By John Lynch, High School Coaches Advocacy Group
Coaches everywhere have felt the pains of dealing with situations beyond their control. It is a rarity that we don’t have to deal with at least a handful of issues throughout the course of a season or school year. Individual player concerns, teammate cohesion, parent perspectives, and poor officiating are just a few of the common ones that pop up year after year. But then there are the times where something out of the ordinary occurs, and as a coach we have to be as prepared as possible to handle them and keep our team moving forward.
Thinking About Adversity
Adversity is such a strong word and brings with it a slew of ideas. Merriam-Webster defines it as a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune. A relatively broad perspective and what is a difficulty of misfortune to one coach may be a run-of-the-mill experience to another. Ever had one of your best players tear her ACL? I had that happen to my team three years in a row. That alone can change the course of a season for both the player and the team. Now what about mental health issues and suicide? Drug use and addiction? Loss of a parent or sibling? It is inevitable that we will deal with some form of adversity beyond the challenges of the game itself. How we look at coaching and why we do what we do will set the tone for how we handle it.
Establishing a set of core beliefs can give you a starting point when it comes to addressing the serious challenges that arise while coaching. Have you considered why it is that you coach? Do you know what you believe in? Have you created a core set of values or standards that are the foundation for your coaching philosophy? If you haven’t yet considered these questions, I highly recommend that you do. Many of us do this and make it a part of our team culture. In my time as a head varsity coach at the high school level, I had 3 simple rules:
- The Team Comes First.
- Respect Everyone.
- Never Give Up.
They seem straightforward enough but when applied to so many situations that come up, it creates a consistency that can help you lead your players, families, and community through some of the darkest time. I highly suggest that you think about developing your own.
Preparing To Be Challenged
As coaches, we do a great job of preparing or players for the challenges they will face from the various opponents we will see throughout a season. We create game plans, assign player matchups, and even create specific set pieces to defeat our opponents. However, do we create a plan for dealing with adversity? Here are some things to consider in creating an environment which will help prepare for any challenge.
- Building Relationships
Fostering strong relationships should be no surprise to any good coach building a successful program. Most coaches already have this in place with their players and staff. The next tier is parental support. Welcoming parents into your program, incorporating them into the various team events, and providing them means to becomes vested in your success will only help to foster a supportive environment. But the biggest resource of the high school coach is the school support staff. If you are a coach that works within your school, you probably already have a relationship with your school administration, guidance, fellow teachers, athletic team trainer. If you work outside of the school, I highly encourage you to get to know these people. Find the time to check in with the school counselors. Talk with the administrators that come to your games. Each can bring a perspective that you can lean on during tough times with your team.
- Creating A Culture Of Support
As part of building relationships, letting the people around you know that you have their best interests in mind is critical. When players, parents, and staff know that you are there for them, lines of communication are open, and many times you can avoid tough situations from the start. I was fortunate to have built a level of trust with my players to where they felt comfortable enough to talk to me about very tough and personal life events, and in doing so, we helped players get back on the right path. I can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure you build strong, healthy relationships with your team and staff, and provide them with unconditional support.
- Expect The Unexpected
As difficult as it is to know what you don’t know, thinking ahead and planning for potential issues is helpful. Already knowing who to contact in emergency situations is a great first step. Learning what the protocols are for dealing with crisis situations and how your school will support you, your team, and staff will help you make decisions as you move forward. Personally, I like to have plans in place for any contingency, but just being aware of how things can play out is helpful to any coach who wants to be prepared when adversity strikes.
Accepting The Current Reality
So what do you do when presented with any variety of tough situations that can come up while coaching? Having a few, simple ideas in mind will help you navigate the circumstances.
- Stop. Listen.
We talk a lot as coaches. It’s part of the job. But in this moment when things aren’t about soccer anymore, and instead they are about life, can you stop and listen? In challenging moments, listening to those that need our support is a vital first step. A fantastic acronym for improving your listening is RASA (Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, Ask). Julian Treasure has a great five minute TED talk that explains how simple and effective this process can be.
- Acknowledge where people are at in the moment
Everyone responds differently to adversity. Some thrive in it and rise to the occasion. Some will be devastated and unsure of what to do next. Be prepared to be surprised but then acknowledge and accept that as the truth of the moment. You will have players that want to talk and share their thoughts and emotions during an event. And then you will have some that are completely disengaged, either because they don’t know what to think or feel, or because they aren’t affected by it at all. Both sets of behaviors are ok. But learning how to balance both is where you start. And with each player, member of your staff, parent, or community member there will be a slightly different path forward.
- Rely On Your Core Beliefs
Remember those core values I mentioned earlier? Now is the time that they will really come to be tested. They can become a mantra that provides support and bolsters your resolve and the faith of your team. I always found myself telling my team, “Remember rule number 3” all the time throughout a season. There are so many times when things don’t go our way and it’s easy to give up. But with that small reminder, they would push themselves a little harder. Now when it matters most, those same words can be immensely meaningful and impactful.
- Provide A Path Forward
Some situations will require you just to listen and provide support, some will require you to involve professional support staff and school personnel, and others may require a whole community to help you through it. But a fundamental point in working through adverse situations is being able to see what is on the other side. Providing people with hope in the midst of despair, and getting them to see that the negatives they are experiencing now are temporary, will help them find a way forward. When appropriate, provide specifics as to what is going to happen next but be patient as you work towards getting there.
- Don’t Forget About Yourself
It’s easy to forget that you too will need time to process, decompress, or even grieve. While you may be expected to take the reins in leading your team through tough times, you should also find the time to seek out social support. Lean on your family, friends, staff, and sometimes even your team. We are all vulnerable and emotional creatures. Take care of yourself so you can continue to help take care of others.
The Only Constant Is Change
We have a lot on our plates as coaches. We are expected to foster the technical and tactical development of our players, manage the resources and logistics of our teams, build relationships with parents and the community, win soccer games, and a slew of other things. But when bad things happen, and they will, we are also expected to be a leader in supporting our team and guiding them through it. By planning ahead, building relationships, and creating a culture that is supportive and resilient, any adversity can be overcome.