*Coach Reed is presenting multiple topics on Communication at the NSCAA 2017 Convention in Los Angeles. His Echoes Beyond the Game Series is a lead up to the material he will deliver that week*
I’ve got this picture I sometimes show people. It’s awful. I don’t show it often because of the graphic nature. It is bad. Most people I show it to shake their heads in disbelief and say something like “are you kidding?” or “that is awful”. I save it for those unique moments that require a real shot in the arm. Then I pull out that picture.
Shock and awe, really. That is why I show it. Shock and awe. It is my Howard Stern moment as a ‘change agent’ in youth sports. If you do not believe what I am saying, I have proof. If you don’t think it happens every day, I can show you. If you think our youth sports machine is running just fine, let me show you a picture. Honestly, calling it a machine is the first sign something is wrong!
I can describe the picture for you. I make no promises you won’t be offended, but I think you need to understand the serious communication issue we have in youth coaching. This picture tells it all.
First, let me set it up for you, so you understand the context of the picture. This picture out of context means nothing. Context makes it that much more offensive.
I get a text from a friend a few years ago basically telling me she is pulling her child from a training session hosted by her club. She is pissed. She is talking about leaving the club. She is talking about writing a letter to the board. Of course, I want to know why.
She says the club organized these mandatory training sessions for all children in the “under 9” age groups. The club is big. Monster big. According to my friend it has multiple locations all across a very large city region. She explains that this club has roughly 20 teams at the under 9 age range across all these locations. The club decided the kids in those age groups needed to be trained together by the Directors of Coaching at least once per week.
I tell her that might be a good thing. I firmly believe we need to put our highest resources with our lowest ages and very few clubs do this. The young ones do not get the foundation to succeed because the highest ranking coaches only want to coach the State Cup winning older teams. I tell her this is a great notion. I wish clubs in my state would do more of this, so I was glad her region had figured out that piece of the puzzle.
Not in this case. She informs me they made the training for 6 pm on Friday nights in the fall. It was cold, rainy and getting dark. A couple hundred kids showed up for the training, because it was mandatory and no one dared skip a training hosted by the Directors. She said the kids were everywhere, running amok, like a herd of catnip hyped kittens. It was chaos. No learning. No order.
“Worse, you need to see the Directors. I’m sending you this pic. It’s enough to make me pull my kid mid-season” She says. This is all via text message, making it even worse.
What could the picture possibly be? How bad is it really? I know parents can be a little over the top sometimes, but this is a very logical sport parent.
When the picture arrives my wife and I both gasp. I zoom in to get a better look. I show it to her to get a better look.
No way this happened. No possible way someone is that obtuse to do that right. In. The. Middle. Of. The. Field. Right in the middle of the field with several hundred 8 year olds running amok!
Now you have context. Here is the picture description (I won’t post it to be fair to those in the picture):
It is a picture of a soccer field. There are hundreds of kids running around. There are cones on the field and what looks like an attempt at a structured session, but there is NO structure. The inmates are definitely running this asylum. At first glance, you can find no coaches in the picture. Just kids everywhere in a free play scenario that looks less like free play sports and more like something dreamed up by Heironymous Bosch. This is the stuff of nightmares where no learning is occurring and injury is waiting. I am all for free play, but there are no boundaries, no goals, a multitude of balls.
Standing in the middle of all this chaos are the three directors of coaching. They are huddled in a tight triangle facing each other, backs to all the children, hunched over something.
They are on their phones! Right smack in the middle of a training session, in the rain, in the cold, on a busy Friday night for several hundred families. They are each looking at their own phones and not even looking at the players!
My friend said they had been on their phones for the better part of 20 minutes at this point. One poor coach, not even a Director, was amid the mass of children trying to coach the session by himself and a few volunteer parent coaches were herding the kids.
There you have it. That picture usually gets me a gasp when I show it. Like I said, I do not show it often but when I need shock and awe I do. When I need people to understand why what I preach is important, I show that picture. When I have someone who does not think communication is the linchpin of great coaching, I show that picture.
I described it to you because I want you to understand something…they are always watching. Parents, children, fellow coaches, club executives, potential future bosses. They are watching. You may think a harmless moment on the phone doesn’t matter but it does. They are watching and they will draw conclusions about their own worth based on what they see. Your actions will shape it all.
These directors were reckless. They are not the norm. Most coaches do an innocent phone check or quick update. They don’t spend 20 minutes ignoring the kids. Most coaches mean nothing by the gesture. What if a mom took a pic of you on your phone during the session? What if a Board Member’s kid was on that field and they pulled up the moment you grabbed your phone? What message do you send? What very clear value do you communicate?
Not just perception matters. You also destroy the bond with your players. You devolve any trust. You tell them they don’t matter. You make a small box more important than them.
I get it. Sometimes you have your session on the phone. Or you have a family emergency happening and you need to stay in the loop. You keep attendance or you are taking stats. Your reason may be valid. Heck, maybe there was a very good reason for all three directors to be on the phone in my offensive pic. Maybe Justin Bieber tickets were going on sale that night and they couldn’t miss out on the best seats. Regardless of their reason, or yours, the damage is done when you grab your device. The optimum communication channels have been ruined.
You can do a few things to minimize any damage and to eliminate phone use.
Be vocal if it is a team-related issue – Explain, out loud for all to hear, why you are grabbing your phone. “Let me grab my phone to take attendance so we can get started”. We don’t communicate reasons enough as coaches. Sometimes giving reasons for the things we do doesn’t swing power away from us, it places it right back on us. Informed people trust your power more.
Be honest if it is a personal issue – We are human. We have lives that sometimes get in the way. Be honest and explain what it is. Many coaches think being open and vulnerable is dangerous. I personally think it is necessary. You want players to be open and vulnerable. To trust you. Trust them and tell them exactly why you need your phone and they will respect you for the honesty and the vulnerability. It also makes you human.
Be quick and be obvious – Make it fast. Check it, then chuck it, and let everyone see. Make sure everyone sees you put your phone away so you can focus on them again.
Assign a phone person – Assign the task to someone. If you are waiting for a call about your son’s doctor appointment, need to take attendance, or are collecting stats, have someone else do it. This creates a role for an injured player or that parent who likes to sit and watch your sessions. It also reduces your distractions. I used to take game stats on my phone and would assign it to my injured players. It kept them busy and engaged and they also became more analytical in game viewing.
Have an accountability partner or trigger – Addicted to the phone. Make someone an accountability partner who reminds you to put it down when you grab it. Or have a “phone jar”. Every time players catch you on your phone, put a dollar in the jar. Then use that money to throw a party at the end of season.
Go old fashioned – I used to keep my training sessions on my phone, organized by topic, age, date, etc. I still do, but I no longer use my phone to run the session. As cool as it was to be able to access all my sessions at the touch of a finger, it was a distraction to pull it out, there was always that concern it would get wet, lost, or broken, and it certainly could have been perceived as my slacking during training. So, go old fashioned and write out your session on cards. I made custom cards for my sessions that work like a charm. I still have my sessions electronically in a pinch, but I write every session.
Leave it in the car – Just leave it in the car. If you don’t need it on the field, don’t take it. You want to be a better coach, then fully engage in your craft, give every ounce of attention you have to your players, and leave that phone in the car.