[Part four] Your coaches survival kit: 5 essentials to bring with you this season

written by Erica Quam

Teams go on powerful journeys over the course of a season. You might even think of it as an expedition.

The experiences you’ll have together will be unique - to you and your team. Only your team will truly understand the direction you're heading, the challenges you'll face, and all of the many victories you'll share along the way.

As a coach, you’ll get to know the strengths and weaknesses of your athletes - as they get to know yours. If you’re doing your job of getting them out of their comfort zones, then you’ll see your athletes at their best and at their worst. They’ll also get to see your highs and lows. This is a vulnerable position to be in as a coach!

For you to be ready for all of the learning that’s going to happen this year, it’s important to be prepared. Just like going on a backpacking trip, there are certain things you'll need to have in your pack!

(And what I know about coaches is this: if you don't have it together before the season starts, you won't have time to bring it at all.)

Equip yourself with these five key essentials to help you survive and thrive this year as a coach.

  1. Map & Compass (Vision & Values) 

  2. First Aid Kit (Plan for the Unexpected)

  3. Food & Water (Fuel yourself first)

  4. Headlamp (Tolerance for adversity)


Bring a headlamp with you this season (and pack an extra set of batteries!) A headlamp gives you the ability to light up the path so you can see where you're going when it's dark. Under times of high stress how will you show up and be at your best? Your athletes will need you to lead them.

Great leaders have a high tolerance for adversity. It doesn't mean they aren't struggling. It's just that they're able to rise above the challenges and reframe the situation for others to see. It's like shining a flashlight to show them the way out of the darkness.

When the going gets tough, these leaders are able to inspire their teams - not by putting their heads down and plowing forward - pretending everything is fine. The way to help your team through challenging times is to walk alongside them.

Here are five steps to help you walk through adversity with your athletes:

1. LISTEN

Listen to the challenges your athletes are going through. Instead of jumping in to try and solve, fix, or eliminate their problems...take time to simply listen, first. It's also a time when you can teach them one of the most valuable leadership skills: self awareness.

Whatever they're going through, ask them to tell you more about it.

Here's an example of how a conversation could go (using a tool called the self awareness quad)

  1. Begin with: "I hear that you're struggling with x, y, or z."
  2. Ask what they are thinking: "Can you tell me more about that...what are you thinking?"
  3. Ask about their feelings: "How are you feeling about it?" (teach them to identify their feelings - choosing from the primary emotions: Mad, Sad, Glad, or Afraid)"
  4. Find out what they're physically feeling (somatic sensations): "What's your body telling you?" (if they're angry, maybe their face is hot, if they're nervous maybe they're getting shaky, perhaps their heart is racing fast...these are important signs to pay attention to).
  5. Ask about their intention/wants/desires: "What do you want?" (there are layers to this...what do they want, what do they really want, what do they really, really want?)

[IMPORTANT NOTE: You can do this with your whole team in a big group. Have your team reflect on these questions, write their thoughts down, and then share with a partner. One person talks, the other person listens, and then switch. After they've talked with their partner, have them come back together as a big group. Have a discussion about the overarching themes that came up. What were some of the similarities and what were some of the differences?]

2. ACKNOWLEDGE

One of the most simple ways to hold space for your athletes - after listening to them, is to acknowledge their struggle. Instead of fixing, solving, or eliminating a problem - you can simply say, "I hear what you're going through. That must be hard for you."

Pause long enough for them to respond. Maybe it's not hard for them...maybe there's another word they'd rather use that better describes their experience.

When coaches get uncomfortable with the challenges your athletes are going through, there's a tendency to want to make things more comfortable for yourself. It's important to be patient and hold space while your athletes figure it out - as painful and hard as this may be. 

Your athletes will each learn, grow, and expand on THEIR timeline...not yours. Patience is a premium.

They need you to acknowledge their experience - which is real for them right now - before you try to connect! 

3. CONNECT

Connections are built through trust and vulnerability.

You don't have to agree with them...you can share what's going on for you and your perspective. Maybe you've experienced a similar challenge before. Maybe you're struggling with the same thing and don't know all the answers either. 

To make this step more powerful, ask if they're open to hearing your perspective. "Are you open to hearing what I think?" Get permission from them to share your experience and help them see things from another angle.

4. LAUGH

Keep it light.

When you can bring your own authentic humor into a situation to lighten the mood, it can be a game changer. When challenges come up that you and your team have to handle, take a breath, remember the bigger picture, and be curious, playful, and flexible.

A 1994 study identified key traits of survivors (Siebert):

1) Curiosity—survivors keep asking questions, looking for new possibilities and wanting to learn from their situation. 2) Playfulness—survivors are willing to appreciate and find the humor in even the toughest of situations. This becomes a form of optimism over time. 3) Mental and emotional flexibility—survivors are both serious and playful, gentle and tough, unpredictable and consistent, proud and humble…not just one way.

The trick is what we emphasize. We either can make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.
— Carlos Castenada

Everyone can develop their tolerance for adversity. It's a leadership skill - it just takes some people more practice. 

Keeping things light is different than hiding behind humor. (That's why this is step four - not step one.)

When things are uncomfortable a lot of people go to this step first. Using humor helps make things more comfortable for us. When you do it before you've listened, acknowledged, and connected...you've put up a wall instead of bridging the gap. 

5. FOCUS

Help your athletes figure out their next step. (Do NOT do this for them!) Help them identify what they want.

"What would be an ideal outcome for this situation that we're in? Okay, to be able to get there, what do we need to do next?"

Our brains love to stay stuck in the problems. Challenges are much more interesting for our brains to think about, worry about, be anxious about, and be scared of. As a coach, help your athletes become solution-finders and train their brains to look for ideal outcomes - instead of staying stuck in all the drama of the problems.

Then you can help inspire, encourage, and empower them to take that next step. Walk with them through it.

This step is HUGE! This is where you teach teach how to begin to coach themselves. Don't create robots. Coach people to think for themselves, be engaged, and make judgements and decisions. They won't always do it perfectly, and it will definitely help your athletes to become stronger leaders. 

Sometimes coaches need to move from protecting and directing to collaborating and building trust. Coach beside your team - rather than always leading the way from out in front. Help them be part of the solution.

Tolerance for adversity is an important leadership skill your athletes can take and apply to lots of other areas in their lives - well beyond the playing field. Be intentional in helping them see how strong they've become!

How can you help your athletes develop better tolerance for adversity? Share your thoughts in the comments below.