Just Fine or All In—The Choice Makes a Difference

Sports are a valued part of our culture. We value sports because we believe the students who are involved acquire something meaningful through their participation. But have we ever looked closely at how they benefit? What do the students who participate in our programs actually get? When the game is over and the score is final, what do they win?

Participation in sports provides students with experiences they can draw upon for a lifetime. Valuable life lessons can be learned from participating on a sports team—lessons such as working through adversity, becoming disciplined, finding the courage necessary to move outside one’s comfort zone to learn something new, and working as a member of a team. The potential for this growth only exists if the coach is awake. Awake coaches recognize that something deep and lasting is possible when a student fights through failure. Awake coaches understand that when a student takes a risk and makes a mistake that there is an incredible potential for growth to occur—growth that, if fostered, will impact that student for a lifetime.

In the book Top 20 Teachers, the authors share that the most effective coaches “are as intentional in developing life skills and habits in students as they are in developing the backstroke in swimming or the wrist shot in hockey.” At every practice and in every game, there is an opportunity to teach students a multitude of lessons through their participation. But this won’t happen if the coach is asleep —unaware of the power coaches possess to make a lasting impact and where the development of the whole student is left to chance. We as coaches have to be awake—aware, alert and willing to focus our attention on more than winning and the development of physical skills and instead focus on what students really should be getting from us: the development of life skills.

As coaches and educators, are we awake or asleep? Do we falsely assume that the students who participate in our programs are learning valuable life skills and positive character attributes simply because they are a member of our team? If we ask students after a competition, “Hey, how’d ya do,” will they only answer with “we won” or “we lost” or provide us with some personal statistic. Or have we made the effort to create awareness in them that so much more is possible?

If we as coaches are asleep—unaware and unresponsive to the needs of our students—then our students will never know the extent of what is really possible. InSideOut Coaching author Joe Ehrmann asserts that “one of the great myths in our culture is that sports builds character, as if doing a handstand, running a race, hitting a curveball, or simply suiting up are sufficient to strengthen a young person’s moral fiber. Unless a coach teaches and models character and encourages its development in athletes, it is more likely organized sports will spoil play and undermine the development of the very character and virtue they claim to build.”

To develop better people, not just athletes, we must be intentional—we must be awake. The greater call of a coach is to be awake—mindful of what students in our programs are really getting. Our main role as a coach is the human development of every student on our team. Winning is the by-product of something bigger, an awareness in us that transforms a game of throwing a ball through a hoop into an opportunity to create caring, empathetic, responsible members of society. When coaches are awake, they take the student’s learning of physical skills and Xs and Os to the next level. They concurrently teach them the Ys, the lasting values acquired through the learning of those same physical skills.

Defining Success with “Y” Values
Consciously creating a game plan is necessary to transform a student’s experience from only Xs and Os to value-filled Ys. Asking the right questions, creating awareness, and providing experiences with greater depth are key to being successful. When this happens, success will no longer be measured only by the outcome on the scoreboard or the acquisition of a new physical skill. Instead, the true measurement of success will be seen in the students who learn the valuable life lessons participation in education-based athletics provides. So what are the desired outcomes of participation? The following are some crucial outcomes of education-based athletics as presented by Top 20 Training’s concept How’d Ya Do:

To have fun
For many adults, recreation is more like ‘wreck-reation’. We are driven as we play games to compete with a necessity to win and prove our worth. What is it that makes a grown person swear and throw a golf club when that little white ball doesn’t go straight? Our play is often not about having fun, but rather about getting stressed out. Awake coaches have a responsibility to direct practices and co-curricular activities in such a manner that young people have fun. This doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s only fun. Hard work, adversity, disappointment, and not getting everything a kid wants should also be part of the experience.

To learn
Awake coaches realize that sports and other co-curriculars are part of the overall educational experience of students. They help young people discover the powerful life lessons that are available in these activities. Some of these lessons will help students work more effectively with others throughout their lives. Besides focusing on touchdowns, rebounds, and musical instruments, they open youngsters up to these possibilities by sharing things they themselves are learning and asking students what they are getting from these experiences.

To improve
We cannot improve by only doing what we can already do. Awake coaches who expect improvement encourage students to take healthy risks and stretch outside their comfort zone. This expectation helps students overcome the fear of failure and the fear of making mistakes.

To help others succeed
It must be the expectation of every student that they learn to help others succeed. Coaches must convey that expectation to their students. They help them become aware of the importance of this and provide opportunities for it to happen. By helping young people help others succeed, coaches guide their students toward the most direct route to their own success. Think about the power of this outcome—it is those who lift others around them who will become great future leaders.

To conduct yourself well
Many times in the heat of an athletic contest, players, coaches, and fans lose sight of their values and act in ways that tarnish their reputation. Embarrassing behavior on the court, on the sidelines and in the stands has, unfortunately, become too common in many athletic events. As a rule, players, coaches, and spectators regret those negative behaviors after the contest. It is important that coaches are vigilant about their teams’ and fans’ behavior during events. No matter how the ball bounces or how the officials’ calls, awake coaches must always do their best to maintain dignity, composure, and perspective.

To appreciate the opponent
Opponent does not mean enemy. Yet if aliens from outer space observed many of our athletic events, they probably would not notice a difference between these two words. Often fans, athletes, and coaches treat opponents as if they are the enemy. As coaches striving to improve, we should be looking to learn from our opponents and appreciating skills or qualities they bring to the competition. The awake coach knows that their opponents offer challenges and opportunities to develop physically and mentally. They also offer friendships that are built on mutual respect and can last for a lifetime.

To do your best
John Wooden defined success as “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” Wooden’s purpose was not to coach his players to be better than someone else or compare themselves to others. He coached for more than winning. He coached his team to be the best that they could be as a team. The fact that UCLA won 88 consecutive basketball games and 12 national championships resulted from Wooden’s mantra of being “the best you are capable of becoming.”

To learn life skills (Star Qualities)
Coaches should understand that blocking and tackling skills are of no value to young people once they stop playing football. However, the Star Qualities that students can attain in sports and co-curriculars are valuable for a lifetime. It is the awake coach’s role to help students develop internal strengths, social skills, and problem-solving skills that can make a positive difference in their lives during their school years and beyond. It is important that the children who are participating learn not only the sport skills being taught, but also the important qualities of confidence, self- discipline, courage, and teamwork.

To learn from both winning and losing
Winning and losing are significant events in students’ lives. Awake coaches realize that both winning and losing offer wonderful and potentially dangerous results for young people. Students who experience winning benefit by learning that they have what it takes to be successful. This can help develop their confidence and motivate them to strive for even greater challenges. On the other hand, winning has such a high value in our culture that it can create pressure on youth to win at all costs. Furthermore, the emphasis on winning can result in young people believing that their inner worth only comes from achievement. If guided properly, kids can benefit from losing. Losing provides a healthy perspective. It keeps us humble and highlights areas where improvement can be made.

However, losing without having significant experiences of success can diminish a student’s confidence. It can develop in a student a reluctance to try things in the future unless success is assured. The fear of failing or losing can keep kids in their comfort zone. As coaches, we know there are positives and negatives gleaned on both sides of the winning and losing ledger; we must be intentional to ensure our athletes have the same understanding.

What did we get?
It may be a cliché, but the enemy of “the best” is not “the worst.” The enemy of “the best” is “just fine.” The experiences our students are having may be “just fine,” but can we make a commitment to give them more? Can we challenge ourselves to kick it up a notch, see our role as coaches differently, provide more for our students, and be “all in”? You can choose to accept “just fine” or you can choose to be “all in” and commit to being awake and making a difference.

Be committed and give your students more this season; give them experiences that will be the foundation for which they will build a successful life. So when asked at the conclusion of a practice, game or season, “What did we get?” you can answer by saying, “My students got an experience that prepared them for more than a game. They acquired the skills necessary to be prepared for life.”