Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Let ‘Em Know: Pushing Your Players Toward Success

by Jonathan Neeley

I got lucky this summer and landed at the World Games in Cali, Colombia as the imbedded reporter for the United States National Team. Watching Alex Ghesquiere and Matty Tsang, ultimate’s most accomplished coaches– there are now ten national and six world championships between them– do their thing with gold medals on the line was a formative learning experience.

What immediately struck me about Matty was his grasp of the team’s energy. It wasn’t just that everyone listened when he spoke (they did); it was that his words left each individual eager to put their best foot forward for the challenge ahead.  Whether it was that the team was capable of shifting its reliance to higher percentage choices on offense or that players would succeed if they stopped Japan’s inside breaks or that having the roster whittled down to 11 players was a chance to prove its strength, Matty’s messages were always framed in a way that pointed his team toward  success.


Matty’s approach to empowering both the team and individuals is not accidental. It’s calculated and deliberate. While interviewing him for a USA Ultimate article, I asked him about the direct praise I saw him give players– applauding Mac Taylor for his dump defense against Canada’s Adrian Yearwood on the first day of the tournament, for example– in nightly team meetings.

“I started that early on in coaching Fury,” he said. “It generally happens when we’re at Nationals. We meet every night, so in reviewing the day I pick a few people to acknowledge. It’s about building the sense of how everyone’s role is important. I think while on the surface acknowledging an individual is important but also qualities in a person’s play that lead to the team being successful. Things like work on the mark or good D on a long point go unnoticed, so I’ll uplift that quality and say ‘let’s emulate this person in that way or this way.'”

The key word here: “uplift.” By directing positive thought and feedback (vocal praise) toward a tangible action (hustle on the mark in this case), Tsang gets his team to place value on desired qualities. The explicit mention keeps the team’s focus on taking action, and using real game examples keeps his message from becoming stale or predictable.

“I appreciate how what Matty says is genuine,” said Cree Howard, a member of the national team who started playing for Tsang when she joined Fury in 2008. “Everyone on the team can see where he’s coming from and sees that the person [he is mentioning] worked really hard.” She went on to tell the story of a teammate who made Fury in 2009 and, for an entire year, was driven by the possibility of getting a team meeting shout out. “He usually recognizes only a handful of people, so you don’t feel left out if you’re not in that light,” said Howard.

Players often know that hard work, self-confidence, and a focus on controllable is the best way to approach competition, but feeling it can be a whole other matter once games and tournaments get going. As coaches, we can use approaches like Tsang’s to build an environment where players are surrounded by the attitude we want.

Let’s switch gears to another coaching legend from the Bay Area: Pete Carroll, head coach of your Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Notice anything about the subject matter of Carroll’s post-game locker room speech?

“Look what you freakin’ did!” is a direct nod to the idea that players are far more likely to succeed when they know a coach expects them to, and the way he and his team celebrate individual players’ performance is an example of the unity– and a great team is always greater than the sum of its parts– that this approach breeds.

This isn’t just post-victory jubilation, either. Here’s video of Carroll doing the same thing before the Super Bowl, and below are excerpts from an ESPN article on Carroll’s coaching style that was written before this season started:

…”I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?”…

…No one is required to be here, yet about 20 players show up at various times every week to breathe in, breathe out and open their minds… The big idea is that happy players make for better players. Everyone in the facility, from coaches and players to personal assistants and valets, is expected to follow Carroll’s mantras regarding positivity of thought, words and actions. “Do your job better than it has ever been done before,” he tells them…

…If a player is dragging at practice, a coach will be proactive and ask why — instead of jumping to conclusions and berating him in front of his teammates… “If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am,” Cable says. “I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he’s going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.”…

…1. Protect the team; 2. No whining, no complaining, no excuses; 3. Be early…

…Once practice starts, Carroll rarely stops moving, disappearing into huddles and racing across the field to high-five a defensive back for breaking up a pass. Gervais wanders the sideline much the way he does on Sundays during the season, stopping to chat with whoever walks his way. Intense offensive line drills end with combatants pulling each other up: “Stay positive,” players say to each other. “Put yourself into a mindset of greatness.”…

A lot of nitty-gritty goes into coaching: how you want players to play dump D, which drills you’ll use to improve throwing, what kind of zone you run. But  your general philosophy and demeanor–the stars you sail by– are just as crucial to your team’s performance in the long run. What Matty Tsang and Pete Carroll know is that effusive praise for both individual and team success makes their players feel empowered as individuals and banded together as teammates. It brings out the best in everyone.

As coaches, isn’t it our job to do just that?