The Optimal Athletic Experience: ft. Coaches
Coaches. It’s your turn.
Parents, I have heard you. I have heard that you don’t think your kid’s coach knows what he or she is doing. I have heard that your kid isn’t getting any better, maybe he or she doesn't respect you or your kid. I have heard you wanting to switch teams, or clubs, again and again until your kid finds the “optimal experience.” I hear that you want to win, and this is what you’re basing your value.
I get it, you’re paying for your kid to get these things, and you want to see the outcome… or else we get that immediate knee-jerk reaction of yanking our kid out of suboptimal environments. Isn't this true for school, play groups, tutoring, sports, friends, or whatever other 1000 things your kid is into?
But what is an “optimal experience” in sports?
I think everyone sees it differently, especially based on who you are: player, coach, parent, spectator.
As a beginning coach, one of the first things I used to ask my players was, “Are we playing to win this year? This means that everyone will not receive equal playing time.” Everyone always wants to play to win. I’d get 15 head-nods, with those little faces committing to each other. We all wanted to have a “good season.”
To me, winning meant that we had a good season and the kids had an optimal experience. In my opinion, parents accepted this to be true, as well. And when there are mid-year complaints of unequal playing time (as there always was, masked by issues "not about playing time), I had this in my back pocket as a reminder.
But as I got older and further removed from my playing days (where I was a million times more competitive than today), my thoughts about an “optimal experience as an athlete” changed.
We have the fortune (and misfortune) of living in a society where sport is entertainment. It’s awesome, isn’t it… when we win? It’s fun and exciting and players feel valued. But when you lose? You feel like an embarrassment. You might as well quit. People are disappointed in you.
As a coach, how do you also deal with losing? How do you deal with losing, when it’s only when we win, we have a good time and "optimal experience?" The parents are mad. The kids who didn’t play are pissed for not even having a chance. But if winning is your basis of being a good coach, and giving the athletes a good ("optimal") experience, then you're going to be stressed... a lot.
So when we think about the “optimal athletic experience,” we cannot sit back and think of the ideal situation, when everything goes smoothly and we experience nothing but success.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but we need a reminder:
We must consider the kids - when we win, when we lose, when they play, and when they don’t.
When I think back on my playing career, I had a lot of wins. Those were absolutely awesome and I can feel the thrill when I think about certain big wins, today. But I also remember the heart-breaking losses and not-so-fun practices where I left dripping in sweat, and pissed.
But when I think back about an “optimal” experience, I don’t think about winning seasons and accolades, really. I remember my teammates. I remember the hard practices learning new skills and getting better at ones I had yet to master. I remember having self-confidence because of the people around and what my body could accomplish.
I remember having my coaches believe in me, no matter what. I knew this as a fact, and coaches - this is the skill we need to improve.
This last one is particularly interesting to me today, and I wonder how more coaches can achieve this act of believing in their players, and allowing the players to feel that to be true.
To me as a former player, I knew my coaches believed in me, because, like many other skills, we experienced it in practice. I tested their trust by making my own decisions, and looked upon them for reaction. Once I did, they would place more on my plate. Little by little, my confidence in their belief in me, would increase.
Belief was built in preparation, and it grew in myself by taking risks.
I remember being at a big qualifier, game point in a tight match, and I was serving. I assumed my coach would tell me to “just get it in.” It was a tight game and we couldn’t afford taking any chances at making an error. But he gave me a signal. He knew I could hit it. He had confidence I wouldn’t make an error because we had trained for moments like this. And he knew a strategic serve would help us win. Confidence.
I remember being down in a set and looking to my coach for answers, as a setter and as a leader. Everyone was getting blocked and I didn’t know who to set or what to do. “You’re fine. You’re making good decisions. Your team needs you.” Prepared. Knowing.
His confidence gave me confidence. It gave me some to keep and some to give to my team.
Trust. Even if we lost, I had this preparedness and confidence that I knew what I was doing. Like everyday in practice, I’d do my best in a match, like I was trained. Failure was a challenge that I could do it better next time, because I have done it better.
Mind you, I also heard, “You should have set that with your hands,” and “You’re better than that,” because I should have. And I was. But I knew this and could take the criticism because my coach was not my enemy. Because no matter what, and despite everything, someone believed in me.
That “fake it til you make it” stuff has something to it.
We gain courage by practicing courageous acts. We gain confidence by confidencing - by doing thing we think we cannot. We get better by practicing skills.
We forget that this mental part takes just as much- if not more- effort and practice as the physical aspect of sports.
As a coach and a leader, you cannot do things for your players and teammates. You give so much, not to do it for them, but because you believe they can do it themselves.
What you are teaching them is not to tip to zone two when you have a tight ball on game point. It is not to set your All-American, when in doubt. It is “We have practiced these skills and these situations and I have seen you make smart, winning plays. You are prepared. I believe you can do this. And you're about to prove it to yourself.”
It is coaching your players, empowering your players, not limiting them. Giving them the reps to prove they can trust themselves. Challenging what they think they cannot do alone.
Confidence breeds confidence. Challenge brings new, unknowable challenges and potential.
So if we can go back to an "optimal experience" as an athlete, it is growing skills, both mental and physical. Coaches, if we can give our players trust and confidence (in you, and in themselves), they will listen to you. They will work for you. Parents will back off (*ahem*) because they see you have their kid's back.
An "optimal experience" in athletics is not winning every match, having fun only, and achieving a scholarship because of your season's accomplishments. I mean, that stuff is great and adds to the journey, sure.
As a coach, your worth (and your athletes' worth) isn't contained in wins and losses. It is giving your kids the opportunity to know what they are capable of, and test the limits of what they believe.