Is greatness innate or learned? What distinguishes a good team from a great one? As coaches, we often attribute an athlete's success to their talent or the "it" factor, but what exactly is "it" and how does one acquire it? And if "it" can be acquired, how can a team acquire it as well? How can one person pass "it" on to their teammates? I firmly believe that "it" is not a physical skill, but rather a character skill. While everyone possesses varying levels of talent, the connection to intent action, the people, and the value greatly enhances any physical abilities. So, how can coaches nurture "it" within an athlete and a team, multiplying their talents to create a championship culture and team? In this article, I will explore five key pillars that I use to multiply the influence of a team and its members.
Meet Them Where They Are
Student-athletes have high aspirations but often lack knowledge about the challenges they will face on their journey. As a coach, it is my role to guide them. To instill the team's vision and values in a student-athlete, you must prioritize genuine care for each individual. By meeting them where they are, you initiate the relationship and show that you care. Asking questions and getting to know them displays vulnerability, strength, and curiosity. Understanding a student-athlete's thoughts and effectively communicating with them requires knowledge of their life beyond athletics. Taking the time to talk, learn, and acknowledge who each student-athlete is builds trust and displays investment in their well-being, rather than just their performance. This also humanizes you as a coach, allowing student-athletes to relate to you. You can then establish a safety net of trust, reducing the fear of failure or rejection when following my guidance. When I meet student-athletes at their level, I can support them in discovering confidence and "it" through encouragement and belief.
Color Outside the Lines
Student-athletes are well-acquainted with structure, as their athletic careers revolve around routine and habit. They often view choice as an enemy rather than a friend. Therefore, I must assist athletes in thinking outside the box and challenging conventional wisdom. Instead of setting rigid boundaries for athletes to adhere to, I try to provide them with a blank canvas to paint on. Rather than instructing athletes step by step, I encourage them to explore and create. Student-athletes may ask for guidance on what to paint, which colors to use, or when a deadline is. Instead of answering their questions, I look to give them the freedom of decision. By granting athletes the freedom to make choices, I hope to offer them the freedom to learn. When an athlete discovers how to fix a skill or accomplish a task, they take ownership of their actions, training, and team. This self-actualization can empower an individual and in turn, empower a team as well. Discovery can help build confidence, enthusiasm, and belief in the process, the coach, and the team. Just as artists can bring their ideas to life through painting, athletes should be given artistic freedom to create within their sport. Actors in movies often have the flexibility to improvise lines or adapt based on the scene and environment. Similarly, coaches should give athletes the freedom to express themselves, learn from mistakes, and make decisions. It is crucial to let them color outside the lines. The most successful championship teams stood out because they were unique. Their work had rhythm and flow. They embraced their individuality within a team concept. No two teams or teammates are alike, so coaches should avoid using the same formula in hopes of achieving identical results. Another key to success is directly their skill set in a manner and direction that will be reflective of what they hope to accomplish.
How many of us have driven over the speed limit in the past? By doing so, you've broken the law. It's a common occurrence that I witness every day. But why do people choose not to follow the rules? Rules are often imposed upon us by higher authorities who claim to know what's best for us. It may seem like an effective way to get people on board, but it lacks the power of intention. On the other hand, standards focus on the quality of our actions. Guidelines may be set by rules, but intentions are set by standards. When we establish standards, we aim to educate student-athletes about the reasons behind certain actions. Rules primarily highlight what not to do rather than what to do. Consequently, people tend to disregard rules. Instead, people follow those they trust. We are more likely to follow someone's guidance if we believe they genuinely care about our well-being, rather than just wanting to control us. As a coach, I aim to do the opposite. I strive to inspire and motivate student-athletes to pursue what they may perceive as unattainable. That's why I place great importance on setting standards that will guide their actions toward achieving their goals. The standard should not be just winning a championship but exhibiting championship behavior. How does championship behavior manifest itself?
When working with student-athletes, it's crucial to remember that they are individuals with lives beyond their sport. They juggle social, athletic, and academic commitments, along with physical, mental, and emotional challenges. We must acknowledge a student-athlete's overall life circumstances, not just their performance in sports. Coaches who empower their student-athletes and show them respect and trust can expect honest actions in return. This helps coaches recognize when a student-athlete is struggling or lacks motivation. Building relationships with each student-athlete allows coaches to identify inconsistencies and understand what a student-athlete might be going through. It is crucial to remember the personal side of student-athletes, especially when they may be going through personal hardships for the first time. When student-athletes are not at their best, coaches should actively listen and empathize with the players' perspective. Collaboration with student-athletes to establish their priorities and goals demonstrates the importance of their well-being. By de-emphasizing athletics during tough moments and focusing on the individual, we can build trust and loyalty. By demonstrating empathy, understanding, and flexibility, we can help student-athletes develop a sense of self beyond their athletic abilities. Ideally, this will boost their confidence in non-sporting aspects of their lives.
Aim For Better, Not Best
As a coach, I have observed a noticeable trend among student-athletes: their inclination toward perfection is increasing. These students set incredibly high standards for themselves, often viewing success as an all-or-nothing proposition. Anything less than 100% is seen as a failure. Unfortunately, this perfectionist mindset tends to breed negativity. Instead of celebrating progress, these student-athletes focus solely on what isn't good enough. They constantly strive for only the best, never satisfied with their current level of performance. I believe it's time coaches start telling student-athletes that better is good enough. Perfection is not the goal. The goal is improvement, progress, and moving forward. When something is good enough, it shows growth. Better means surpassing previous levels and venturing into new territory. Acknowledging "good enough" allows student-athletes incremental progress. They move forward while also seeing how far they've come, not how far they have to go. Striving for perfection leaves them stuck in one place until everything aligns flawlessly. I always say, "A happy swimmer is a fast swimmer." An athlete who can find joy in the journey, while still pursuing excellence, is more likely to succeed. Those who constantly chase perfection will rarely find happiness because perfection is unattainable. Forget perfection and focus on celebrating the small victories along throughout the journey. Though these victories may appear small on their own, they build to substantial progress over time. By acknowledging and appreciating these little wins, athletes can find happiness and success in life in all walks of life.
Coaches and teams lack control over outcomes. However, we do have control over our efforts, attitudes, and responses. To optimize the potential of a team and its members, remember to recognize their humanity. People crave acknowledgment, comprehension, and appreciation. By meeting student-athletes where they are, offering respect and honesty, and granting them the freedom to learn and grow, we can witness their remarkable transformation. As a coach, our feedback and understanding fuel the athletes' passion. Provide them with the nourishment they require and witness their development.
Steve Barnes is in his second year as an associate head coach at Florida State University. In his first 18 months on the job at FSU, the men’s and women’s teams have been ranked in the top 25 of the CSCAA Dual Meet Poll and SwimSwam NCAA poll. Before FSU, Barnes spent 9 years at Penn State University as the associate head coach. Barnes has had the honor of coaching multiple Olympians, NCAA Champions, All-Americans, and several National records holders for countries such as Honduras, Sweden, and Mexico. Barnes spent time in Division III before coaching at Penn State. He was the head coach at Wabash College for four years and spent the 3 years before his time at Wabash as the assistant at Kalamazoo College. Barnes swam collegiately at Ithaca College where he was a multiple-time All-American. Barnes is an avid reader as well as an enthusiastic watcher of TV and film. In his free time, Steve loves to stay active with activities like weightlifting, running, and pickleball. Steve is the oldest of four children, all of whom swam collegiately.