Leadership to Capitalize On
Are you counting down the days to the start of the NHL season? I am! I think my favorite team, the Washington Capitals, are going to have an outstanding season. No, really! Well, I always think that, but from what I have seen and heard so far, this year they seem to have one extra special item in their toolbox. Not any particular super player, although they did make several significant acquisitions in the off-season that should really make a difference. No, it is their new coach. Barry Trotz, a veteran coach who is an undeniable leader. There are coaches who coach, and there are coaches who lead. The noticeable difference goes far beyond skills and drills. When players are inspired by their coach's philosophy, when they internalize and make his vision their own, that is the result of quality transformational leadership. The team is empowered and can take their collective skills to a higher level. Here is how he is doing it so far:
1. Coach Trotz is meticulous, detailed and highly organized. His every move is calculated and deliberate. From start whistle to finish, everything is done according to plan. When this is communicated to the players, there is trust. No surprises. He tells them what they will be doing and when, and that is what happens.
2. He has assembled a team of coaches and staff who he trusts to work at a high level, who buy in to his vision and own it. These individuals are at the top of their respective areas. Mitch Korn, for example, is a guru of goalies. His style and original training props (mini-pucks, white pucks, a curtain of hanging strips and more) simultaneously raise eyebrows and inspire motivation to perform among the players. The consistency among the coaching staff in their approaches to training and play is necessary to maintain credibility and trust of the players within this system.
3. Coach Trotz has a clear vision and philosophy. He communicates this to his players verbally and by example. He communicates his expectations for the team and expresses confidence that the players can meet and exceed these expectations. His belief becomes their belief.
4. Coach Trotz nurtures the team atmosphere, the "we're in this together" feeling. He personally invited select players to form a leadership group. The group members are players who can lead by example on and off the ice, who can help teammates manage their emotions so they don't get in the way. They can ensure everyone plays as a team. If there are issues, players are encouraged to speak to the leadership group, which acts as a middleman between players and coaches. Leaders were paired as mentors with rookies at training camp, even assigned locker stalls next to one another to further drive the point home that they are all one, all part of a greater whole. Everyone matters.
What these things have done is to break down barriers common in teams--veteran vs. rookie, superstar vs. fourth-liner, management vs. player. It has produced an atmosphere in which they have not just a team, but a band of brothers. The players want to play with and for each other. They have each others' backs and support each other. They fight for each other. Now out on the ice, whether they're a first- or fourth-liner, it's personal. And they're all in.
You will probably notice players reiterating these points in their interviews with the media. That shows how deeply Coach Trotz's message runs. Through repetition, example and trust, he encourages the players to make his vision their own. The players will exude more confidence, feel respected and feel like they belong to something great. They will make decisions based on the greater good of the team. This is the mark of true leadership. And it is what is going to make this season unlike any other the Capitals have had. I like what I've seen so far of Coach Trotz. I can't wait to see how it plays out!
Can I Save the Redskins?
As soon as I reveal my occupation here in the DC area, I am inevitably asked, "Can you save the Redskins?" I wish it were that simple. I could just go to Redskins Park, meet with the team in their super-cool practice "bubble," flash a smile, say something magical and that would be the difference. But unfortunately, sport psychology is not magic. There is no one thing that anyone can do or say to completely transform a team in an instant. Working with a team is a process, and involves many facets. Could I ultimately save them? The good news is, I know in time I could make a difference, absolutely. How would I go about it?
I have been reluctant to comment on the Redskins this season. It just seems there is so much going on beneath the surface, so much that is not being revealed, that it would be folly to attempt to say definitively what is needed and how to solve all of the issues. Having said that, here is how I see it.
I see a team in turmoil, from both the top-down and the bottom-up. There is a lack of trust, a lack of team cohesion. There are egos involved; the almighty dollar and the business of it all are factors. There is a genuine and pervasive lack of respect between players and coaches, but also between players themselves. Many comments by players to the media appear laced with passive-aggression, daring us to read between the lines.
It has been questioned whether there is even any talent on the team. Whether the play-calling has been sufficient. Whether players are playing to their strengths, their potential.
The functioning of the team as a whole can only be considered as the sum of its parts. Each part must be in working order for the whole to achieve success. Individual efforts can be recognized and celebrated, but for a team sport, must be integrated appropriately into a team effort.
Here is my plan of action:
If I were able to attend practices at Redskins Park, I would look for several things. I would look for the existence of an effective practice and talent development environment. I would look for practice drills that are purposeful. The coaches would know why certain drills are useful, and this information would be relayed to the players. There would be learning, not just doing. The players would be encouraged to make decisions on the field.
I would observe the feedback coaches give. Is it well-timed, productive, effective? How do the players react to being coached? Do they encourage each other? Is there tension, or are there some light moments as well? What happens when mistakes are made?
I would go to the training room, often where we find the heart of the support staff, the caregivers. Mental skills can help injured athletes rehabilitate more efficiently, and prepare them mentally to return to the field. This is vitally important to keeping them confident, motivated, and to avoid re-injury. Healthy athletes are key to consistent high-level production on the field.
I would observe strength and conditioning training. Mental skills such as imagery, can produce huge increases in the training effect over physical training alone. Stronger players perform better. They are more resilient, confident. They can perform beyond their comfort zone.
Much of what I do involves a lot of observation, listening, asking questions that help define issues and subsequent interventions. In talking with coaches, staff, players, yes, even Dan Snyder himself, I could formulate intentions for impact and appropriate interventions. With everyone's cooperation, commitment and dedication, we could, together, make a huge difference. So...Super Bowl win? While there can never be guarantees, the newly transformed Redskins would have one heck of a shot.
My Coach, the Expert
This week I wrote an article for coaches on this site about feedback. It addresses the basics, how to give feedback, how much to give, when to give it, how often. As I was writing I reflected upon my own experience with my figure skating coach, Pavel.
I know I've written about him before, and his role in my saga from scared-to-death-of-ice to pretty decent skater with a dream or two. He is old school Eastern European, meaning compliments and encouraging words are few and far between. At times it is frustrating, because I wonder why I am paying him when he doesn't say too much. But actually, I know now I am paying him for one big reason--he's good. Really good.
Whether he realizes it or not, his style of providing feedback is right in line with the research which says "less is more." He has an allowable "bandwidth" of movements within which I can perform. If I stray, he is on me immediately to correct what I have done. As I have improved, the bandwidth has narrowed. He allows fewer deviations from proper form than he did when I started. For example, when I was just starting, the focus was on balance and gliding. It didn't matter quite as much at that time whether my knees were bent as much as they should have been, only that they were not perfectly straight. My arms could be out to the side, not necessarily at the perfect angle, but mainly to help me learn how they could help me maintain balance and direction. Now, however, I have noticed that if my knees are not bent enough, I am corrected quickly. He has given me more specific detail about where my arms should be, which way I should be looking, keeping my shoulders square to the short wall. With each new skill, the bandwidth for that movement is widened at first, then narrowed appropriately.
I complained to him once that he wasn't giving me enough detail about how to perform a movement, what I should be feeling, which muscles to tighten or relax. I am a "thinking person" and like to have as much detail as possible. He is opposed to thinking while skating, but will indulge me if I ask. That is the key. He is holding out, waiting for me to internalize the movement, to get the feel of it myself, to experiment, adjust, and finally learn how to do it all on my own. He notices the adjustments I am making. If he doesn't see any improvement, he will offer suggestions. But mostly, he waits until I ask, which is usually when I haven't been able to figure it out by myself. The learning taking place internally for me, is vital to my success in skating.
So the other day at my lesson I mentioned to him how good he is, how his style matches what research suggests brings the most success. He smiled sheepishly and said, "I know this already." Well, he certainly knows it is reflected in his pairs skating team, who recently qualified for Sochi to compete for Estonia! His lessons with me, I'm sure, bring him back down to Earth and check any ego fluctuations.
How many of us "know this already" about how to get the most out of our performance? When I talk with people about what I do as a sport psychology consultant, I get a lot of comments such as, "Right! That makes so much sense!" It should. It is, as my mentor from Penn State, Dr. David Collins, used to say, "Common sense not commonly applied." I help people discover what they already have at their disposal, their brilliant and strong minds, and offer ways they can apply mental skills to improve physical performance.
We are constantly adjusting to one another, Pavel and I. He gives me a few more "very goods" to keep me happy, and I ask more pointed questions when I need them but not all the time. I am learning, internalizing, and that is the point. Pavel offers a successful learning environment. I apply the mental skills I have learned over the years, and it really helps me improve day to day.
Oh, and I have fun, too.
"...sometime, when the team is up against it -- and the
We all love the poignant, heartfelt, go-get-'em speeches coaches give when the going is tough. How's this one from University of Kansas football coach Charlie Weis, when recruiting players to his less-than-stellar Jayhawks program?
"Have you looked at that pile of crap out there? Have you taken a look at that? So if you don't think you can play here, where do you think you can play?...You've seen it, right? Unfortunately, so have I."
Not exactly Braveheart leading his men into battle. Would you follow this guy anywhere? A coach should be a leader, a champion of his team. Even a team whose record is 1-11. We are intelligent people. We know it takes a lot of individual effort put together to make a team what it is. The indisputable leader (and ultimately responsible party) is the coach. Under the best of circumstances, it's an easy job. The best players, the best staff, and you have an epic season. But anything can happen. Storm clouds can appear and the picnic is rained out. But the leader cannot be a reflection of the weather. He or she must be a constant, driving force. When it's sunny, he is enjoying the rays. When it rains, she doesn't pack it in, she brings an umbrella.
For Coach Weis to denigrate his team this way, he is effectively separating himself from them, when in actuality, he is the head of this creature. Without him, the body crumbles. Where will the team find its direction? How can Weis expect to receive the respect of his players when he cannot show any?
To me, Coach Weis has done less to show the ineptitude of his team, and more to show his own disloyalty and dysfunction as a leader.
Coaches Are People Too
On a recent trip, I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler. He mentioned that he coaches his son's little league team. I told him a little about what I do, and he suggested that I include more focus on coaches. I told him I do work with coaches, helping them to design effective skill development environments for their athletes, motivate and support their athletes through the ups and downs of sport competition and preparation, and help them become strong, confident people. He said, "But remember, coaches are people, too." I asked him to elaborate. "Well, athletes get anxious or unmotivated or angry when they don't do well, but so do coaches. Who motivated the coaches or helps them handle their anxiety or anger or stress?" He used the examples of Indiana chair-tossing legend Bobby Knight and more recently Mike Rice, Rutgers' infamous abusive coach. "We might condemn their overreaction," he said, "but maybe they would benefit from some coaching themselves." I pondered this. Many coach training or education courses focus more on the athletes and touch only lightly on things like the values a coach should possess (see Coaching article "Developing Your Coaching Vision"), or how to recognize and neutralize feelings that may be negative and result in overt negative behavior, loss of confidence, even burnout. The key to recognizing these is having a strong self-awareness.
Coaches, like any other people, have needs, feelings, wants. But too often they are taught to put the needs of their athletes first. This can lead to coaches neglecting their own needs. When this happens, their self-confidence and feelings of worth can suffer. They may feel anxious, guilty, sad, or even ashamed at times. The negative feelings can then manifest in behaviors such as poor communication, overworking, giving up or impulsiveness.
Self-awareness can help the coach recognize these feelings. Once they are recognized, they can be handled, reframed, replaced with positive feelings to increase motivation, commitment and desire once again.
The coach's effectiveness is directly related to the management of distractions which result in negative or destructive feelings or behaviors. The distractions for coaches, as for anyone, come from many sources--family, athletes, colleagues, principals or administrators, team parents. Distractions cannot always be avoided. But they can be mitigated or "headed off at the pass."
Self-awareness and the ability to handle distractions when they arise are things that can be taught using mental techniques. With consistent practice, coaches can be more effective and feel more satisfied with their own performance.
"Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there."
Personal Best Sports
The sports world is filled with stories of perseverance, failure and success, personal struggles and public triumph. Each story provides insight into the mental side of sport and activity.