Do you know what your players need?

Why physical ability isn’t the only characteristic you should know about your athletes.

By Kate Shipley

With the start of football season comes tailgating, BBQs, and maybe some smack-talk with your relatives who insist on cheering for the other team.  It also means a rise in couch-cushion coaches. Rather than spending time talking about the great plays that were made, our conversations often revolve around bad plays, missed opportunities, and certain players who lost their cool and hurt their team with their behavior. Those of us who are (or have been) coaches know there may be more to this than meets the eye.

As coaches, it’s easy to make the mistake of focusing first on player ability and second on mental readiness. Sometimes the topic of our players’ mental game doesn’t even come up unless it’s clearly affecting their physical game. Why is he such a headcase today? What was she thinking? Get out of your head! 

We see it often: the coach who loses their temper and ruins quarterbacks; the coach who makes it worse by pulling players aside to “have a chat”; the player who starts the season on a high and ends on the bench because of mental errors and flubs. We see mentality ruin physical ability all the time, so why aren’t we as focused (if not more) on coaching to our players’ cognitive needs? It’s not hard. Even if you haven’t enrolled your team in a self-awareness program, you can start by focusing on two things: needs and stress.

What do players need in order to play well? How do players display stress when they don’t get what they need?

What I’ve learned through coaching, teaching, and personal assessment work is that players (all people, really) have certain needs that have to be met in order for them to perform. If these needs aren’t met, or if stressors are pushed, players will display that stress in ways that are unproductive and harmful to the team’s ultimate goals. What a player needs is often completely independent of their physical training, but it can have adverse effects nonetheless. I, for example, need clear guidelines and authority figures. And I have a need to be given credit when it’s due—I need to be praised for the work I’ve done. When these needs aren’t met, I feel frustrated and mistrustful. I may question authority, perhaps aggressively. And I become more likely to act independently regardless of the cost to the team. My stress response to not getting what I need mentally is to act out, often physically.

I remember clearly a needs and stress situation that was not handled well by my high school varsity softball coach. I was in the middle of my college search, being recruited by coaches at a few different NCAA division levels, ranging from DI to DIII. The pressure to win a scholarship was high, and every game mattered. Earlier that day, at warm-ups before a game, my coach told me that my batting average had fallen, and I wasn’t producing hits and runs the way he had hoped. He told me I needed to improve, or he’d drop me in the lineup out of the 3-spot. Looking back now, as a coach myself, I imagine he was trying to motivate me. He probably thought the threat would speak to my competitive side and spur me to perform.

In one way, it kind of worked. I hit a homerun off of a change-up—the first one I had ever hit. But in other ways it didn’t. My coach later took credit for my home run saying, “See, I told you! You just needed to be pushed.” He probably thought he knew his player, but it was clear that he didn’t. He may have thought he knew me, and he may have thought that all I needed was to be challenged. What he didn’t realize, though, was that, yes, I did rise to the challenge (it did result in me fighting for my line-up position and hitting a home run), but it also caused me to stop trusting him. I felt mistrustful of him (when he spontaneously changed the lineup), and frustrated (when he took credit for the homerun I hit), and I started acting independently (changing calls on defense when he couldn’t see). I felt justified in these actions because I thought I had been mishandled as a player. I considered quitting because I wasn’t getting what I needed.

What do players need in order to play well? How do players display stress when they don’t get what they need?  

If he had taken the time to learn about my needs and personality style as a player, his motivational tactics might have been more effective. For example, rather than threatening his players, he might have started a homerun contest to motivate their competitive edge. He might have communicated any concerns a week or more in advance, rather than dropping me in the lineup minutes before the game. If he had known what his players needed, he could have provided individualized coaching, but he was flying blind. He didn’t know what we needed, so he made his best guess. In this case, it was the wrong guess. It happens to coaches and athletes all the time. 

I’m not saying that understanding the cognitive needs of your players is an easy thing to do. Learning the mental ins-and-outs of your athletes (especially on a large team) is difficult and time consuming. If you’re not ready (or don’t have the resources) to do a personal assessment for your team, start by having a conversation using the following questions:

What does respect look like to you? Their answers will get you closer to understanding what they need in order to feel happy and respected.

How do you act on your worst day, when everything is going wrong? What do you notice about how your teammates act when they are stressed? These questions will give you insight into how they believe they display stress and how others identify their teammates’ stress.

For an even more direct approach, consider asking the following questions:

What is the best way a coach has ever interacted with you? Player responses to this question will help you see what they value from their coaches and what helps them succeed.

What is the worst way a coach has ever interacted with you? Answers to this question will directly relate to what causes stress for players. As much as possible, try to avoid the behavior they name in response to this question.

As coaches, we try to avoid simply guessing what plays to run and what drills will train our players best. So why would we leave the mental preparedness of our players up to guessing? The stress behavior of a player with unmet needs can override years of training in an instant. Don’t leave it up to chance. Learn what they need and how they stress when they don’t get it. It could mean the difference between a W or an L. 

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