I Used To Believe That I Had To Change My Player’s Lives. Now I Know That I Am Just Here To Plant and Nurture Seeds.
When I first started coaching, I had plans to be the next John Wooden. I read a bunch of John Wooden books, learned a bunch of John Wooden quotes, and tried to memorize the pyramid of success, but realized there was too much on there for me to remember, so I just stuck with things like, “be quick, but don’t hurry” and waited for everyone to think I was a coaching genius. But more than the basketball side of things, I decided that I wanted to be like John Wooden in the sense that my players would return, 40 years later, and sit around me at halftime of a nationally televised game on CBS, and tell stories about how I had changed their lives.
There were just a few minor details that I overlooked at the time that conflicted with this future I had created in my mind. First of all, I was working at a small independent school in middle Georgia. Most of our players weren’t going to go on in play in the NBA or college. Many of our players were not even going to go on and finish their high school careers. Also, it had been a few years since CBS had covered our school, so that was going to be a difficult thing to overcome. On top of that, I was the second assistant, which meant that my opinion mattered just slightly above that of our 8th grade waterboy.
But all of those minor details would work themselves out. I didn’t need to waste my time on foolish concerns. I had bigger things to worry about. Like showing my players how much I cared about them no matter what it took. And convincing them that they had never played for a coach like me, and that I was going to form a bond with them that would last forever. And later in life, they would write to me, and let me know that they had named their first son after me, or tell me how much I had changed their life, or ask me to walk them down the aisle on their wedding day.
This mindset continued for a number of years as I found my way as a coach. I continued to work on improving in the areas of player development, in game strategy, and offensive and defensive tactics, but the mindset of being a life changing coach continued to stay with me. It was off and on. It wasn’t like I was constantly going around and scaring all of our players with my intense desire to make them think I was great, but that was certainly bubbling beneath the surface. It was something I had to learn to temper, and to some extent, it is something that I have to still be cognizant of today, though I’m getting better.
In his book, Scary Close, Donald Miller talks about this idea of wanting to be a hero, to save the day, to win people over. To some degree, this is where I found myself (upon reflection) when I first started coaching. I was going to be a BIG DEAL in the lives of our players, and I was going to see to it that it happened. I was going to be the hero.
Needless to say, I’m a bit embarrassed to reflect back on my mindset as a coach during my early years. It wasn’t all the time, but it affected the way I approached the profession, and it affected my ability to fully enjoy what I was doing, which affected my attitude when I came home to my family each day, which was a net negative for everyone. The point is that while this opportunity and responsibility that we have as coaches is a big deal, we have to be careful not to become so engrossed in trying to “make a difference” that we can’t get out of our own way and actually make a difference.
After I realized that I wasn’t going to “fix” anyone, I became much better with my interactions with my players. Now I know that nobody is going to end a workout with me, tell me that it was the greatest experience they have ever had in their basketball lives, and then promise to name their first born after me. I’m more of a seed planter, and plant pruner. As the players that we coach go about their careers, playing for different coaches, listening to their teachers, their pastors, their parents, and other mentors, they are all going to receive that information at different rates. Some of them will understand and value the lessons the minute that they are taught, and others may not grasp the point until years down the road. So along the way, these students and players are having seeds planted, and also having bad habits and negativity pruned, not just by you, but by all of their teachers and coaches.
As coaches, we like to champion the value of role players in our program. Well, I’ve come to believe, that most of the time, we are role players in the lives of our players. We are just another vehicle there to nurture a lesson that has been previously taught, state a nugget of wisdom in a different way that may resonate with a player, or introduce a new concept, that another coach, teacher, or parent may help see to fruition on down the line. Certainly, there may be times that we are able to really change the tides for an individual, but let’s not forget how many people have also invested in that young man or young women along the way as well, that may have contributed to that tipping point. I think it’s important that we are careful not to begin to believe that we are the sole contributors to life changing lessons for our players.
Along those same lines, it’s easy to get frustrated when we feel like we aren’t making the impact we would like to be making with our players. Maybe they aren’t receiving or adopting our lessons like we hope they would. Just remember, it really is a process, and we really are role players in their development. If you really believe in the values you are teaching, I encourage you to keep teaching them. Don’t teach them for affirmation or acceptance from your players. Teach them because they are right, and because you believe that your players need to hear them. You never know when the lessons will hit home. Keep filling your role.