Stay safe. Stay home. Be well to yourselves. Be well to others.
The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) provides recommendations for athletes and families as they navigate life changes brought by COVID19.
The COVID-19 Pandemic: Tips for Athletes, Coaches, Parents, and the Sport Community
Following the culmination of months of training, a fresh season of professional cycling has sprouted in Europe. Often overshadowed by the pageantry of the warmer Grand Tours, the Spring classics fail to get the coverage and attention they deserve, at least in the eyes of an international market. Travel to the Netherlands, Belgium, or the Italian countryside in March and April, however, and you will find what can truly be considered the "soul of cycling" (referenced in the linked article by Richard Williams).
Although it can be difficult to grasp for the casual American sports fan, introduced to cycling through the fervor "LiveStrong culture", cycling defines heroism, strength, and the opportunity to achieve greatness for many Europeans. Enjoy this article on the recent success of a wolf pack that happens to ride bikes, and appreciate that the best stories sometimes come when our season's begin.
A new coach is announced. The introductory meeting is set. Maybe there is fanfare involved (media roll-out, alumni support) to pump the new hire with credibility and sell them to the eager fanbase. Maybe the goal is for minimal disruption to team activities, and the presence of a new coach is treated as if they have been in charge all along. No matter the circumstance, each individual player is going to react differently to the presence of a new coach, and validating these unique, and personal experiences is essential in successfully managing this difficult period of transition. There are three basic categories that players may fall into, each reflecting different needs and warranting unique approaches from team support staff.
There is a category of players on every team experiencing a coaching change that will mourn, or display a negative emotional response, to the departure of that individual. Perhaps this was a beloved coach. A coach the player personally connected with, and felt supported by. This could also be a coach they have worked with, and developed their love for the game with for many years. There is a deep level of trust that is being replaced by a complete stranger, and can make the player feel unsteady, and guarded moving forward.
In a similar context, the coach may not have been a favorite, but the player may have benefited greatly playing under them. For example, a player who has established status, playing time, and opportunity with a specific coach may view playing for a new staff as a potential demotion, or at best, a lateral move in their career and development.
Lastly, individuals experiencing a negative reaction to a coaching change may simply disagree with the decision to replace the coach. While coaching changes are typically conducted with a sense of "majority support" (meaning the decision makers believe that most of the team is in support of change), there will always exist a group who quietly protests the logic behind a coaching change, and even the subsequent replacement. Because of their desire to "buy in" to team principles, they are rarely vocal about this dissent, and will likely only confide in their closest allies in the locker room.
How do you help "The Down"?
Accept the fact that not everyone will be happy, and that individuals are entitled to disagree with the decisions of their leaders. These are the forces that make democracy an efficient and effective system of government. These principles are no different in competitive team settings. What matters is to validate (by not assuming everyone will "buy in" right away), offer support (through discussion and follow-up), and offer a path forward to those who may have more to say on the topic (clear expectations under the new coaching staff). Except for in rare circumstances, players are not responsible for decisions related to coaching staff. However, the staff is responsible for clearly communicating (including listening) with all players, which starts by meeting them where they are (including those negatively affected). The last thing a team in transition needs is small band of dissenters, who consolidate their shared negativity into a real force of resistance.
Picture this scenario: a player is recently traded to a new team. They spend the first two weeks learning about the new environment, getting to know teammates, and making sure their performance is meeting the expectations made clear through their trade. They are beginning to understand the culture and norms with their new team, but still very much the "new player". Then a coaching change occurs. In this scenario, it is unlikely the player has a strong connection with the outgoing staff, and may not have strong feelings either way on how things are being handled. The overall goal for these individuals is to carry on and get on with the damn season. They may even be put out by how much emotion certain players are displaying, pushing everything to extremes and distracting from the real issue at hand; winning games.
How to help the "neutral":
Again, accept that not everyone will emotionally invested in the same way. Similarly, don't let the loudest voices receive all of the attention ! In a competitive culture where it is very common for the "squeaky wheel to get the grease", a statement letting players know that it's okay if they are in the middle and that you appreciate their patience in going through the process with everyone, can go a long way towards the desired successful transition. Healthy management of the team environment by support staff is most important for this group of "neutral" players, because they are watching closely and making impressions on their teammates, the organization, and the coaching staff. Make sure they do not come away from a coaching transition thinking less of an organization and its members.
Players happy with a coaching change greet the transition with a genuine sense of relief. A weight has been lifted. Optimism is once again in full bloom. For the players unhappy with their previous position on the team (playing time, status, or role), the transition period represents the very rare "clean slate" that can inspire, motivate, and activate players previously dormant under the old "regime".
BE CAREFUL OF GLOATING! It is a natural progression for team members to dissolve into petty gloating over a coach losing their job, and to align with a sense of "victory" over the change, but short-sided mode of coping can have a harmful effect on the team's transition process. While natural to expel frustration and vent emotionally, support staffs must encourage reasonable conversations on the topic, especially in private settings.
The Happy crowd also often finds themselves as the vocal majority in the team setting, as their views most closely align with the potential reasons for a coaching change. Players want to win. The coaching change (may have) occurred based on the desire to win more. Therefore players are in support of the coaching change. This is often the path of least emotional resistance when processing a coaching change, and is a common stance for players to adopt. However, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, The Happy do not represent every member of the team, and there are multiple perspectives that require equitable attention.
"Singing For Your Supper":
No matter what category a player falls into during a coaching change, they face the challenge of establishing themselves in the eyes of a new leadership structure. No coaching change requires zero change from the participants of the team, and individuals best suited to adapt to the new environment will ultimately be the ones who thrive. Whether reacting to the change with fear (of loss of status or playing time) or excitement (at the potential to earn more), energy must be mobilized effectively in order to offer the player the best opportunity to be successful through and beyond the coaching transition.
- Get your "resume" in order (by being able to answer the following questions):
Who are you as a player?
Can you accurately describe your playing style in a 30 second "elevator speech"?
What are your strengths?
Can you describe your weaknesses and describe what you are doing to work on them?
What value do you add to the team?
Can you display your "body of work"? (Community outreach, academics, leadership, etc.)
New coaches must rapidly form impressions of every player now under their tutelage. They will do this whether or not you provide examples of your strengths and self-awareness. However, as a player beginning to work with a new coach, you do have the ability to shape the narrative and be an active participant in the role you will be eventually asked to play. The alternative? Doing nothing? You are leaving a lot up to chance.
Overall, every player reacts differently to a coaching change. Most important is the validation of those differences and the inclusion of all team voices in the planning and execution of the transition. A team that values individuality and inclusion fosters authenticity and self-actualization, which is the foundational goal of every team. A team that allows players to successfully be themselves, as the best potential for individuals to become the most successful versions of themselves.
Coaching changes come in all shapes and sizes (see Part I). Changes on the bench inevitably have an emotional impact on individual players as well as team dynamics. Taking the necessary time to process the transition can be difficult, especially when the change is sudden or unexpected. But avoiding a formal and facilitated discussion with the players can have disastrous consequences, including the carry over of old problems, strained relationships, and overall ineffective team performance.
Here are a few recommendations/ considerations to processing a coaching change with the players:
1. Hold a meeting.
Make sure every player can attend and that plenty of time is allotted (an hour at the very least). Take into consideration who is allowed to attend this meeting and the impact it may have on the type of discussion that is going to take place. If staff members (either old or new) are in attendance, this my limit the amount of open discussion that actually takes place.
2. Consider who will run the meeting
As mentioned above, if an assistant coach, GM, or staff member facilitates the meeting, there are going to be limitations to how much the group is going to be willing to share and open up. Limiting their ability to process an emotional event can lead to negative team outcomes that can hinder a new coach's successful transition. A qualified member of the team support personnel (sport psychologist, athletic trainer, team doctor), unbiased to player opinions or comments can work very well in these situations. Another consideration would be reaching out to community mental health professionals who have rich experience in running group therapy sessions. This is not to say that the team is going to undergo therapy or has a significant mental health need, but counselors know how to structure insightful sessions that build off the emotional offerings of participants. In a good group session, the facilitator does very little talking, and rather draws comments from the audience.
3. What the meeting might look like
Here are a few recommendations a qualified and trained professional in facilitating group conversations may provide:
- Get the group to circle up (do not run the conversation as a lecture with everyone facing the same direction).
- Establish a clear purpose (report why the meeting is taking place, what is hoped to be accomplished, and how long it is expected to take)
- Set clear expectations and rules (this should be an open conversation in which individuals should feel comfortable sharing. All comments are valid and it is important to allow everyone their chance to speak)
- What is said in the room, stays in the room (to be a part of the group, everyone must verbally agree to protecting those who choose to share. This will help improve the depth of conversation achieved).
- Get everyone to share (opening "rounds" are a great way to open a group: "in a word of a phrase, describe what the past week has been like leading up to the coaching change for you")
- Build bridges (If a player makes an interesting comment, ask if anyone agrees/ disagrees. Ask them to elaborate further)
- Be the referee ! (The facilitator is responsible for controlling the conversation, especially when tensions get high. This does not mean halting a difficult topic of conversation, but rather directing it back to the original stated purpose).
- Avoid "hijackers" (Every team has loud and quiet players. Do not rely on the loudest voices to speak for everyone. Be sure to foster an inclusive environment even if that means avoiding a "loud voice" and seeking out the opinion of a quiet player).
- Stay neutral (The facilitator should remain unbiased and only concerned with helping the group achieve the goals of the meeting, set from the start)
- Avoid vague or close-ended questions (For example, "Raise your hand if you think this has been hard" provides much less information than an open-ended question such as "What is one word you would use to describe the recent coaching change".
Again, it is highly recommended that a trained professional be utilized to run this group session. While it may be possible for a coach or staff member to get the group talking (at length) about how they feel about the coaching change, redirecting the conversation (and the energy of the room) to a productive and collectively beneficial place can be extremely difficult, otherwise known as "sticking the landing". If the group is cracked open emotionally and not properly patched up, they may leave the meeting worse off than they started ! However, if done properly, a meeting discussing the emotional impact of a coaching change can be profound. Players can grieve. They can reestablish support in the room. And most important, they can clear space for the new coach to establish their leadership style on the room.
Overall, the player meeting following a coaching change is essential. There are many voices in a locker room, and it is very important that each is provided a supportive space to discuss an emotional experience. Trained and experienced professionals should be deployed to run the meeting, which may not include members of the coaching staff. Meetings should be organized, questions intentional, and the facilitator should continuously ground the session in the previously established "purpose" of the meeting. Hopefully, a team's goal for the meeting is to come together and enhance the common bond they share, while establishing new goals to embrace the changes. However, if left to their own devices, players may take a myriad of different routes through a coaching change which unfortunately can lead them away from the desired outcome. As will be discussed in my next post, each individual player may take the coaching change differently, and require unique forms of support to help them be successful under the new coach.
It's only December, and the NHL has already seen five head coaching changes (Kings, Blues, Oilers, Blackhawks & Flyers). While that may seem like a lot, it represents only a small percentage of the coaching changes that are currently being navigated this hockey season. In fact, the trickle down effect of those five changes alone have generated a flurry of promotions and role shuffling reaching through minors and into junior hockey. Hockey is a small community, and the ripple effect is felt by all.
A head coaching change can have a major impact on the life-cycle of a team. In fact, for the NHL teams opting for personnel changes, a major change in team dynamics and performance is what is hoped for. A new coach can bring fresh ideas, or inspiring energy that can rejuvenate processes that may have become stagnant. With a new coach, players can seize at the opportunity to play a new role and emerge feel like they are getting a fresh start.
But very little is ever discussed on the true impact of a coaching change. How it is perceive by the players. How the loss of a team's central leadership structure is coped with and rationalized, especially when the terms of the change require more explanation than "the team wasn't getting the job done".
In my next three entries, I am going to discuss the process of a coaching change from the perspective of the players, and how important questions should be asked of the team throughout the process to ensure they come into the change with acceptance, optimism, and without grief, regret, or fear of the unknown. Losing a coach must be seen as much more than a performance decision, and acknowledged as an emotional experience that if handled appropriately, can bring a team closer together.
There are three primary reasons for a coaching change: 1) promotion/ life changes, 2) response to a specific incident, and 3) inevitable change due to poor performance. The first category, "promotion/ life changes", involves a coach that is leaving their team on good terms, and for agreed upon reasons. Perhaps they have the opportunity to coach at a higher level, or have found a situation that better suits their family situation. In these cases, the change may be sudden, but it is not traumatic. Team members view the coach with compassion and collectively grieve the loss of their leader, but quickly accept the circumstances under which they are leaving. Regardless: despite being more acceptable, the coaching change is still an emotional experience, as players may be left with great uncertainty as to who will take over, and what that means for their standing on the team.
The second category of coaching change (response to a specific incident) involves the rapid response and mobilization of a team (or management structure) to replace a coach who has in some way acted inappropriately or has breached the terms of their contract. This category of coaching change moves fast, involves private discussions, and has the potential to drive a significant wedge between members of the team. On one hand, the coach being replaced may have a strong emotional response to the decision, and may attempt to recruit allies in the locker room to advocate for their cause. This can confuse team feelings of unity on the decision to move on. There are also a lot of private discussions happening during this type of change in which players are making their own conclusions based on rumors and hearsay. If kept too much in the dark, players may begin questioning the management structure of the team, eroding confidence in the club itself.
Overall, the sudden removal of a coach should be viewed as a traumatic event. Players should be expected to have thoughts and opinions of the decisions being made, and should be given the opportunity to share those opinions in an appropriate setting. If left unattended, players are left to solidify their own opinions of a dramatic event that inevitably will be projected onto the next coach who is introduced to the locker room. This is a very common occurrence and can delay team growth through already difficult times. (Strategies for leading a team discussion following a sudden coaching change will be discussed in my next post).
The third reason for a coaching change involves the gradual change due to poor performance. The squeeze out. When the writing is on the wall. This category of coaching change usually occurs at the end of a season, or when a significant milestone has been missed (e.g. rivalry games, tournaments, playoffs, etc.). Although occurring due to negative circumstances (akin to category two), this type of coaching change can be met with a sense of relief from the players and the organization. All of the negative emotions and feelings about the season almost seem to be packed up (although momentarily) with the coach as they walk out the door. And while the talent and personnel doesn't necessarily change, optimism towards new possibilities can have an immediate positive impact.
As is the case in all coaching changes, this too is a very emotional experience for players to go through. Although a different style of grieving, the team is still experiencing a loss, and the appropriate discussion at the right time in the correct setting can make a huge difference for when the team does decide to move forward. And given the rapid pace of competitive sports, there might not be much time allotted to process the change before the team is expected to perform again. And it is when these highly emotional events go unprocessed, are not discussed, and no opportunities for healing are provided, that teams experience an extension of the problems they were hoping to rid themselves of through the coaching change in the first place.
In my next post, I will discuss potential solutions to players and teams going through coaching changes that deliver collective optimism and shared direction in times of extreme uncertainty.
ESPN story on Carter Hart
Good things come to those who wait... yet fortune favors the bold. Any goaltender fighting their way through the ranks of elite hockey understands the delicate balance of pushing a career forward versus staying put. Incremental growth has been the norm for decades, and goalies are taught to wait their turn (or for the starter to burn out). And this can be sound advice. Take the goalie who pushes to fast, gets tossed onto a team (or into a league) where they are in over their head. A barrage of pucks in the back of the net can not only damage their confidence and pride, but also their career prospects, and a coach will start looking down the bench for who's next.
But to hold back can be equally damaging. Without challenge, without competition, a goalie can wilt. And without proper coaching, an attempted leap to the next level can be a terrifying endeavor.
But if there aren't enough spots for everyone to be an NHLer and there aren't enough games for everyone to be a starter, what is a goalie to do?
In what the game of hockey lacks in clear starting roles for goaltenders, it provides an endless supply of pucks. There are no shortages in players ready to shoot those pucks, and there isn't a net out there a coach prefers to see empty. And so regardless of your situation, find your net. Find your pucks. Master your approach so that you can get better every single rep. Do a good enough job with that (add a sprinkle of luck), and you'll be tapping the posts of your dreams before you know it.
Important to learn from the best. Simone Biles is the best. A champion on every stage and an incredible role model for young athletes everywhere. This tweet following the 2018 World Championships shows how committed Simone is to her own version of excellence. Her goals are organized, well established, and not swayed by the bright lights and big stage.
Self-recognition of self-determined success is what builds confidence. Knowing your standard of excellence, one that takes into account the reality of your situation (team role, injury, etc.) will help you feel successful and build your confidence every day, instead of relying on medals, championships, wins, or goals.
How do you measure your own success? Do you give yourself a chance to be successful everyday?
I recently came across this article from Costco Magazine (of all places) on a very appealing topic making its way through the world of sport and performance. The work of Dr. Angela Duckworth on the construct of "grit", a person's ability to persevere through challenges and maintain a strong connection to the long-term objective, hits the mark on motivational ideals, especially in sporting culture. Delayed gratification, persistence in the face of failure, commitment to the very end; all characteristics that describe a coach's dream athlete. As a society, we worship grit, and gritty people. We are raised looking up to heros who strived for success, worked hard, and defeated their challenges. We dream of being knights that slay the dragon.
As Duckworth Describes, however, grit is not simply the result of working hard, or setting lofty goals. For one to be gritty, the conditions have to be just right for the meaningful connection (to the goal) to take root. We want our athletes to fall in love with the process, with the fight, so that they feel like each rep, or each performance is a clear rung in the ladder towards their dream. This can be elusive as the inconvenience of the present can push certain goals out of sight.
And so we search for balance. between where we are and where we want to be. The present and the future. Losing sight of either for too long will most certainly lead to failure. Coaches and parents should be reminded that children are incredible observers and terrible interpreters (one of my favorite quotes), and that they are always learning from their engagement in a sport. Engage with them on their process. Help them find words to what they do and why they do it. Show them what it looks like to be eager to learn from each rep, even if done for the thousandth time.
There are many great lessons to be found on the topic of Grit. Grit helps raise important, personal questions with athletes, and anything that works towards uncovering the almighty "why" is a winner in my book.
In line with our theme; here is the Philadelphia Flyer's new mascot.... GRITTY.
Junior hockey leagues are constantly analyzing and lauding their abilities to move players to the next level. Obviously for Major Juniors, this means professional contracts and in the USHL, they are referencing NCAA scholarships. (This entry only references the "highest" levels of junior hockey; the pointy end of the stick). Here's the article I am discussing for this blog post:
Highlights: Executive Director of College Hockey Inc., MIke Snee uses a clever analogy involving player development and pizza. It reads something along the lines of "don't try and cook a 20 minute pizza in 10 minutes by cranking up the temperature." This concept has been the warcry of the American Development Model since its implementation, and has had a positive impact in prolonging meaningful development for players by helping them R-E-L-A-X. This is also a great message for parents who sometimes need a reminder that good things take time and to trust the process. But I didn't start writing this to stick with cliche hockey development speak.
Purpose: The primary message of this article is that junior hockey can be great HOCKEY decision for many players who are hoping to play at higher levels of the sport. What the article is really saying is that elite level players with options at their disposal should consider the USHL and NCAA college hockey because of its "longer runway" of development. As College Hockey Inc. is the marketing arm of the NCAA, this is not surprising. Promote the brand and trust OUR process for elite development.
Critique: There is not much here for the casual hockey family. Of course every kid wants to play in the USHL and to earn a college scholarship, but the majority of junior hockey players never come close to that level of success. There is not enough "pizza" to go around. Furthermore, the statistic of 95% of USHL players play at the NCAA D1 level is a sensational number, if true. I would like to see that statistic backed up with a reference, or a link to where more information can be found.
The article references the developmental benefits of playing junior hockey and also college hockey, but only briefly touches on developmental practices outside of hockey. As will always be the case, this writer will always want to more about what role junior hockey is playing in the long-term development of these athletes as they transition to the next level, whether that is to play hockey or not.
“A lot of cases, they’re living away from home for the first time, with a billet family, sometimes they’re going to a new high school, so socially, they have to adapt and meet a whole new set of friends and teammates and families.
Overall, this article provides a look at the machinery and marketing of elite-level American junior hockey (and its relationship with the NCAA). But to promote a league for how many players were moving on the NCAA is a bit misleading. Where else would the NCAA be getting its top players? The USHL has a guaranteed success rate as long as we only measure success through "NCAA opportunities". And while 95% is an impressive number to display, the top "amateur" American development league would be in big trouble if it was not biggest producer of college talent. Look beyond the numbers. Find the development. Study where it is actually occurring (vs. where they say it is occurring), and don't burn your pizza. Until next time.