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Every Moment Matters: You Coach a Person, Not a Sport

In this chapter of John O’Sullivan’s new book, Every Moment Matters, John shares ‘Lesson 2’: You Coach a Person, Not a Sport. This excerpt dives into the youth development overhaul at the Belgian FA, cites the work of Steve Kerr, discusses athlete-centered coaching and gives coaches some practical tools to self-reflect.

Lesson 2: You Coach a Person, Not a Sport

You have to ask one fundamental question: who is in front of me?
—Kris van der Haegen

You coach a child, not a sport.
— Dr. Martin Toms

One of the greatest advantages in sports is being the home team. There are environmental advantages as your opponent may be sleeping in a strange bed and eating different food. He may be struggling with a different time zone, travel fatigue, and even oxygen deprivation (for instance, teams that travel to play in La Paz, Bolivia, must adjust to its 11,000-foot altitude). There are also psychological advantages, such as the crowd influence on competitors, referees, and officials. The home team advantage has been statistically proven true in many sports, especially in the sport of soccer. That is why the year 2000 was such a disaster for Belgium men’s soccer, the co-host of the 2000 European Championships.

Heading into the event, Belgium had high hopes, which were bolstered after defeating Sweden in the tournament’s opening game. however, successive losses to Italy and Turkey saw the Belgians finishing in third place in their group and failing to advance to the knock-out round. Meanwhile, their tournament co-host, the Netherlands, was playing an exciting brand of soccer, defeating eventual champions France in group play and advancing to the semifinals before exiting in a penalty shootout.

As their northern neighbor celebrated, Belgium’s fans were in mourning, and the sport’s leadership faced a critical moment. Soccer was the country’s most popular sport, and yet they were the sixty-sixth ranked team in the world.According to KrisVan Der Haegen, currently the Director of Coaching Education for the Belgium Football Asso- ciation, this was the perfect moment to get the people around the table and ask a very important question:“Why can’t we compete with Turkey?”¹

Van Der Haegen and his colleagues knew they needed a total reboot from youth to senior levels of the sport. Success on the senior level would start with improving the experience for children in the sport. They knew they needed to improve coach education, but before they decided what to teach the coaches, they had an even more important task. They had to get very clear on who the game was all about in the first place.

“The main actor of the process is the player,” says Van Der Haegen, “not the coach, not the team, but the individual player. And if the main actor of that process is the player, then it’s very easy to understand that, in children’s football, we have to do what children like because they are at the center of everything we do. They want to play football in their own way and not in the way that adults want to play football.”

To improve results on the senior level, Belgium had to start with improving the game for their youngest players. To do so, they decided that coaches must understand the needs, values, and priorities of the human being standing in front of them, chomping at the bit and ready to play. Or, as Van Der Haegen puts it,“You have to ask one fundamental question: who is in front of me? Look at the characteristics (of the player) and then adapt the environment to fit with those characteristics. If these two things don’t fit, you are wasting your time.”

This essential question led to a major reboot for Belgium soccer, a systematic change that has had dramatic results and provides a great example of the successful implementation of an athlete-centered sporting environment, as opposed to a coach-centric environment. You coach a person, not a sport. This realization is a game changer. It will allow you to connect with more of your athletes, and it will inspire them to perform at even higher levels.

In this chapter, we will dissect the importance of creating a person-centered environment and why it matters. To do so, we will cover the following:

  • What a person-centered/athlete-centered environment looks like
  • How Belgium’s youth development transformation has driven senior team success and what it can teach us about our own programs
  • A coaching self-assessment to ensure you are creating an athlete-centered environment
  • A quick exercise your athletes can complete that will help you get to know them better

When you ask yourself, “Who is in front of me?” and you build your coaching and teaching around the needs of that person, you will find that it transforms your coaching. For many years, I did not care much who was in front of me. Today, I cringe at the thought of coaching that way as I see the tremendous difference this change of approach has made, not only for my athletes but also for the enjoyment I get in coaching. I think you will, too.

What Does an Athlete-Centered Environment Look Like?

Great coaches understand that coaching is a relationship business. They know that the sport-specific knowledge matters but is not sufficient. It is 10-20 percent of what you do, and the other 80-90 percent is all about the person in front of you. Every one of those people has unique needs, and the better you understand them, the more you can inspire them to perform well.

When I proposed this idea to Steve Kerr from the Golden State Warriors, he agreed and shared his own personal story about a career that was mostly spent as a reserve player. “When you’re not playing and you’re sitting on the end of the bench, you just don’t feel valuable,” says Kerr. It’s an empty feeling, one that he experienced first-hand. He is very attuned to this as a coach. “What can you do as a coach to engage those guys? You can’t play them all the time. You can play them…you can throw them out there once in a while and keep them engaged. But it takes more than that. It’s conversation. It’s an understanding of that player’s career. We have fourteen guys on our team; every one of them has his own unique set of circumstances. And it’s my job to understand what those circumstances are.”

Kerr continued, “When I think about Steph Curry, I immediately think about all the people who are demanding his time. And I think, I’ve got to find a way to help Steph simplify his life and get some rest. And when I think of the fourteenth man on the team, I think, ‘That guy’s career is on the line, and he is desperately trying to stay in the NBA. He needs my help and my advice.’ So, that’s a totally different job than managing stuff. But I better understand that concept because that’s my job.” This is the essence of athlete-centered coaching.²

Today’s “win at all costs” youth sporting environment is often not conducive to creating an athlete-centered learning environment. The emphasis on results, promotion, and short-term success is far more likely to result in what researchers call an autocratic or coach-centric emphasis. In such environments, coaches are likely to use a one-size-fits-all approach and view their athletes as a collective group with the same exact needs. As such, knowledge transfer becomes one direc- tional—coach to athlete—and not collaborative. It usually results in explicit learning environments where skills are broken down and accuracy is valued over discovery. Athletes are told what to do and when to do it and are expected to follow coaching instructions exactly. There is no deeper understanding of concepts and no ownership of the goals or outcomes as they all belong to the coach. Long term, athletes become so dependent upon coach input that they stop thinking for themselves.

In contrast, an athlete-centered environment is one in which the learner takes center stage. He is an active participant in the decision-making, creating not only more autonomy but also an understanding of the actions and behaviors that lead to improvement. Coaches in athlete-centered environments become facilitators and learn to question athletes in order to help them understand concepts and skills at a deeper level.They allow the time and space for athletes to develop at their own pace and put the goals of the athletes and the team at the forefront. They take the time to get to know the athlete as a person, just like Steve Kerr does for his team.

This promotes an environment where athletes gain self-awareness, make decisions, explore creative solutions, and assess choices with the coach acting as a facilitator—not the autocratic dictator. Athlete-centered coaches view the team as a collection of people with individual needs and individual developmental timelines and, thus, focus on serving the needs of all those individuals within the team concept. This is hard to do but definitely worth the effort.

Coaches that are masters at this athlete-centered approach are fantastic at asking the right questions, instead of giving the “right” directions. Instead of explicitly telling an athlete what she did wrong or how her decision could have been better, they might ask questions such as:

  • What did you see in that situation?
  • How did that feel when you passed it that way?
  • Did you notice any other options available to you?
  • Was that the best time to play that pass? Why or why not?
  • What did we do in the moments that we were having success?

These are all questions in which the coach may be looking for an answer that is “more right” than others, but she does not have a cherished outcome and avoids framing the question in a way that produces a single “correct” answer. The athlete-centered coach allows her athletes to discover solutions, to take notice of their environments, and perhaps even come up with solutions that the coach herself did not see. She recognizes that athletes who are able to discover solutions in training are far more likely to use them in competition.

Athlete-centered coaching requires letting go of your ego and accepting that sticky learning is not always quick learning. It requires recognizing that today’s result is not a great indicator of learning and development if the outcome is a result of coaching influence, not athlete discovery. Whether you are coaching at the grassroots level, like most of us, or coaching professionals, as Kris Van Der Heagen or Steve Kerr do, this athlete-centered approach is highly effective. Plus, your athletes will love you for it as it develops their competence, ownership, and connection with you and with each other.³

The Belgium FA Transformation

The Belgian FA reboot began in earnest immediately after Euro 2000. Van Der Haegen and his colleagues thought back to their childhood experiences, where often they were doing endless drills and isolated technical work while wondering if they would get the chance to actually play the game. Many coaches never let them play actual games and instead dangled a scrimmage as a carrot that they might get to if they covered all the “important stuff ” first. A whole generation of kids signed up to play but rarely got to. The leadership of the Belgian FA knew they had to change the coaching mindset to that of an athlete-centered coach.

Van Der Haegen started with his own club. The first objective was to remind coaches their primary job was to help the kids fall in love with the game. “If you can make them love the game, then you can teach them the game,” he reminded his coaches. “But if you don’t help them love the game, they won’t learn the game. And how can you help them love the game? By maximizing situations of game time in the training sessions.” After all, it’s why they signed up in the first place.

Belgium soccer’s leadership also knew that many of the world’s best players developed on the streets, playing pick-up games out from under the watchful eyes of adults. Great players needed environments where they would feel free to dribble and try creative things and where there were no referees or joystick coaches telling them what to do and making decisions for them. “You have to let them be free and then observe them and help them if it’s necessary,” says Van Der Haegen. “And if not, let them discover because they are more intelligent than you think they are!”

The Belgian FA began the revamp by scrapping traditional five vs. five games for younger children and instead played two vs. two with a goalkeeper at ages five and six.  They played six-minute games with the players each doing a half in goal and a half on the field. This format promoted dribbling and allowed players who might never score a goal in an entire season to score five or six every weekend. Fields were set up in a ladder format, and after each game, the winners moved right, and the losing team moved left. Within a few games, all the players competed against others of similar ability. Everyone was scoring goals, winning games, and having fun. Everyone, that is, except the parents in the beginning.

“I remember at my home club,” chuckled Van Der Haegen, “some of the parents said, ‘Kris, you’re crazy.What are you doing? Football is a collective game, and you’re making them play one vs. one and a goalkeeper.’ And I said, ‘Yes, football is a collective game—but only when they are teenagers and adults.’” He understood that for five-year-olds, it was about dribbling and scoring. Yet in the eyes of many, the sport’s leadership was destroying the game.

The Belgian FA decided that kids would play small-sided format games through age thirteen and only then play full eleven vs. eleven matches. They decided to eliminate all tables and standings from the game until the under-fourteen age. They ensured 50 percent playing time for every player by changing the game from two halves to four quarters and mandating that there were no subs except for an injury during each quarter. Every player on the bench at the end of one quarter must play the next one. They allowed children who were late physical developers to get a doctor’s note and play down a year with children of similar developmental age. They mandated that practices must be a minimum of 70-80 percent games-based and not isolated technical sessions. They made the sport all about the needs of the child.

“You cannot ask adults to do what children do, so don’t ask children to do what adults like to do,” says Van Der Haegen. “If you put a child of five or six years old on the bicycle of an adult person, the child will look at you and say, ‘Are you crazy?’ Yet, we do this in sports all the time. We ask them to play eleven vs. eleven or eight vs. eight at a very young age, but they are not able to do it. We have to adapt the game to what they are, who they are, how they think, and how they want to play. And then the magic will happen.”

The magic is definitely happening in Belgium. According to FIFA, the world soccer governing body, as of the writing of this book, Belgium is the number-one ranked men’s soccer team in the world and has moved into the top twenty on the women’s side for the first time in their history. It all started with the philosophy of putting the athlete first and taking a personal approach, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, to coaching. It started with answering one simple question: who is in front of me?

Three Activities to Become a More Athlete-Centric Coach

Take a Self-Assessment

In the following self-assessment tool, rate yourself on a scale of one to five in each of the following areas. And if you are brave and your athletes are old enough, have them rate you as well.

Get to Know Your Athletes Better

Third-grade teacher Kyle Schwartz knew that if she could connect better with her students, she could be a better instructor for them. She knew that many of her students and their families were affected by poverty, divorce, hunger, and many of the issues that cause children to struggle or act out in school. As a result, she decided to ask them to complete a simple activity. She asked them to finish this sentence: I wish my teacher knew…

The results astounded her. Some were funny, and some broke her heart. All provided insight into her students and allowed her to better create a safe and supportive classroom and to connect with her students by knowing their unique stories. She shared her insights, and soon a worldwide movement called #IWishMyTeacherKnew was born.4 When I read Schwartz’s book, I thought to myself, Why aren’t coaches doing this? So I decided to give it a try as well. And the things I learned blew me away.

I learned about kids who were going through divorce and others who had a parent with cancer. Some let me know they only wanted feedback in private, and others said they don’t like being first in line to demonstrate. Others urged me to keep pushing them because, even though it didn’t always look that way, they appreciated it. As a result, at my talks, I urged coaches to have their athletes complete the following sentence: “One thing I wish my coaches knew about me that would help them coach me better is…”

As of the writing of this book, I have been asking coaches to do this for three years. I tell coaches to instruct their athletes not to write about things that are obvious, like, “Help me get faster” or “Help me work on my left foot.” We instruct the kids to share something that we would likely never know unless they told us. Three years later, I have heard stories from coaches about abusive situations and family illnesses. One coach even tearfully told me how this activity actually saved a player’s life as she was contemplating suicide because her family was homeless and living in their van. The coach intervened and got the player counselling help, and the team stepped up and rented a house for the family until the parents could find jobs. We both had tears in our eyes as he told me this story and speculated that if he had never done this activity, she would have never shared this with anyone.

So, coaches, go ahead and give this one a try. Have your kids complete this sentence and see what you can learn. You won’t regret it.

Conclude Your Player Meetings with the Magic Coaching Question

Karch Kiraly was voted the top volleyball player in the world for the twentieth century and has continued to enjoy success as the head coach of the US Women’s National Volleyball Team. He is always growing and stretching as a coach, and one of his greatest characteristics is how he concludes every player meeting. He concludes his player meetings with a simple question: “How can I be better for you?” Imagine what it would do for your coaching and the connection you have with your athletes if you asked the same question at the end of every player meeting you had.

Summary

To coach more effectively, it is critical to understand who is in front of you and then build an environment that suits the needs, values, and priorities of the person being coached—not solely the person doing the coaching. In order to do that, you must:

  • Understand the critical components of a person-centered/ athlete-centered environment and build them into your coaching practice.
  • Create your own version of the Belgium FA transformation and revamp your offerings for your youngest athletes to suit their needs.
  • Take the coaching self-assessment to ensure you are creating an athlete-centered environment.
  • Ask your athletes to finish the sentence: “One thing I wish my coaches knew about me that would help them coach me better is…”
  • Conclude your player meetings with the question, “How can I be better for you?”

Great coaches are athlete-centered and person-centered. They recognize that if they connect with the individual and if they coach the person and not the sport, they will reach more of their athletes than by taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Good luck.

Photo by Alberto Frías on Unsplash