Yes, we’re those guys – the blissfully aware gluttons for punishment who eschewed sanity by volunteer coaching at the youth level in significant ways. And, yes, this post is the result of a team contribution between us - Chris Steer & Jeff Lesher.
Chris has devoted the last seven years as a volunteer, with a few of those years coaching girls soccer AND lacrosse to include high school and collegiate level. Jeff coached boys and girls soccer for a dozen years – often simultaneously – and served as a board member of a 4,000 player club for the final 5 years of his run. For those of you that are similarly unbalanced, you know that world is a carnival act…and we wouldn’t trade a second of it.
Many volunteers will say that they get much more back from their experience than they give. We’re no different. While we shared a commitment to develop, inspire, and encourage these amazing kids – we realize that we’ve learned and grown as leaders in all facets of our lives, because of our time as youth sports volunteers.
We’ve compiled 7 elements of leadership that were shaped and refined by our volunteer coaching experiences (and watch how one flows into the next):
- Authenticity – With our teams, the kids knew that we loved them. Kids can sniff out a fraud in a moment. Players, parents, and assistant coaches knew what we said and did came from a place of genuine caring. Our sole purpose became that of making the player better – inside and out – which is different than seeking to make someone great. Candidly, we’ve each been known to occasionally communicate sternly or gruffly; but for the most part, we have found the most encouraging tones possible. To earn the right to be heard when the message is tougher, we each have found ways to look for and reinforce what’s being done well. This positive, authentic tone was established early and emulated by other staff members and modeled for parents.
In your organization, the opportunity for genuine, servant leadership is just as real and profound. If you believe, they’ll believe. When you embrace your role as one that is about raising others up more than anything else, people will respond with their best effort. When you inspire others to act as you do, you expand your reach and, thus, your impact.
- Empathy – Kids deal with a lot these days – often jarring circumstances including divorce and even death. Coaching in all facets is better begun when we meet people where they are. We each learned to meet our players where they were. The brain develops well into one’s 20’s which means that a young person’s mind – literally – is not aligned with yours. They rarely see the big picture, and each is her/his own person on top of that. The effort to see into 15-17 different souls and try to understand where they are coming from and their personal challenges is a worthwhile one and the best way we can effectively coach and teach.
In your organization, at bare minimum, do this one thing: frequently ask your people how they are and are doing. Listen to what they tell you. Ask for more, and try to walk with them to a place in which they can do their best.
- Give them their own voice – If you look for a picture of a coach online, you’ll mostly find pictures of angry looking men yelling. One of us used to be a bit more like that caricature than the other, and fortunately both of us learned to dial down not just the volume but the words, too. We shifted from telling to asking. At halftime and after games, we asked players to tell us what they were doing/did well. What did we learn? What can we do better? Almost always, the players nailed it. Having the skills and the confidence to solve your own puzzle is way more valuable than someone giving you the answer. It’s also highly productive to get teams talking – not just the best players or those less inhibited – but everyone. Everyone on the pitch (sorry, soccer term) sees the field from a different perspective and plays a complementary role…so each of them needs to share their voice for everyone to be most effective.
Co-create things with your team by setting the stage, providing the tools, enabling the skills, and let them create the magic.
- Less of me, more of them – Let your players own “it” – which is pretty much everything. Own their warm up; own their training; own their in-game management. Chris has taken to sitting down during games, which is no small feat. Jeff lowered his voice and then largely muted it all together during play. They can’t hear you…or they are better off when they don’t.
Great performance born of adept leadership is marked by leaders surrounding themselves with smart, talented people, setting direction, and letting them figure out how best to thrive.
- Confidence and Trust – Encourage and elevate by trusting your players. Chris played at the highest level of his sport collegiately (Jeff did not). What we had in common athletically is that, if a mistake was made, you were pulled. That certain uncertainty crushed players’ confidence…and, frankly, crushed players’ souls. The irony is that you have to be fearless to play at your best. The most powerful words we can use as coaches is “I trust you” and back it up with your actions. Do that and they’ll play with confidence and boldness.
Imagine saying that to a member of your team – “I trust you implicitly. You know what we’re trying to accomplish, and you know how to ‘play the game’ the ‘right’ way – our way. So do it!” That is the definition of empowering your team.
- Foster creativity and continuous learning – American soccer players are known for their stunning lack of creativity. In the women’s game, we out-athlete most teams at the elite level, but not all of our top players are imaginative dribblers and passers. That, eventually, will catch up with us. Perhaps in the Olympics, it did. The USWNT couldn’t bludgeon the Swedes into submission, so they lost. We give our players the freedom to try their most audacious and creative moves; particularly during training.
Do you give your teammates space to learn and create? Likely not – or not as much as you can and should. Our best counsel here is to release yourself from the notion that there’s only one way to do something well – and that only you know what it is.
- Clarity of ground rules – This is for parents AND players. Everything worth doing is hard, and you cannot cook without heat. The players know exactly what we expect going into the season. There are no surprises. It’s the same for the parents. Removing ambiguity gives the players assurance and a clear path forward. As a result, there are no mind games or passive aggressive behavior for the players to worry about. Remove doubt, remove worry. They’re distractors, energy drainers, passion killers, cohesion, and success.
This is highly technical advice: decide it, say it, do it…don’t beat around the bush.
Chris and Jeff played different games at different levels, followed their passion for competition and their desire to facilitate fun and growth for kids to coaching. Separately, they learned by trial and error to be better. They each came to recognize the value of what they were learning by coaching young athletes and began to more confidently apply those lessons in their professional lives…which then intersected at entreQuest!