In my experience, there are many ego-driven coaches. It’s difficult to have a short conversation with some of them without being told what club they work for, or how many champions they have produced. However, what concerns me at a grassroots level is that coaches are quick to share their successes, but often tight lipped about their failures. For me, this is a red flag.
In “The Road to Character”, David Brooks says that people want happiness and success but are forged by suffering and failure. Learning from failure is, in 2019, fairly common coach-speak. We recognise that failures and learning from mistakes have made us the person / athlete / coach we are today.
Why is there such stigma and shame attached to talking about our failures?
The tragic irony is that many coaches will use their team / athlete’s failure as a teachable moment – Why did they fail? What was the reason for their poor performance? How can we ensure it doesn’t happen next time? – but I would question how many of us use the same reflective skills to improve our own performance.
I have been that coach that is too scared to admit to an athlete that I don’t have an answer to his question. I didn’t want his image of me to change – I’ve always been able to answer his questions, so why not now? – so I did the worse thing possible. I cobbled together a BS answer that did not solve his problem, did not help me get better, and weakened our relationship.
I tell that story because I know how a coach feels when questioned by an athlete, and how vulnerable you are in that moment. However, the right thing to do would have been to admit I didn’t know the answer and do my best to find it out for him before our next meeting. This would have been good role-modelling; showing how I had learned from “failure”. Others will follow you on the quality of your actions, not on the magnitude of your declarations… or BS answers.
John Wooden said that the best leadership tool is your own good example. Learning from failure is a mindset, and If we expect athletes to take responsibility for their failures and share their thoughts, shouldn’t coaches do the same?
My gut is that many coaches would feel this as inappropriate, but the days of the coach being the “all knowing” God have gone. Coaches are humans like the rest of us, and an ability to be reflective about their own practice with their athletes would strengthen the relationship, rather than weaken it. Powerful people are not undone by their mistakes or failures but by the way they respond to them.
Coaches, the first step to greatness is honesty. Use your own mistakes, failures and problems as opportunities to get better and help your athletes, rather than to feel shameful. Be like the great Bill Walsh, who would openly admit to all his mistakes to all members of his team, but finish with “… but here’s the lesson I learned.”
What was the last time you answered “I don’t know” to a question posed by an athlete, and what did you do about it?