The Big Truth About Small Success

by Erica Quam


Last week I got to work with a group of coaches at a Women's Coaching Summit in Bellingham.

The first night, we had a High-Five Happy Hour to celebrate all of their many accomplishments from the past year.

When coaches sat down to write these things down earlier that day, their list may not look like what you'd expect. 

That's because it takes some work to recognize what you're actually doing in your work as a coach. Coaches are hard on their athletes...and even harder on themselves! It takes a little more digging and a deeper awareness to see all the ways you're actually expanding.


The things that matter the most aren't the typical things that coaches high-five or fist-pump about.

Things that make your list of accomplishments may be things you'd hardly ever think to celebrate at all.

That's why I think this kind of work is so important!!!

Real success isn’t as much about the big things that show up in a press release for everyone else to read.

Your success as a coach is about hundreds of moments when you just want to say, “Forget it...” and instead, you give it one more shot.

Like when an assistant coach I worked with was struggling to connect with her head coach. She had some amazing insight into what the team really needed...and he never seemed to listen to her ideas. She finally got up the courage to have a conversation with him to ask for more responsibility. He agreed she could lead the team-building for the next season and would dedicate at least one hour a week of their practice time.

Or the head coach who decided to change her approach to the way she was working with her assistant coach. She realized she was communicating with him the way she likes...instead of finding out what he needed to understand what she was asking him to do. Now, she can actually delegate...and get more off her plate instead of being bitter and just doing things herself. 

Or the coach who sat down with her athlete who had just lost a childhood friend to simply be there for her and listen to what she was going through.


Success is about the small choices you make every single moment.

It’s typical (and tempting) to limit your definition of success to things other people would acknowledge and give you a high five for:

  • "The Win Over Your Rival!"
  • “Undefeated!”
  • “Winning Record!”
  • "Best recruiting class ever!"
  • “NCAA Champions!”
  • "Coach of the year!"

Sometimes we end up using bigger milestones like a trap. We expect recognition from others. When we don't get enough acknowledgement, or another coach gets more acknowledgement, we get bitter or resentful.

We don't acknowledge the little things because we don't think we've earned a celebration. We don't write it down if it's not good enough. Instead we wait to celebrate things we can actually brag about. (Unless we've waited so long that we've actually raised the bar even higher, the momentum is lost, and we moved on.)

You determine your success with every decision you make. You choose success every single moment. 

What can you acknowledge right now that you're happy about or proud of?

  • Getting in 30 minutes on the treadmill when your team is on the road.
  • Resisting the temptation to check your email every single minute.
  • Having the hard conversation with your boss when you have no idea about the outcome.
  • Staying around after practice to connect with an athlete who seemed a little "off".
  • Giving yourself permission to do something just for you - and not feel guilty about it.


Years ago, I worked with an assistant coach who wanted to be a head coach. We broke things down into steps she could take to get her name out there, apply, interview, and find that next step for her career

But after a month or two, she got super frustrated. She saw other coaches hired when she didn't get a call back. She started to get bitter and resent the whole process. The amount of work required to find the right position wasn’t nearly as cool as the big idea and title she dreamed about.

She wanted to be get the job already. She wanted to arrive in that exhilarating moment of success that comes with all the bells and whistles. So, she did what most people do when faced with the reality of what they think success should feel like. 

She gave up. She stayed where she was and decided not to go after any other jobs. "It was too much work."  She stuck to her story that “other coaches would always be more connected than her.” 

I knew she would succeed if she put her mind to it. I knew the right opportunity would come along for her. I was sad for her because she gave up before she was able to recognize the small successes that were unfolding for her along the way. 

Small success doesn't appear on the scoreboard.

Small success isn't breaking news on SportsCenter.

Small success is just you and your relationship with the choices you make - one decision at a time. 

From the outside success may seem uneventful or even boring. What matters is your ability to recognize the small steps you are making - little by little, bit by bit.

Here's my question: What small success will you acknowledge yourself for today?