Here is my most confusing problem in not only sports, but in the world of business. We spend so much time and effort learning how to be really good at our job or profession, but yet there is nothing that teaches us how to become a leader in those jobs. Just think about it for a second. I have a Masters degree in Exercise and Sport Science. Looking back at my curriculum in undergraduate and graduate school I took classes on nutrition, anatomy, physiology, and then all sorts of exercise testing, prescription, and theory. With this understanding how to prescribe exercises and have the human body adapt and force a supercompensation effect, I had the basic concepts of being a strength coach. Like most other good students of the science, I eventually dug deeper and invested in myself by attending clinics, signing up for continuing education courses, and visiting other coaches. The culmination of all of these experiences helped me become a really good coach. The teams that I was working with were getting faster, stronger, healthier, and overall getting better. Everyone was happy because of this. The athletes were getting great results and they were happy. The sports coaches had better athletes and they were happy. The head strength coach didn’t have to watch over me as much and he was happy. Then something happened which made me happy.
The current head strength coach left. Like many stories you’ve heard or experienced before, he left to take a position at a different college. Here in this moment was my first professional experience of the interplay of opportunity and struggle. This is the same story of mankind that has played out for the last 6,500 years of recorded history, so understanding all the positives and negatives of the head strength coach position, I applied. I got the job and I was happy. Isn’t that what we all want? To be the boss. To make all the decisions. To do what I want to do and how I want to do it. Do you know what made the job even better? I had an assistant, which meant that I had someone to all the work that I didn’t want to do. Happy days, right? No not really.
In all the years of my education and with all my experiences nothing had prepared me to actually be in charge. And at first I was a really bad boss. I don’t know what happened but being in that position of authority cause a brief bout of amnesia and I had forgotten all the lessons that I learned working in a woodworking factory in my hometown. It was an easy trap to fall into because I was a better coach than the other staff members. I knew more about physiology. I knew more about psychology. I knew more about the training theories. And I was better at getting the athletes to do what was programmed. Knowing that I was a better coach then the rest of the staff quickly made me a bad boss. I was micromanaging, overbearing, and untrusting. My thoughts circled around the belief that if my staff couldn’t get it done, then I’d have to do it myself. Yes, I was a better coach then the rest of my staff but nothing in my formal education or most of my experiences have prepared me to be in charge. Think about that for a second. We get promoted because we are good at our jobs, but my story isn’t unique. We spend out education on learning how to do our job to the best of our natural ability but we never learn what to do once we get a head coach position. Here are three things I wish someone told me, but I had to learn the hard way which helped me to become a better head coach.
Get really, really good at asking for help when you know you can’t do it and when are you going to accept help when its offered.-Navy SEAL
One of the more strange paradoxes that I have ran into involves asking for help. When I was first in my head coach position, I really didn’t have any idea on what I was doing. All of a sudden I had to do budgets, risk assessments, staff evaluations, and more unknown things than I can even remember anymore. All the feelings I had about this unknown world didn’t matter anymore, the fact is that I needed to do these unknown tasks because that is the part of the job I was required to do. So I struggled with all of my new found job duties and responsibilities that I never learned about in my education or in any of my prior roles.
Professionally speaking, this was a dark time for me. It was really a paradoxical situation for me. Finally I was in the position that I wanted, I was the boss. But I was suffering many of the effect of negative stress and found myself wishing I was back as an assistant again. Email after email was sent telling me that I was not following the minutiae policies and procedures that we were supposed to know about, even though no one ever told me or directed me where I could learn about these things. It didn’t matter: I was in the position for all of 4 days before I got a nasty email scolding me about a procedure I didn’t follow.
Looking back on that situation, it was a real trivial matter. It was not like I was putting people in immediate and life threatening danger. I did not accidently send out a list of log on credentials and passwords. I did not download a malicious computer virus. I forgot to tell a vendor that we are a tax-exempt institution and I was charged $0.87 in tax on a purchase. That one error started a chain reaction of 8 emails, 2 phone calls, and an 8 minute in person scolding. If paying $0.87 in tax caused that sort of reaction, what would happen if I really made a mistake?
It wasn’t until I was getting berated by our AD about making this mistake that I realized that I didn’t have a clue on how to do the job I was in. The really bad thing was that although I didn’t have an understanding to do this job, but I also didn’t feel like I could talk to the Athletic Director about it. Now that I was on everyone’s radar, it felt like instead of being supported so I can do the things that I excelled in people were trying to catch me messing up so they could remind me about the things that I had done wrong. It’s embarrassing, but for a little while all I was doing was just enough to get buy. I wasn’t taking any risks. I wasn’t experimenting. I wasn’t trying to grow and improve myself or my staff. I wasn’t doing any of that, I was just trying to do my day to day tasks without drawing any attention to myself. In other words, I wasn’t fit for the position I held.
Then I had a conversation that changed everything. As what typically happens, someone needed a spot in the gym and although I’m working in my office and there were plenty of other capable people lifting, there was a knock at my door and some strange guy needed a spot while he was benching. After he got his reps, we started to make that typical small talk that always happens after you have just trusted a complete stranger to save your life if the lift goes wrong. It happened that the guy I spotted was the new commander of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC) on campus. The ROTC program is held on college campuses that prepares people to enter the United States military as officers. Of the many things we would eventually talk about, one of the first topics was about what the cadets would do for training. We talked about the typical style of physical training (PT) and the obstacle course, but the thing that stood out to me was the confidence course. Unlike the obstacle course which is timed and students are ranked, the confidence course is never timed and most of the challenges are very difficult to complete by yourself. What happens is that the cadets learn that to pass the confidence course, you have to help each other. The cadets that don’t help others slowly find themselves ostracized by the rest of the group, until they start helping others.
Thinking about the conversation, I wondered if I was in a similar situation. Here I am, strong and proud, doing everything on my own and struggling with it all. So I did a little experiment. I offered my help. Starting small, I talked to our coaches. I asked them what problems they were having and tried to help them fix it. In helping the coaches fix their problems, we talked about the administrative issues I was having. Guess what. In helping our coaches find solutions to their problems, I was getting solutions to my problems. Now I wasn’t on people’s radars for making small trivial mistakes anymore. I felt like myself again. I was taking risks. I was experimenting. I was trying to grow and improve myself or my staff. I was again fit for the position I held.
I decided at that moment to create an environment where my staff felt comfortable coming to me and ask for help. It takes a lot of courage to go to your boss and tell them, “I’m struggling. I have no idea how to do this.” Being able to ask for and accept help has been one of the qualities I try to develop because as the Army displays in the confidence course, all of us needs each of us. Now let me be clear, I’m not saying hire incompent people. Not at all. You have to hire quality people and encourage them to take risks and to put these people into situations where their professional skills, education, and background will not be adequate. Sure you can let your staff struggle with situations that they have never been prepared for. Which I still do, at least for a while to see if the are creative enough to find the solution. Then after a while I come by and ask the staff member a really simple question: “What can I do to help you do your job better?”
Learn to Talk Last
Here is the classic example that is played out on TV, movies, and in real life. There is a board room where executives sit down by their rank. The most senior ones sit closest to the head of the table, where the most junior ones sit farthest away from the head of the table. One person comes in, sits at the head of the table, says “Here’s our problem and this is my solution. What do you think?” It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that the boss’s idea usually passes with an overwhelming amount of support regardless of how good or bad of an idea it is. When the meeting is over everyone leaves and goes back to their areas and talks about the decision. Some people are happy. Others are disappointed. Many are resentful. They are resentful because they might have had a better idea but they never had a chance to express it. Sure the boss asked “What does everyone think?” but we all know that doesn’t work. Once the boss says their idea, who is going to have enough courage to disagree with it?
It is inherent in the human spirit that we want the people who are incharge to hear and understand us. All you have to do is look at the world of politics for examples. People vote for the politicians that they think understand them. In 2016 presidential candidate Trump was campaigning in West Virginia, an area that has been severely impacted over the long term decline of coal mining and use to produce energy. Candidate Trump said if he would win the election, "For those miners, get ready because you're going to be working your asses off," Now we all know that this is bull shit. Political candidates are pandering for our votes, and are telling us the things that we want to hear in exchange for the power of our vote on election day. If candidate Trump wanted to really help the coal miners, he could have suggested that they should consider moving to find a safer and more stable jobs because they are working in an industry that has a well established history of environmental damage and has been declining since the 1950’s. But he didn’t. This is a great example of the power of wanting to be heard.
So how do you take advantage of letting people be heard? Learn to be the last to speak and to actually hear what other people are saying. This is not a skill that is easy to learn either. The former South Aferican president Nelson Mandella had a reputation of being a great mediator and a wise leader, in which he credited his father for teaching him this skill while he was a boy. Nelson Mandella’s father was a tribal leader and when ever there was an issue in their community, all the other leaders would gather in a circle, the problem would be brought forward, and everyone would state their opinion while the person having the final say would be the last one to speak. It is this skill, that Mandella credited as one of the key abilities that let him grow to a world leader.
Which brings us back to you and your staff. Assuming that you didn’t just hire a bunch of “yes men” your staff however big or small has people that see the world differently than you do. Whether it is from a different educational background, social view, upbringing, or coaching experiences these people are going to use their education and experiences to come up with different ideas or solutions to the issues that are challenging you. This is what having diversity is all about. So let your staff pitch their ideas that are not influenced by your thoughts, it might just surprise you what they come up with.
What your real responsibility is.
When we are assistants, it's our responsibility to get really, really good at our jobs. We put all that formal education and past experiences to become the very best coach that we can be and make sure we are responsible for getting results. Both the athletes and their sport coaches want them to become better and are demanding that we can provide those results. But what I’ve learned that very thought is the exact opposite of what a head coach’s job is. We are no longer responsible for the results anymore. We are responsible for the people that get the results.
There is a lot to unpack in those two sentences, so let me show you what I mean by using a different example. It’s an extreme example but it works. Listen to almost any CEO of a company and how they talk. We’ve heard it before and it has become so predictable that many of us don’t even take the time to register what is being said anymore. I usually hear these people say something like, “I’m responsible that our customers have the best possible experience.” Really? When was the last time do you think the CEO has had any direct interaction with their customers? I think those blanket statements are something that we all want to hear, but at the same time we all know it’s BS. If you need more convincing, look at a business that talks about how their priority is the customers. Look at how their employees go about their work day. With forced smiles and unenthustic hello’s. Can you spot when people are being fake? I sure can. How is your experience at a store when people are being polite but fake? Does it fall in line with providing great customer experience or not? On the surface it does, but it takes more than a forced smile to provide great experiences. Yet at the same time, all of the employees are compelled to smile and when that happens the employees are more worried about staying under the radar instead of taking a risk and actually interact with the customer.
Think about the last job that you had that you were overwhelmed with policies and procedures. I understand that there has to be guidelines and boundaries but all of these policies are put in place by people that have a lot of authority but no interactions with actual people. As long as the employees follow the policies then they stay in the good graces of their bosses. Yet when they deviate from the policies, while doing it in the best interests of the customer, they get into trouble. In environments like this, you hear people say, “But I’ll get into trouble if I do (this)” or “I can't help you because we have a policy of (that).” In essence this means that we have a staff of people that have an advanced education, a variety of experiences, and at least a basic understanding of what needs to happen and then we tell them no. No, you cannot use your education. No, you cannot use your past experiences. No, you cannot make a judgement call. You MUST follow these policies and only act within these constraints or else.
Like I said, we do have to have some sort of boundaries. You just can’t walk into a bank and withdraw a million dollars when you only have $5 in your account. Nor should someone simple have carte blanche to do what ever they want within a program as an assistant, but the first thing that a new head coach should do is set up an environment where people can not just survive their work day but to thrive. The real job of a head coach is no longer to simply get results from the athletes but to take care of the people that are in charge of getting results from the athletes.
I’ll be the first to admit that people in our field, are very unique. We have decided to go into a field where working a 40 hour work week would be a luxury when working 60 plus hours a week is the norm. We have decided to go into a field where having a Master’s degree is a preferred job requirement, but we are not even remotely compensated for that educational achievement. We have decided to go into a field where many of us are being evaluated by people that do not understand our field. In spite of all of these negatives an overwhelming majority of us decide to stay in this field. Sure we might change jobs, but we stay in this profession. That says something about the type of people strength coaches are. We shall pay any price, bear any burden, and meet any hardship because we really want to teach people to…what? To power clean? No, that’s not it. We chose to suffer these because we believe that there is something more noble than simply working for a paycheck. We believe in our own ability to teach other people to become the best possible version of themselves.
This profession is hard enough and we don’t need the extra stress of a micromanaging head coach to compound it. What we do need is a head coach that will support their staff and help them grow professionally and personally along the way. When your staff feels supported and taken care of then they have better interactions with the athletes, who will then have better workouts. When people have better workouts, they have better results which makes everyone happy. All of this will happen when you realize the real responsibility of being the head coach is to take care of your staff, since they are the ones who are having the most interaction with the athletes.
Now that you have gotten your head coach position, you are truly in a position of leadership and authority. You have the power to make other people do what you say, but you also have the responsibility to take care of the people in your charge. It’s not always an easy thing, to spend time teaching and nurturing people and sometimes it backfires in your face. That’s why you have to have the one universal trait of leadership, courage.
Listen to people that have ever done things truly heroics where they put their lives on the line. It could be from a soldier, police officer, or fire fighter and you’ll hear the same story repeated time after time. When that person was asked why did you run into very dangerous situations, their response is almost automatic “Becasue they would do the same for me.” Courage isn’t some magical attribute that some people have and others don’t. What gives people courage is knowing that someone else would put themselves at great risk for them. Knowing that someone would put themselves at risk for you, gives you the confidence to put yourself at great risk for them. In other words, your staff would put ourselves at risk for you and your vision of your program only if they know that you will expose yourself to danger for them.
It takes courage to let a new staff member run with a new project. It takes courage to admit you made a mistake in a staff meeting. It takes courage to let other people voice their solutions to a problem and actually use their ideas. This is why being a true leader takes a lot of courage. There is nothing more risky than letting one of your assistants struggle taking a team when you know deep down in your heart that you could do better than they can. But we all know that unless there is struggle, there is no growth. If you want to be a leader and be fit to hold the position that you now have you have to let people struggle and grow knowing that you have their back. That is what you need to do once you get a head coach position.