Coaching Myths: My Interview with Dr. Rick Albrecht

Posted on by jafremow

Dr. Rick Albrecht is a professor of movement science and coordinator of the Sport Leadership Program at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of the brilliant new book, “Coaching Myths: Fifteen Wrong Ideas in Youth Sports” (McFarland, April 2013). I highly recommend his book to coaches and parents, and to all other folks associated with youth sports. I asked Rick, “What are the five mistakes coaches often make and how can they reverse them?” Read on:

albrechtThat’s a really great question, Jim. The hardest thing about answering it may be trying to limit the list to five. That’s not to say that coaches are incompetent or bad people – nothing could be further from the truth. Most coaches are well-meaning folks who put in a lot of time and effort for little or no compensation. They’re motivated primarily by a love of the game and a genuine desire to share the positive experiences they’ve had in sport with the next generation. It’s also important to keep in mind that sport itself – particularly at the youth sport level – wouldn’t exist without the hard work and dedication of these well-meaning coaches.

That being said, we need to remind ourselves that all the good intentions in the world won’t make a person a good coach. Good intentions are a necessary but insufficient ingredient of good coaching. It also takes someone who refuses buy into all the myths and misunderstandings about what it takes to be a good coach. That brings me to my list of five of the most common “mistakes” coaches make…

Mistake #1: Following the examples set by their own coaches or the conventional wisdom espoused by media “experts.”

We all come “hard-wired” to learn by example – and that’s usually a good thing. It would be terribly inefficient for each and every one of us to have to learn all of life’s lessons for ourselves. Coaches, like all of us, learn from watching and listening to one other. When they see a coach doing something that seems to work they tend to copy that approach. Although that seems to make a lot of sense, coaches also sometimes blindly mimic what their peers are doing – even when it’s not in the best interest of their athletes. Even though Coleman Griffith, the “Father of American Sport Psychology,” published the first scientific investigations into the art and science of effective coaching way back in the 1920s, this information wasn’t readily available to most coaches for the next 65-70 years. As a result, for the better part of the 20th Century, coaches really didn’t have much choice but to learn from one another what it means to be a good coach. Some of the information that was passed from one generation of coaches to the next was pretty solid advice – but a lot wasn’t. Even when we started spreading the word about what makes a good coach, too many “old school” coaches felt uncomfortable with these new approaches and kept to themselves – clinging to the traditional coaching practices they had grown up with.

The only way to stop this vicious cycle of ineffective coaching is to base our coaching style on scientific evidence rather than personal observation. Fortunately, there are now a lot of top-notch coaching education programs available to coaches in all sports. Nearly every sport has its own coaching education program. In addition, several commercial and non-profit organizations (American Sport Education Program, National High School Federation, Positive Coaching Alliance, National Council for Accreditation of Coaching Education, etc.) also do a great job training our next generation of coaches. The biggest hurdle that remains is getting coaches to accept the fact that they don’t necessarily know how to coach just because they once “played the game” themselves or never miss a game on television.

Mistake #2: Believing that winning equals “success” and losing equals “failure.”

It’s almost impossible to grow up in our culture without learning to equate winning with success and losing with failure. We are bombarded by thousands of messages that reinforce this false assumption at every turn. Just think about when you were growing up. If your parents weren’t able to attend one of your “Little League” games, what was the very first thing they asked once you got home? Did they immediately ask, “Did you have fun playing with all your friends at the game today?” Did they ask, “Are you happy with the way you performed today?” Probably not. It’s far more likely they asked the same thing almost every parent asks first – as if it’s the only thing that really matters – “Did you win?” Most of us never really get over measuring ourselves by whether or not we beat someone else rather than by how well we played, how much we’ve improved, or how much fun we had.

Although sport wouldn’t make any sense if no one was trying to win, it doesn’t necessarily follow that winning is the ultimate goal in athletic competition. Sport, at its best, brings out the best in those who participate. It’s about trying – and failing – and trying again. It’s about learning what you can accomplish through hard work and determination. It’s about pushing yourself – and helping others push themselves – to the fullest extent. It’s about courage, commitment, cooperation, and caring. Interestingly, none of these benefits of sport requires a victory over someone else. Let’s be totally honest, can any of us truly say that sport is a worthwhile endeavor only if we win?

If you want to see just how important winning is to you, ask yourself this simple question, “Would I be happier if I/we (a) played poorly and won or (b) played well and lost?” At the professional level – and this includes the college level too – winning is part of the job. The entire point is to win – often at any cost. Unfortunately, coaches and parents sometimes don’t make the important distinction between winning at the youth sport and professional level.

Mistake #3: Relying on the use of punishment to correct performance or disciplinary errors.

An entire generation of coaches grew up watching, copying, and worse yet, passing on – an “old school” coaching style epitomized by rough, tough, gruff coaches like Bobby Knight, Vince Lombardi, Mike Ditka, Woody Hayes, and Bill Parcells. Because these coaches – and others like them – won a lot of games, we sometimes let ourselves believe that the end (winning) justified the means (a punishing, negative coaching style). Even today, many coaches still think that a harsh, negative approach to coaching is more likely to make them successful. Unfortunately for them – and even more so for their athletes – there’s very little evidence supporting that claim.

First, there’s plenty of observable evidence that success doesn’t necessarily require an ornery coaching disposition. For every Bobby Knight, there’s an equally successful John Wooden; for every Vince Lombardi, there’s an equally successful Bill Walsh; for every Mike Ditka there’s an equally successful Tony Dungy; for every Woody Hayes there’s an equally successful Pete Carroll; for every Bill Parcells there’s an equally successful Dick Vermeil; for every Ozzie Guillen there’s an equally successful Joe Maddon; and for every Billy Martin there is an equally successful Joe Torre. It’s clear that winning or losing has nothing to do with the negative or positive way you coach. It’s simply the way you choose to act toward your athletes.

Coaches often assume that punishing their athletes for either performance or disciplinary errors will magically improve the players’ performance and motivation. They think that you can somehow “scare a bad performance” right out of an athlete. It’s not surprising that we come to think that punishment “works” – it does – but only in the short run, and only while the coach has complete control. Just think about it. If an athlete is only performing in a certain way to avoid the wrath of the coach, once the coach is no longer present, there is no incentive to continue doing what the coach demands. We need to constantly remind ourselves that punishing athletes so they’ll change their behavior isn’t “teaching” – it’s coercion, intimidation, and bullying.

Aside from the major limitation that it only works if the coach is always present, sees the mistake, and is willing to continue the punishment, it also carries with it a lot of unforeseen negative consequences for the athlete, the coach, and the team. First, it wastes valuable practice time – every minute a coach spends punishing athletes is yet another minute he or she can’t spend providing valuable instruction, repetition, and encouragement. Punishment is, by definition, unpleasant and can induce a fear of failure, reduced risk taking, and increased performance-related anxiety.

Instead of resorting to yelling, screaming, criticizing, ridiculing, humiliating, and intimidating, coaches can get far better results by taking a positive, caring attitude toward their athletes. In the last Super Bowl we saw the direct effects of what a positive coaching style can do to bring a team together at the highest level of performance. The “old school” coaches and self-proclaimed “experts” had long said Pete Carroll’s positive, supportive coaching style might work at the college level but the caring, compassionate approach he demonstrated when he became one of the winningest coaches in college football would never translate to the pros. Now, with the Seattle Seahawk’s total domination of the Denver Broncos, it will be interesting to see how many coaches jump on the positive coaching bandwagon.

Mistake #4: Instituting “cuts” even when they aren’t really necessary (which is almost always the case).

Few events in a young person’s life are more traumatic and devastating than trying out for – and then being cut from – an athletic team. Getting cut from a team is every kid’s nightmare – and it should be a nightmare for every coach too. After all, it takes a pretty cold-hearted person to not lose a minute’s sleep over having to tell a kid that he or she just isn’t good enough to continue playing with their friends.

Unfortunately, many coaches mindlessly “follow orders” and cut as many kids as they are told to by their supervisors. Even worse, a lot of highly motivated kids are eliminated from participation for no other reason than having a few extra athletes on the team might be an inconvenience to the coach or a hindrance to winning a couple more games.

Eliminating motivated youngsters from participating in sports should only be done as a last resort and no other option exists – and most of the time there are plenty of better options. Coaches owe it to the kids to do everything in their power to make cuts unnecessary. If we are cutting players because there aren’t enough uniforms – get more uniforms (in many sports uniforms aren’t even needed – a colored t-shirt will work just fine). If we are cutting players because there are too many kids for one team – make more teams. Creating more teams means more kids get more playing time. More playing time means more kids have more fun – and that’s the whole point of youth sports. If there’s not enough equipment or facilities – do some creative fundraising and get more. If there aren’t enough qualified coaches – recruit more (go to local colleges where students often have to do internships or volunteer work).

Finally, if – and only if – cuts must be made, we as coaches need to go about it the right way – with sensitivity and compassion. NEVER, under any circumstance, should we post the final roster on a piece of paper and run away and hide. That’s taking the coward’s way out. If we’re not creative enough to avoid cutting players in the first place, we’ll have to face them individually and tell each and every one of them specifically why they were cut – and why others were not. Sure we’re going to have to see them break down and cry. Sure it’s going to make us feel very uncomfortable to hurt them that badly. But it should be as painful for us as it is for them.

Here’s what it really boils down to: Cut players from your team only as a last resort, privately, with sensitivity and compassion, providing specific reasons and suggestions for improvement. Whenever you consider cutting players from your team, the best suggestion might also be the simplest, follow the Golden Rule. Just ask yourself if you would want your son or daughter to be treated this way?

Mistake #5: Failing to give their athletes opportunities to get involved in team decision-making.

Sports – especially youth sports – are often promoted as excellent ways to teach athletes valuable life lessons. Although that may be true, most coaches fail to give their athletes the opportunity to develop some of the most important life skills of all –conflict resolution, compromise, creative problem-solving, and compassion – only because they are reluctant to turn team decision-making over to their athletes.

For some reason coaches often think of the team they are coaching as “my team.” In reality, it’s not the coach’s team at all. Very few athletic programs were established so that coaches would have a place to coach. Most were set up to serve the needs of the athletes. Therefore, the team truly belongs to the athletes – not the coaches. We are only trustees or custodians who have been appointed to make sure the athletes get the best experience possible from their involvement in the program. One way we can give our athletes the best experience possible is allow them to practice their decision-making skills in this relatively safe environment we call sport. Sure, they’ll make mistakes, but that’s how they’ll learn to make better decisions in the future.

The importance of giving our athletes an opportunity to at least share in their team’s decisions has long been recognized by those involved in coaches’ education. More than 35 years ago Rainer Martens (the Founder of the American Sport Education Program ) and Vern Seefeldt (the Director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports) co-wrote the first document of its kind called the “Bill of Rights for Young Athletes” in which they clearly stated that in youth sports there exists the inherent “right of children to share in the leadership and decision-making of their sport participation.” Their call for coaches to share decision-making with athletes is echoed in Standard 18 of the “National Standards for Sport Coaches” which unmistakably states that it is the responsibility of all coaches to “provide athletes with responsibility and leadership opportunities as they mature.” Unfortunately, most of these calls for more athlete decision-making has been ignored by coaches who feel they need to control every aspect of the team – from the team goals, to the starting line-up, to the play calling, to the post-game celebration.

We often complain that athletes make poor life decisions. But if coaches continually tell their athletes what to do, when to do it, how to do it, where to do it, and why to do it – how do the athletes ever develop these important decision-making skills? Maybe it would help if coaches would just take the advice of Michigan State University head basketball coach Tom Izzo who says, “It goes back to my oldest theory in coaching; that a player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team.”

Dr. Jim Afremow is a leading mental coach, a licensed professional counselor, and the author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive (Rodale, January 2014.) Though his private practice is located in Phoenix, Arizona, Dr. Afremow provides individual and group mental training services across the globe to athletes in all sports, as well as to parents, business professionals, and all others engaged in highly-demanding endeavors. His website is www.goldmedalmind.net.