What makes a youth sport experience great?

Is it the games? Is it the coach? Is it the referees? Is it the skill development? Is it the snacks? Is it the league standings? What is it? Or is it a combination of alot things? What makes for a great youth sport experience?

I recently had the privilege to attend the Change the Game conference at Boston University and learn from the ideas of some great providers and innovators of youth sport. 

It got me thinking what defines a great youth basketball league/team/academy experience.  I realize this answer is going to vary depending on the lens you are looking through.  Depending on whether you are a participant, a parent, a coach, a coach of an older team hoping this league feeds players into them, or the provider of the program.  Each group has a different desire, a different lens they view the program through.  

Too often programs are created purely with the self-interest of one group and then other groups are convinced that this program is the most beneficial to them. This reality usually is loaded with unintended consequences for the other groups in satisfying the one primary desire of one group (ranging from frustration, slowed development, increased spending, to reduced number of participants continuing).

The answer to this question is not easy and definately doesn’t appear to be universal . However, I believe a great place to start is by looking at the situations you are directly involved and start asking questions:

  • What is important to our target audience? What do they hope to get out of  participating in our program?
  • What is our goal as a program? Does our programs actions and structures build towards that goal, our compete with it?
  • How could we ReDesign our program to better serve our participants and our mission?

I don’t have answers but I am passionate about this and would love to hear others ideas/experiences/opinions.

What Xavier vs Cincinnati revealed

I found the Xavier vs Cincinnati incident very disturbing but not so much because of the fight itself.  What disturbed me the most was how this fight started and how it was commented on and treated afterwards by some  involved.

This was not  a fight  borne out of  heat-of-battle conflict, it was not a case of a fight emerging from physical contact occuring during the course of a play.  It was pre-calculated and easy to see coming.  This was a fight along the lines of the 1972 Ohio State vs Minnesota brawl instigated on a pre-mediatated cheap shot by Corky Taylor during a dead-ball. 

The fight merely served to shine a glaring light on the real issues that need to be dealt with. The real issue is the actions by those charged with leading college athletics are not always living up to their stated goals and words, leaving players ill equipped to deal with pressures and expectations of being the faces and talent of college athletics. A college athletics landscape that has moved beyond being about spirited competition and school pride to being a high revenue sports entertainment  empire. This belief is evidenced by the following points:

  • This is Tu Holloway’s fourth in year in the Xavier basketball program and Mark Lyon’s third.  It is sad that during this period at Xavier they have learned so well  the many life skills that NCAA and college administrators and coaches espouse that some 20 to 30 minutes after an embarassing incident, after they have had the opportunity to calm down, be talked to by their coaches, teamates and administrators they emerge to a press conference and talk about this being what you get, about being disrespected and zipping people up.  Those comments reveal a total lack of perspective and remorse.  Those comments prove what Mick Cronin spoke so eloquently about during his post-game press conference a lack of appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity they are provided. It also speaks to a disturbing sense of entitlement very well written about in this blog post by Mike Procopio  http://www.hoopconsultants.com/2011/12/my-thoughts-on-ate-xavier-cincinnati-brawl/

The cause of the fight is equally disturbing and has many culpable parties but here a few thought particularly disappointed me.

  • Lyons and Holloway running their mouths to the Cincinnati sideline throughout the game without intervention by Xavier coaches and the game officials.
  • Xaviers starters still be on the floor with the game decided, emotions high and running their mouths.  Come on Coach Mack don’t tell me you were oblivious to the fact your players were trying to show up the other team and that it was getting potential explosive.
  • The adminstrators of college athletics at these universities and conferences for their decisions on the suspensions after the fact.  In my opinion the announced punishments feed into the belief that revenue sports are more important than the mission and integrity of the college and do very little to teach a meaningful lesson to any involved. However,  it does remind us that protecting the future revenue streams by maintaining top basketball talent on the floor is very important to the colleges and conferences.

What I believe needs to be done long-term would need more space than this blog but I believe it starts with meeting the daily defining moments as outlined in this earlier blog post http://1010sport.com/2011/11/09/defining-moment/ .

Understanding Underachieving

Individual committment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.

- Vince Lombardi

Why do sports teams who on paper are comprised of unquestioned talent fail to deliver in reaching their collective potential?  (The Philadelphia Eagles being the most recent in a long list of examples) Why do companies with tremendous initial capitilization, staffed with experience and talent never turn a profit? For both of these questions  quite often the failure to reach group potential is the direct result of individuals not becoming fully committed to the group effort and goals.

Let’s take a look at what I believe are leading internal team factors preventing  individuals from being committed to  group effort . Please note, the action that leads to these factors emerging will differ from situation to situation but it is vital as a leader of a team to understand what needs to be guarded against to prevent underachieving.  In the teachings of Dick Bennett victory starts with eliminating defeat.

  • Team members not understanding, simply misunderstanding, or naively believing their role would be different than the role the team needs them to play.
  • Team members feel their role and efforts are unrecognized and/or unappreciated.
  • Team members are unwillingly to alter their effort/role  to best align with the efforts/roles of their teammates.
  • Team members no longer trust in teammates committment to the group effort and their own personal best effort.
  • Team members feeling the role they are being asked to play was misrepresented at their front-end.
  • Team members feeling their role is being changed without understanding or being communicated to as to why.
  • Leadership not accurately understanding what is needed to cohesively blend the talent together to maximize the potential of the team.
  • Team members no longer unquestionably trusting in the sincerity and validity to the group cause of leaderships words and actions.
  • Team members feeling leadership is more focused on the best interest of a select few than the whole.

Looking at the factors listed above it is vital as a coach that you:

  • Communicate early, often, and clearly the roles of each team member.
  • You get in alignment each team members’ expectations and understandings of their role with their actual role.
  • You never stray from your unyieding committment and focus on the group interest and goal. 
  • Your actions and words never contradict a committment to the group and goal.
  • You never assume you know what team members are thinking and you never assume they understand your motives.  You need to constantly be in dialogue and relationship with team members to maintain the trust needed to reach full group potential.

Focus on Your Teams’ Vital Behaviors

What if I told you eliminating negative comments between teammates during practice would help players accept their roles, reduce their jealousy of other players roles and increase pride in the team?  Or if I told you getting players to stop arriving just-in-time, or late, for practice and start to follow a pre-practice routine injuries would be reduced and team focus and improvement would increase exponentially?  I am not saying the above cause and effect examples are true but I do believe is there are a few key behaviors that when focused on can lead to dramatic changes on your team.

This belief is well-detailed  in a book I am currently reading Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.  The title caught my attention as a coach. Isn’t changing behaviors and actions what coaches try to do everyday?   I have wrote a great deal and believe whole-heartedly that as coaches and leaders all we can really do is try to develop a relationship in which they give us permission to influence their actions.

I wanted to share a couple of key passages from the book:

Before you can influence change, you have to decide what you’re trying to change. Influence geniuses focus on behaviors. They’re universally firm on this point. They don’t dive into developing influence strategies until they’ve carefully identified the behaviors they want to influence. And now for the big idea: A few behaviors can drive a lot of change. The breakthrough discovery of most influence geniuses is that enormous influence comes from focusing on just a few vital behaviors. Even the most pervasive problems will often yield to changes in a handful of high-leverage behaviors. Find these, and you’ve found the beginning of influence.

Discover a few vital behaviors, change those, and problems—no matter their size—topple like a house of cards.

Influencer : The Power to Change Anything (p. 23). McGraw-Hill. Kindle Edition.

The book gives some remarkable success examples  of how focusing on few vital behaviors creates tremendous change in behaviors and outcomes.  Including one about a re-entry program for criminals that has honed in on two key behaviors that if changed open the floodgates to change in their lives.

A few key questions for coaches to answer:

  • Coaches what are the two key vital behaviors that if changed would create the biggest impact on your team?  Remember: we are looking for maximum impact so take time to identify either those items that must change before anything else can and/or those behaviors that if changed will lead to change in many more areas.
  • What am I doing to isolate and focus fully on those key vital behaviors?Remember players only respond to what is emphasized and when we focus on too many behaviors we delute the emphasis and the players ability to improve in a specific area.
  • What are those vital behaviors that you feel are holding your team and players back from reaching their potential?

Why only some stay the path

The greatest obstacle to success is taking action daily, the greatest obstacle to taking action daily is finding motivation, the greatest obstacle to finding motivation is belief, and the greatest obstacle to belief is faith.  Thus faith is the foundation for all worthwhile accomplishment.

A great many players desire to achieve success in their sport.  They may even strongly desire and dream of the outcomes they can receive when successful by societal standards;  wins, championships, recognition, scholarships, professional opportunities, etc.   Yet why do so few start and last on the path of full committment towards those standards of success ? Why doesn’t the possiblity of those rewards drive every player through adversity? Why do so many stop at obstacles?

I believe the answer lies in a lack of trust, or faith, by the player that is borne out of the uncertainty of not seeing the alignment between what is on their  heart and the path they are being asked to travel.  In order to stick through a difficult journey, a path paved with adversity, a person must have deep faith that this is the path for them.  They must possess a deep faith that the path and the reward line up with their personal goals, values, and purposes.  When faced with times of adversity what is at the core of our motivation will win out. If a player doesn’t believe in the path the prospect of an extrinsic reward will not carry them past the obstacles.  Only the determination found in pursuing intrinsic goals can drive someone repeatedly past obstacles.

The only other explanation would be players simply do not desire the extrinsic reward being offered.  I hear so many pundits and expertts like Dick Vitale say on television something like  ‘if the kid would just go to class and work hard they could be millionaires, I don’t get what he is thinking’. Two things in response to that. 1) Believe it or not money and fame may not be the greatest source of motivation for everybody, if it was we would all be entreprenuers or entertainers.  2) Has anybody taken the time to find out what truly excites that player?  Has anyone helped them identify their passion(s) and how the path of working hard on the basketball court and showing up to classes might align and be of  benefit with their passion(s)?

The world’s extrinsic rewards will never be able to compete with the power found when a path aligns with somebodys passison and purpose.  Likewise a coach will never be able to fully motivate and teach a team until the players and team have faith  in the alignment between their passions and goals and the coaches vision and plan for them.

Learning is a choice

Learning is a choice, made by the learner not the teacher. Therefore,  a teacher should focus on what motivates others to learn; identify what sparks a learners curiosity rather than focusing on telling them what you already know.

It is easy to get the highly motivated player, the player who wants the same things you want to learn what you are teaching; but what about the majority of the players  you coach who aren’t this way how do you get them to learn?

Great coaches like great salespeople understand people don’t buy based on what you know; they buy based on what it can do for them.   Coaching success requires getting players to align their individual  interests with the vision you have set for the team and the players role on it.

Today’s player needs to believe before they will follow. This may be different from when todays coaches were players; they might have followed a coach before they believed. This shift is why generally today in coaching threats don’t work for long, and punishment doesn’t lead to buy-in. A relationship based on trust, transperency, open communications, and void of hidden agendas is vital to coaching success.  This type of relationship  enables a coach to identify what  motivates an individual  player and allows a player to  learn how, not told, to be successful within the framework of a team. 

Coaches and players need to stop making asssumptions about what the other is thinking and wants.  A coach needs to move out of dictating and demanding and move into the realm of dialoguing and discussing.  Please hear me I am not saying  a coach relinquish their voice in determining and upholding  the standards, philosophy, and values of their team.  What I am saying that a coach needs to understand the success of  the values, philosophy, standards they set  is depenendent on those charged with carrying them out.  It is dependent players learning and fully  buying into the vision and plan. The quickest and most effective path to that end  is to help players discover the benefit of adhering to it; and this requires a true relationship with players.  You can’t hold a player to a standard that they haven’t agreed to be held to.

Two final thoughts:

  •  No matter how talented a coach is and no matter how gifted a player or a team might be a coach can never push them into achieving their full potential.  The sad truth is that some players and some teams never achieve their full potential because they never discover what would motivate them to align their interests with what is needed to be the best they can be.
  • The best way to ensure someone believes is to let their buy-in be their decision.  The best way for a coach to do this is to engage in effective question and listening with their players.  If you have questions on how to go about this let me know and I would be happy to discuss this approach with you.

What’s your perspective on Sport? Here’s mine.

Sport has the potential to develop character as well as reveal it.

A major focus of amateur sport should be on developing character rather than preventing it from being revealed. Adhering to this focus requires us to re-evaluate our perspective on success in sport.  I believe too often we allow the attainment of percieved worldly success; wins, championships, postional titles to hide the process used in their achievement.  The ends justifying the means seems too easy and contrite.  I believe the viewpoint of too many in sport is the end is all that matters as long as we can keep the means hidden.

Please hear me,  I am not saying there is anything wrong with pursuing and setting as goals wins, championships and titles. I am saying we need to constantly evaluate and take personal accountabilty of the path we choose to take in pursuing those goals.

It is time to recapture the right perspective on sport, where how you live daily on the journey is more important than reaching the destination.   To refocus our perspective.  To understand  and live out that it is acceptable and may be long-term beneficial to come up short trying to attain the public symbols of success; if we are meeting  the standards of character on the journey we are still successful.  A purpose of  sports is  to be a vehicle to teach life lessons, to use sport as a tool and metaphor to develop character and  reinforce healthy societal values.  Unfortunately, too many of us have to come to view and place the value of sport in obtaining wins, championships, and positional titles and fame.

Redefining the perspective on success in  sport is not going to be easy. It is going to take courage.  It is going to take a willingness to change;  a willingness by people to risk losing some revenue and/or some positional status. But most importantly it is going to take personal accountability. It is going to take all of us involved in sport in any fashion at any level, to be courageous enough to daily do the right things.  To be courageous enough to speak up;  to stand against the wrong pressures;  to walk away from the temptations and trappings;  to risk our own positions or career paths to do the right thing.

Doing the right thing is not someone else responsiblity.  It is not at a level above us. It is not something we have to wait for permission to do; and it may not be popular to all involved at the time. But it is what we all need to do.  Understand none of us willl ever be perfect we will all make mistakes on our journeys, but we need to and can  be a part of creating a sports system that helps us work through our errors rather than feeding a system that trys to cover them up.