Doubles Your Chances for Success

Podcast Way of Champions