Avoiding the Truth

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    It was one of those coaching moments when you are so humiliated, you don’t want to speak to a soul. My team had just suffered a crushing defeat to our crosstown rivals at home on a Friday night in a packed gym. The hardest part for me as the coach wasn’t the rivalry, but that we were, without a doubt, the more talented team. We had underachieved. And does anything feel worse?

    And so, I tossed and turned all night, humiliated and ashamed. I knew what most people were probably thinking and saying: He got out-coached. In these moments when I knew I got out-coached, I was never the type of coach who would blame the players. At least, I didn’t think so, because I thought taking ownership was looking at what the players and the team had failed to do that ended up costing us the game.  And then, I would try to devise a plan to make sure it never happened again. I’d make up for those deficiencies with a tough lecture and a hard practice the next day. “I’ll make sure we don’t lose that way again,” is what I would tell the players and myself.

    At that point of my career, I thought I was taking responsibility by taking ownership of my role as a coach. But now, I know that what I was really doing was still shifting the blame to the players’ lack of effort, focus, mental toughness, or leadership. I became good at avoiding hard truths.

3 Hard Truths I Avoided

    1. I wasn’t out-coached tactically, but mentally. I was a reactionary, result-oriented, transactional coach. It wasn’t a couple of bad “chess moves” that cost us, but my lack of self-awareness and self-management skills to keep my emotions in check (emotional intelligence). I would excuse my actions with the belief that, “This is the price you pay when you are a passionate coach.”

    2. I lacked the courage to admit to myself and others that I screwed up. I knew I had been out-coached but had someone criticized me or given me this feedback, I wouldn’t have listened. I would have defended myself and made excuses. I had been giving my best effort and wasn’t screwing up for lack of trying.

    3. I lacked an understanding of how to coach better. I was doing the best I could with what I knew. I could have been more courageous if I knew what the solution was, but it is really scary to say, “I screwed this up,” when you don’t know how exactly you screwed it up, what the solution looks like, or what steps or actions you need to take to fix it.

Telling the Truth versus Leading Them to the Truth

“The transformation came when she realized that getting people to engage and take ownership wasn’t about ‘the telling’ but about letting them come into the idea in a purpose-led way, and that her job was creating the space for others to perform.”

—Brene Brown in Daring Greatly

    Sometimes, we just need time and a lot of negative consequences before we will change. This was not the first time my team underachieved. I had received some hard feedback and criticism before, but I never listened. I had become skilled at shielding myself from valuable criticism.

    Well, something different happened after this game. The next morning, I was in my office at the gym, preparing for that day’s practice, when my athletic director came by to ask my thoughts on the game. Now, even though he had built up a relationship with me over the last two years, I could tell he was beating around the bush as we talked. Something was on his mind.

    After I had given the usual rundown of reasons for losing: A lack of execution, a lack of mental toughness, and a poor night’s shooting, he turned to me and asked a question I will never forget.

“Did you notice how calm and in control the [opposing coach] was late in the game? I wonder how our boys might have responded differently, had you chosen a similar approach?”

I don’t remember if I responded at all, but I do remember that his question and tone made me feel support in that hard moment—not judgment.

    Still, the question was incredibly painful to hear. Physically, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I knew the truth and it was hard to swallow. But the feedback I had just gotten felt more like a diagnosis from a doctor telling me I had a potentially fatal illness than a sentencing from a judge. He didn’t tell me the truth; he led me to the truth with a powerful question that encouraged me to reflect on my actions and my choices.

    Great coaches, leaders, and mentors know this:  People don’t need to be told more truths about themselves; they need to be led to the truth.

Putting it into Action

1. Surround yourself with people who will lead you to the hard truths—not with people who are going to shield you from the truth or make you feel ashamed. I was blessed to find and hire a mentor a few months later who was truthful with me about my negative coaching behaviors without ever making me feel like I was a bad coach. Still, to this day, I try to surround myself and engage with people who aren’t going to make me feel bad about who I am but are going to make me feel good about who I am becoming.

2. Instead of telling people the truth, lead them to the truth. Whether it is with players, coaches, or parents, use questions instead of statements to help them become aware of their behavior’s impact on themselves and others. People need your support more than they need your judgment. As you walk with them on their journey, continuously remind them of who they are becoming in the process.

—J.P. Nerbun