Giving More to Our Players

7 Minute Read or Listen on Here

“When you begin to see others as people you end up seeing people who have hopes, dreams, fears, and even justifications that resemble your own.” –The Arbinger Institute

Years ago, a mentor asked me to write down the first word that came to mind for each of the players on my team. These were the most common words that came to mind.Lazy







These words reflected my attitude towards my players. One reason I viewed my players in this way was because I had a habit of spending a lot of time dwelling on all problems with these players and all the things I did for them: Retreats, team camps, tournaments, early morning workouts, practice plans, game film, team banquets, and highlight films.

I focused a great deal on the sacrifices I made for them, sacrifices I made in the hope of getting more out of them. I made myself out to be a martyr, selflessly sacrificing my time and money in the service of these players to fix and change them.

But by doing this simple reflection activity, I became aware of my lack of empathy and compassion for them as people. When we do things for others and expect something in return, we aren’t loving them; we are using them. I viewed my players as objects—as either obstacles keeping me from where I wanted to go or opportunities that would help me get where I wanted to go.

The Shift

I recently heard the comedian Michael Jr. speak at Angela Duckworth’s Educator Summit about a shift in his attitude and perspective on comedy. One day, he had a realization about his mode of operation as a comedian. Up until that point, he had always performed to “get laughs” from the audience, but he suddenly felt a change of heart and decided to perform to “give laughs” instead. It became about what he could give others—not what they could give him. This simple, but difficult, adjustment transformed his comedy shows and suddenly, he started to influence people in a whole new way, becoming More than Funny—which happens to be the title of his upcoming movie.

As I became aware of my default mode of operation, I started to take several steps to retrain my attitude, way of being, or heart posture, as my mentor Jamie Gilbert called it. Instead of asking, “What can this player do for me?”, I started to ask, “What more can I do for this person?” I started to focus on giving more to my players, instead of getting more out of my players.

When we are trying to shift from being a transactional coach to a transformational coach, I think we often try to start with a change in leadership strategies. But the shift truly starts with a change of heart.

“The deepest way in which we are right or wrong is in our way of being toward others. I can be right on the surface—in my behavior or positions—while being entirely mistaken beneath, in my way of being.”  -The Arbinger Institute in The Anatomy of Peace

A transformational coach operates with a heart posture of gratitude, empathy, and servanthood. Unlike Michael Jr.’s story, it won’t happen in one single moment onstage. Most of us have to intentionally retrain our heart and attitude towards our players, so we can start to see them as people.

8 Practical Ways of Seeing Your Athletes as People

1. Drop the title of “coach”. I decided that if I wanted to start seeing athletes as people, I had to start seeing myself as more than just a coach. I had to see myself as a person who serves by coaching, teaching, and mentoring. So, I no longer introduce myself as “Coach Nerbun”. Instead, I introduce myself using my first name (J.P.), and players are not required or asked to call me “coach”. Most people insist on being called “coach”. Culturally, it wasn’t required when I was coaching in Ireland, and my players there usually called me by my first name. When players called me “coach”, it never led to stronger relationships or more respect. Rather, in my experience, what has mattered most was who I was as a person.

2. Use language that values the person. As often as possible, we should try to refer to players or athletes as people we serve and lead. Being intentional in our language is a powerful way to remind ourselves and others that we see the person—not just the athlete.

3. Focus on serving the person—not getting more from the athlete. The comedian, Michael Jr., often says that the day everything changed for him was when he stopped trying to “get laughs” and instead, focused on “giving laughs”.  As coaches, we talk a lot about finding ways to get more out of players, but what would happen if we focused on giving more to our players instead?

4. Work with and talk with people. In his article, “How I Stopped Dealing with Parents”, my buddy, Nate Sanderson, really brought my attention to this distinction. I used to “deal with” or “handle” players; now, I try to “work with” people. I used to “talk to” athletes and coaches; now, I try to “talk with” people.

5. Encourage the people we coach to become the best versions of themselves. As coaches, we can easily get hung up on envisioning and talking about the “dream player”. You know, the one who is coachable, hardworking, skilled, athletic, and selfless. Well, that player doesn’t exist! Instead, let’s envision and talk about what each individual person’s best self looks like. Appreciate people’s unique qualities and differences.

6.  Stay in contact with former players.  I used to leave it up to the people who played for me to text, call, or come back and visit. Recently, I have started to make it a habit to check in with one person a day, just to let them know I am thinking of them, and I am proud of who they are becoming. If we truly care about players as people, then shouldn’t we keep the relationship going after they are gone?

7. Talk with the people we coach about more than just our sport. I used to be horrible at this, and I still struggle! Every time I would run into a person who played for me, I would see this as an opportunity to encourage and “get more out of them”. The people we coach need us to care and encourage them in other areas of their life—not just our sport.

8. Discipline with love. I used to punish players to gain their obedience, but now, I strive to enforce boundaries and consequences by first connecting with the person and then discussing the behavior I expect from them. We don’t want the people we coach to feel like our love is conditional upon them doing what they are told. Instead, we can use discipline to build character, cooperation, and relationships.

What You Will Get

People sense our intentions, and when we start to make this shift, our relationships will take on a new dynamic, and we’ll experience a new level of joy and fulfillment in coaching!

—J.P. Nerbun