Coaching, leadership, Sports Psychology

Coaching Young Children

Recently I started coaching a middle-schooler who was new to the game of tennis. I did my usual assessment of skills and was pleasantly surprised given his lack of on-court experience. He’d taken a few lessons at another club and about halfway into the lesson he started sharing some of the negativity that came his way during that time. These were global comments on his ability based on what seemed to be a small sample size.

Criticizing other coaches is not helpful. But this boy was simply doing something very human—dealing with the confusion of experiences. In this case, his venting helped clear the space for a fresh start which is important to the learning process. You can’t have two competing self-concepts (“I am not very good” and “I am learning and improving”) in mind and expect to be present.

I have enjoyed coaching him and, interestingly, what started as a “just a couple of lessons” turned into a “We’d like to continue.” I offer this piece of information because it speaks to his parent’s tentativeness based on the previous experience. No different than any other relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever answered more questions prior to a first lesson. It felt like an interview for a defense department security clearance. And for good reason!

Because everyone is someone’s son or daughter.

And making that connection helps you to make some space between your plan, your needs, and to see that you are responsible for someone’s child.

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Notice that the title of this piece is “Coaching Young Children” and when we use this term we often think of little ones— four, five, six, seven-year-olds… But the point is we all share the same emotions and express the same feelings. They are child-like and nearly entirely nonverbal. Sure, the expressions may seem more mature as we age, and the context may be more complex. But there is a good reason why the emotional areas of the brain develop first and before we can even use words. Because it all comes down to meaning, something we feel and something very hard to explain. Every experience has meaning even if we deem it to be meaningless.

Coaching a young child, a middle-schooler or an adult may look different on the surface, but at the core it’s pretty much the same. It’s an experience based on understanding and connection. You can’t learn, grow or develop without meaning. In other words, changing anything whether it is wiring muscle memory or rewiring the idea you have of your potential as a tennis player, is expensive. It’s costly in terms of effort and time, and it’s fueled by motivation—the core of which is emotion in motion. Notice that motivation, emotion, motion, and motive all share the same root. The source is the same and nothing happens unless emotion fuels the process. We like to think that logic dictates. But the hard challenges we take on don’t often make sense from the outside. And it’s because the motivation will always be a unique fire and a singular experience for the individual.

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credits: Kelly Sikkema (unspash.com)

Coaching, leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Aligning Development for Players and Programs

(Note: A version of this article appeared in the November/December publication of Tennis Pro)

Whether you’re a player, a coach or you direct a major program, there is a simple method to assess alignment—to see if all the parts are heading in the same direction. The method is simple in theory, but hard in practice. Hard because it requires an enormous amount of honesty, vision, commitment to quality, and a willingness to adapt. Over the years I have often observed that individuals in certain settings, programs or teams do not improve despite having clear goals. Sometimes, as is the case in high school and college teams, entire teams do not improve during the season. On a larger scale, some programs fail to evolve despite the investment of effort and resources. Why is this so?

There are many factors underlying the stunted development of a player, team or program, but most of these reasons follow a common theme: misalignment. While a systems or program analysis is costly in time, energy, and resources, a simple and informative way of examining alignment is to consider three major factors: people, process, and product. How a system functions, whether it is a single player, a team or program of hundred players, reveals the value and investment in each of these factors. More importantly, how these three factors relate to each other reveals beliefs and expectations of what truly matters—the motivation for choices and actions over time.

Looking at people, process and product within a system, either a horizontal or vertical picture emerges:

process alignment graphic

Figure 1. Horizontal: People, process and product heading in the same direction, integrated and valued.

hierarchy in system graphic

 

Figure 2. Vertical: One part of the system may be valued more; system is not integrated.

Most misaligned programs or systems appear in the horizontal form (Figure 2). A hierarchy exists that is implicit beneath the explicit vision, mission, and core values. The outward message or motto may be “All in” but the meta-message is something different. As a player or coach, if you step back and reflect on experience, on some level you understand where you are in the hierarchy. Again, this scrutiny requires a great helping of honesty to admit there may be a misalignment between beliefs and actions.

The misaligned program typically puts the product or outcome above all else—because it is measurable. That outcome may be the number of college players produced. Or there might be a secondary outcome beneath the advertised goal, such as income and profit or recruiting. None of these outcomes are inherently bad and they do matter. But if the product comes without regard for the process and the people, then trouble is on the horizon.

What might this type of misalignment look like? Here is a sample tennis program (and can represent any organized system):

  • A few players receive the most coaching and attention on the “top” courts, while the rest of the players flounder on the outer courts.
  • Players receive the same instruction without emphasis on their unique talents and abilities.
  • Personal player goals (if they are even created and documented) are slanted towards outcome with little or no emphasis on process.
  • Little regard is given to the process of practice. Players do the same training or some variation every practice (The what is the same but the how and why are not emphasized).
  • Lesson plans are either missing, minimal, or general and without differentiation for individuals.
  • The focus is more on recruiting top players to the program then developing the ones already present.
  • The 80/20 principle (more like 95/5) applies and the lack of progress of majority who do not produce is explained away by competition or personal deficits.
  • Programmatically there is an emphasis on managing rather than leading.

Notice that Figure 1 has an arrow that aligns people, process, and product towards a specific vision. No such arrow is possible in misalignment (Figure 2.). Instead, the product is the arrow and the measure.

A system is designed to achieve the results it gets—intentional or not. So, how can misalignment be addressed?

  • Players can make an honest assessment of their goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. Are there process and outcome goals in place to address all these aspects? Ask if the environment supports this plan. Take a step back and notice if there is misalignment, if product is the center of attention. Consider If process matters, if people matter. Can you describe how you improved in a practice session (intentional practice) or do you just describe what you did in the practice session?
  • Coaches can make an honest assessment of goals, skills, knowledge, and attitude. What type of relationship do you have with the players you coach? Are you aware and encouraging of their personal plans? Do you stress process and quality? Do you have a way of measuring and focusing on intentional practice? Do you consider, above all, the value of getting a little better each day (process)?
  • Directors can make an honest assessment of the people, process, and products of the program. Where is the emphasis focused? Is one of these factors valued more? Is there a process in place to evaluate quality and the standards of the program? Do individuals meet their personal goals? Is there a process in place to help players develop in all realms? Do players and coaches enjoy coming to work?

Putting it all together, each of the factors relate to each other and this informs the alignment process. First, people (players) matter and inform programmatic goals for without them you have nothing. A player’s basic motivation comes from a sense of freedom, connection, and competence. In an aligned program (for individuals, teams, and programs) these boxes are all checked.

Second, process produces product. Poor processes lead to a lack of desired results. Process pays attention not only to what’s important, but also the how and why of choices and actions. Product is an outcome (in the future) and process is everything else (how we invest time and effort the present). If individuals, teams, or programs are not improving, they are going backwards in context for nothing stands still. Process is the place to look for misalignment and the source of greatest leverage.

Finally, this is not a one-shot deal. The image below is a model for development and the arrow is pointing somewhere into the future.

process alignment graphic

That point in time can be as near or as far as you choose, but movement and change will happen. Development brings new challenges and new opportunities. And it’s much easier manage these when the most important factors are aligned to a specific vision.

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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leadership, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

A Different Take on Sideline Leadership

Some media have taken an understanding of Coach Nick Saban’s tantrum during the Alabama-Oklahoma semifinal as a sign of a leader’s high expectations and demanding excellence. Up 28-10 nearing the end of the half, the Tide made errors that led to consecutive penalties and Saban’s vigorous, demolishing spike of his headset. The misunderstood genius is an old and tattered card, and underneath the words and actions, something else lurks that deserves some light.

If you caught the face of the young man (a close-up followed the headset explosion) who drew the flag, he had already paid his penance. No one felt worse and his face showed his disappointment in himself and letting his teammates down. If you have played teams sports, this sits heavy. Like the stages of grief, you wish you could take it back and the road to acceptance and being ready for the next play is difficult enough. Nothing feels better than your teammates saying, “I got you…it’s all good,” especially the ones with “C” on their jerseys. The gesture says we all have been there, this too shall pass, and we are moving on. Forgiven and forgotten—for that is all you can do anyway.

What is missing in the explanations and rationalizations of the action is the poor insight of the moment within the bigger picture. I am sure the coaching staff sat in this young man’s living room, recruiting him with promises of looking after him like a son…

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I’m not arguing Saban’s success or his net worth. I am saying that if you preach “the process” then mistakes are part of this methodology, part of the learning process. Smashing headphones is a choice based on an outcome. It is an ego-centered move that diminishes and shows up individuals who are giving blood and bone to the process. It says I do not have to respect you but you must respect me or I will smash these headphones to get your attention. And I am sure, in this impulsive gesture, not a thought was given to the fact that the headset could possibly cost more than some of the Alabama parents have in a year’s worth of disposable income.

While I respect how other media have approached this situation, and glamorized and made humor for the headset (moment of silence for the headset, haha), it is only part of a story. Underneath the outcomes are the values and assumptions that motivate choice. If a middle-aged man can act impulsively and from the anger of things not going his way, how is this a measure of the leadership we aspire to model for the ones we lead?

Call it what it is. Be honest. It ain’t about the process. It’s the outcome. Just win at all costs. And the few grand of a new headset seems a paltry price when you consider the cost of the meta-message of leadership. Every choice has a consequence whether you wish to address it, name it, forgive it, apologize for it—or not.

There is an old adage that nothing fails like success. And sometimes this speaks to more than just the numbers.

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Mindset (Part 2)

In the last post, we talked about two possible ways to consider mindset. If a competitor’s mindset is situational in terms of competing, then what could be the overarching mediator of this type of mindset? And is that a source of such contradictory behaviors on and off the field of play? Is this the source of inconsistency in events? Careers?

If you listen to coaching or teaching most of the content is on skill development and execution of strategy. In other words, there are distinct skills and a playbook for every sport. Then, how can similar skills and similar strategies produce such disparate outcomes? Is it talent? Temperament? There are many factors, but the question is: What is not happening?

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

 

A targeted and balanced approach to growth and development.

Two things are happening at every moment when it comes to learning to compete: the player’s development and the coach, mentor or teacher’s development. When most players are learning their sport they are far from independent and highly influenced by authority figures. This is a powerful source of mindset for at this stage young athletes are learning by observing, modeling, and the culture of the environment. And given that coaches can be at different developmental stages, four things can happen (for simplicity sake, we will use “coach” to describe whoever is guiding the competitor’s growth process):

  • The coach will be centered on their own program or personal needs and goals. Players are told what their goals should be both overtly and covertly.
  • The coach will teach what they have learned based in the organization (Academy, etc.) they represent or their own experiences of being coached.
  • The coach will teach based on a clearly defined coaching philosophy with the athlete’s individual goals and needs in mind.
  • The coach will see the developmental trajectory of a player as a process and adapt to the needs of the player in all developmental realms. The player is seen as a whole and unique individual.

The system the athlete learns in matters. A system that looks at only competence and not character and the interpersonal is to look at development as one-dimensional. This becomes the roots of a situational mindset, and performance and outcomes are often determined by its weakest link (such as the inability to adapt, handle pressure, etc.). Simply put, a comprehensive mindset does not compartmentalize experience, therefore every experience can be used to mature and learn.

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services, visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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