Prior to kicking off each program, we ask participating coaches to outline their current coaching philosophy as a starting snapshot of their values and approach. Over the course of the 8-weeks, each coach comes to develop an evolved coaching philosophy, informed by the new concepts they’ve learned, the peer discussions they’ve had, the personal reflection they’ve done, etc. Their evolved coaching philosophy is meant to be a clear, intentional framework that incorporates what they’ve learned about humanistic coaching. Whether the change is driven by a shift in their communication strategy or a deeper understanding of their own why, each participant finishes the course with a refreshed perspective on how they want to continue forward in their coaching practice and an understanding of what it will take to carry out these behaviors with their athletes.
An important early step in this process of developing an evolved coaching philosophy is identifying external forces that might make it difficult to carry out this new vision. Often, among our collegiate coaches, we get answers like “My job performance is judged by wins and wins alone” and “The pressure to win and achieve is not aligned with an athlete-centered approach. Coaches who get bonuses are coaches who win, not coaches who are on the phone after hours supporting a player who is in mental health crisis.” Responses like that have been an indicator to our team that coaches eager to integrate more humanistic values often face an uphill battle against the athletic culture at large.
While I was in the consulting world, I had the opportunity to work on a project where we designed a new performance management system for a client. I found the work fascinating and quickly came to specialize in performance management. It’s a common focus area within human capital management consulting; many organizations understand that the metrics they use to determine who is promoted, put on probation, or fired, etc. have a huge impact on how their employees will carry out their work. Therefore, they hire consultants to help them design those systems of incentives as thoughtfully and strategically as possible.
This work is grounded in one of the foundational principles of economics, which is that incentives drive behavior. Bonuses and promotions (and simply the ability to keep one’s job) are some of the most powerful incentives out there. Any organization should expect their employees will hone in on the factors they’ve been told will be used as the measuring stick for those incentives. This can spell trouble for organizations that aren’t carefully considering how these factors and metrics are translating into behaviors at the ground level.
Further, organizations can benefit from understanding that while performance incentives and disincentives may drive short-term success and compliance, other factors like the culture and the quality of interpersonal relationships are far superior at fueling intrinsic motivation that is longer lasting.
Which brings us back to the kinds of responses I cited above, about how coaches feel their performance is being measured. These responses may not be surprising to the Coaching the Whole Athlete team, but they are still deeply concerning. And it’s because we know that environments in which coaches feel intense pressure to deliver wins in the short-term are breeding grounds for exactly the kind of transactional and authoritarian coaching practices we try to steer our participants away from. When winning is the emphatic bottom line to keeping their job, it places coaches who want to invest more time into their athletes’ holistic development between a rock and a hard place.
What can a coach do if they find themselves in this situation, caught between carrying out the humanistic coaching philosophy they’ve developed and pursuing the definition of success outlined by their athletic department, which feels counter to that philosophy?
We don’t have an easy answer to give coaches, though it’s something we find ourselves discussing a lot. Our program offers practices and approaches that can help here, like “managing up” and working to be a positive change-agent within any organization you operate in. These are useful and shouldn’t be overlooked, but more and more over the past year we’ve heard the coaches in our program express some version of “it would be great if administrators took this course.”
This idea both removes obstacles and creates opportunity. As coaches become excited about the potential impact of the program on their own team cultures, they often begin to recognize that the positive effects could be amplified if the knowledge and tools were shared with administrators.
One of the key motivators behind why we on the Coaching the Whole Athlete team do what we do is that we want to encourage people throughout the athletics world to prioritize the long-term wellbeing and overall life outcomes of athletes (and to understand that doing so does not hinder high performance, it actually supports it). We envision a future where more athletic departments prioritize factors related to student-athletes’ long-term health and wellbeing as indicators of coaches’ success.
I don’t want to oversimplify how tricky that is to achieve. Part of the reason I believe so many departments currently fixate on wins and losses (aside from the obvious: money, booster engagement, etc.) is that they’re easy to measure. Some things that are harder to measure? Whether student-athletes graduate feeling an increased love of their sport versus feeling jaded and psychologically burnt out. Whether they are still even able to do their sport versus struggling with the long-term effects of overtraining and/or competing through injury. Whether they are able to confidently make the transition into their post-college lives versus crippled by the negative effects of identity foreclosure.
Because these things are hard (but not impossible) to measure, there is no one perfect answer for how any given athletic department can or should incorporate more humanistic measures of success into its performance management system. That doesn’t mean, however, that they shouldn’t do their best to try. There is a lot of value that an athletic department can unlock through adopting a new lens for measuring success, one that reflects humanistic values in whatever form works best for their unique institution.
Maybe that sounds intimidating, but a fantastic place to start is, as our previous participants suggested, having administrators go through the Coaching the Whole Athlete program alongside coaches. We are hard at work adapting the curriculum to the administrator audience to be able to offer this as early as this winter. One thing working in our favor is that, while some contextual elements need adjusting, a lot of the curriculum doesn’t need to be changed much or at all. Our expertise is in teaching the principles behind how to foster trusting, empowering, accountability-oriented relationships. While current examples are tailored to the coach-athlete relationship, the key concepts are equally applicable to administrator-coach relationships.
When both administrators and coaches have gone through the program, they will finish with a clearer understanding of, and empathy for, each other. This creates a context in which coaches are more likely to feel supported and valued in their work and as a result, are more engaged and motivated. Coaches and administrators also sharpen skills that will help them work together and operate in a way that allows both parties (not to mention the student-athletes) to thrive.
Some may be reading this thinking, “Those outcomes sound nice, but they don’t support our bottom line.” That sentiment brings me back to incentives. What is incentivizing athletic departments to invest in this work? One could make the argument that it would better align their performance management systems with the goals that most departments already have outlined in their mission statements. While this is true, it (again) doesn’t drive the bottom line. I can think of at least a few things that do.
Humanistic policies help prevent coach burnout and coach turnover. Stress over the need to deliver wins, especially when coupled with factors beyond a coach’s control, can drive burnout and make it nearly impossible for that coach to lead in a way that is empathetic and empowering for student-athletes. Widespread coach burnout can be a serious liability for an athletic department. It can also lead to increased turnover of coaches, which is expensive and exhausts a lot of internal resources. In general, the “you must win X number of games” approach to performance management doesn’t help develop coaches to be successful or create a culture they are likely to want to stay in. This kind of high-stakes, short-term thinking can increase both burnout and turnover.
Humanistic policies help foster humanistic coaching practices, which help create happy alumni. It supports the long-term success of a department to have a higher proportion of alumni that had a truly great experience and genuinely want to stay engaged with the program they graduated from. Engaged alumni are more likely to donate and buy tickets to games. We’ve also heard from coaches in our cohorts that they sometimes help with recruiting.
Humanistic policies help schools compete for top athletic talent. We envision a day in the not-too-distant future where recruits and their parents start to place more priority on an athletic department’s culture and the coaching values it drives. If you’re a recruit (or a parent of a recruit) trying to decide which school to commit to, you’re probably already looking closely at how the coach measures success, but you might want to also start considering how the athletic department they’re operating in measures it. These policies unquestionably trickle down to the student-athlete experience and can make all the difference in both athletic success and enjoyment of the college experience off the playing field.
Perhaps there will one day be a mechanism for increasing transparency here, a way to communicate an athletic departments’ commitment to humanistic practices to the marketplace of athletic talent. This already exists in other sectors of the economy, like when shoppers look for the “Certified Humane” label when purchasing meat at the grocery store. While this kind of “label” doesn’t currently exist in the athletic world, recruits and parents who see that an athletic department and its coaches have gone through the Coaching the Whole Athlete program should take that as an indicator of tremendous commitment to cultivating humanistic practices and ensuring policies in place support all parties in thriving and reaching their potential.
We’d love to hear your input on this topic whether you’re a coach, administrator, recruit/parent, or other party involved in the collegiate athletics world. How is your institution measuring coach success? What values are both communicated and practiced? Are there ways that you can adjust your measures of success so that they are fostering humanistic values? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your feedback!
Madison Granger wears a handful of hats at Coaching the Whole Athlete, from facilitating workshops, to supporting coach reflection one-on-one, to building business partnerships. She is passionate about using athletics as a tool to give people joy and help them succeed in all areas of their lives.
Like Brianna, Madison came to this work from her experiences as an athlete. While at Duke, she was fortunate to serve as a two-year captain for the Women’s Track and Field/XC team and climb the ranks to compete as a top miler in the ACC. She also had the honor of representing her peers across the ACC as a student-athlete Autonomy Representative. In her post-collegiate years, Madison has navigated chronic injuries, lived through ensuing identity crises, and gradually found her way back to having joy for her sport – all contributing to the understanding and empathy that she brings to her work with coaches and athletes.
Madison’s professional life has been shaped by her deep interests in health, culture, and the overall factors that fuel or inhibit sustainable high performance. These interests landed her first in the corporate wellness world, managing wellness programs for Fortune 500 companies. During her time as a human capital management consultant, Madison supported clients in designing performance management systems that empower and incentivize their employees towards desired behaviors and outcomes. This work helps her to see the systems and incentives at play within a team, within an athletic department, and within broader athletic organizations.
Finally, Madison is a coach. Her roles as both a personal trainer and a Girls on The Run coach give her frequent opportunities to apply concepts from Coaching the Whole Athlete firsthand and grow towards being the transformational, holistic coach she aspires to be.