There is a famous segment in one of my favorite movies of all time – Monty Python and the Holy Grail – where the “team” of knights, led by Coach, I mean, King Arthur encounter a little white rabbit. They had been expecting a horrible beast by all accounts, and yet all they saw was this cute bunny. They gained confidence for a moment, only to be ravaged in seconds by a vicious, throat tearing flying terror – the rabbit – and then the team responded…RUN AWAY!......
Flight or fight is our primal response to fear. Coaches who use fear as a tool, must be thinking their players will fight, when they say things around the concept of “Do :__ one more time, and I will put you right on the bench…” They are forgetting to coach for people, and begin to coach for points. Most importantly to understand, a coach who does this, loses the trust of his or her players. This loss of trust is a far bigger problem than the loss of a game. The ever-wise Dr. Paul Arrington, whose niece is the US Olympic Committee’s Director of Ethics and Safe Sport, has addressed one example of this well heard on too many fields of play, in a very solid paper called “Yelling: Is It of Value in Coaching Volleyball.” He covers the physiologic responses, training methods, optimal arousal states, effective communication and much more.
Remember coach (and parents), you are a TEACHER first. Teachers build confidence in their students, and are a central part of building trust within the students. Studying (aka practice) success is then met with testing (aka matches and tournaments), and there will always be regression under stress. Do not ADD to your player’s stress in competition – for the competition will do enough of that for you. Your players need to trust that you are there for them in this contest, not against them. We coaches have it even better than teachers, for, during the test, we can provide help. Choosing to provide more fear by your words (aka threats) is simply not a principle of good teaching. Losing the match, in front of teammates, parents and fans, is provides plenty of “fear” and stress. They need you to believe in them, not doubt them, for if they are losing, they are likely already doubting themselves.
Help your team have a holy hand grenade of confidence, by never resorting to using fear in teaching. Each game has six opponents who have been hoping to put fear into their adversaries, from the very first hits of the “warm up display…” Your team does not need another opponent to be sitting on their own team bench, ready to leap at their throats when an error in judgment or timing happens on the court – they need another leader of character building, who says in both body posture and soul – “Never, never, never, never give up” as someone else from England once said, by the name of Winston Churchill… whose counterpart from the USA said in that same period of World War – “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself…” There was no need to fear these leaders – for they clearly were on the side of their own countrymen, fighting against fear, not using fear to “lead.”
The process of becoming the best you can be, is a journey fraught with failing. Indeed, one of the uniqueness of the sport of volleyball, is that every point, is in no small way a “fail” of one or the other team. Since every rally now results in a point, that is a lot of little moments to fail…. But perhaps one of the most important jobs of a coach occurs in each of these moments your team fails….letting your team know that is ok to fail….but you and the staff – even if your team “staff” is just you – will NEVER let them be a failure.
A Russian coaching friend for many decades, Yuri Tshesnokov, who I had the pleasure of working with over the years we worked together on the FIVB Technical and Coaches Commission, was asked by our USA coach Bill Neville, how many Olympic level players do you have in the Soviet Union. He estimated about 1,000. Bill followed up with, so how do you pick your top 12? To which Yuri responded – resilience. He felt that perhaps the most important “skill” is the ability to deal with the fact that basically every point scored against you, was happening due to an error – and that those dealt best with this never ending roller coaster, river rapids like ride of a game as it ebbs and flows and grows point by point with errors - were who he wanted on the team.
A recent and WONDERFUL talk on TED.com by the head of DARPA is a personal must view. She makes clear that she is not encouraging failure, but discouraging fear of failure.. The TED site intros it with… “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?" asks Regina Dugan, then director of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In this breathtaking talk she describes some of the extraordinary projects -- a robotic hummingbird, a prosthetic arm controlled by thought, and, well, the internet -- that her agency has created by not worrying that they might fail.” In it she quotes Georges Clemenceau - “Life gets interesting when we fail, because it is a sign we have surpassed ourselves….” THAT is such a great quote…
Sure, you can use fear, including punishment, to “teach,” – but as I noted in my recent blog on>“Coaching the Human Animal” it does not result in greatness or a desire to pursue deliberate practice. You know there bear, if you miss that trick one more time, I will have to put you in your cage for a day…Yeah THAT gets results. NOT.
Time to take a proud dad moment too, to give a shout out to the Princeton Tigers and especially my son, Cody, the group that helped me write perhaps my most popular blog "What Can a Player Control."
Cody was just named newcomer of the year for the league and to the league first time, as he is leading the league in points per set and kills per set, and 6th ranked in the nation in kills per set - most of any freshmen. Cody grew up never being coached by fear....but the press release alerting me to his awards had a name that brought some tears to my eyes - "Uvaldo Acosta." To see they have named the EIVA player of the year (fittingly given this year to the great Joe Sunder) in UV's honor, brought such a rush of memories. I played against UV in USAV adult tourneys when he was a joyful high school player from ElPasoTX/Juarez, and supported him thru his career from player to coach, and still miss him greatly. That he died in the heavy surf off of a Hawaiian beach attempt to save one of his George Mason players shows the team player he was till the very end. I see the same joy to play this game in my son's play on the court, that UV exhibited all the way through his USA National Team practices and playing career. No fear, just joy. We all must ensure we give our players this passion to fight, and not for flight from what is ahead.
It seems fitting to end with the lessons from another great movie – the Wizard of Oz. The venerable Terry Pettit wisely notes about this classic ““The question is not whether or not the monkeys will come. The monkeys always come. The question is whether or not your team committed to behaviors that give them the best chance to be successful.” Just take some time to reflect on the final lessons learned by Dorothy, the scarecrow, tin man and the “cowardly lion,” from none other than the “all powerful wizard.” How did the witch rule her charges, AND the Wizard of Oz, before he was discovered behind his curtain? There may be no place like home court, but it is our duty as wizards of our playing area, to instill our athletes to PLAY smart, PLAY with heart, and PLAY courage, founded on a JOY to compete – not one of fear of failure or losing. This is not to be feared, but to be rejoiced. It is done by being a true team leader - not through fear - but by leading our players to believe in themselves, by believing in them. ESPECIALLY when the monkeys are flying around....