Sports Education

Improving coaches’ effectiveness

In his bestselling book Bottom Line (1997) Phil Jackson, the highly successful former coach of Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers (now president of the New York Knicks) whose approach to coaching is profoundly influenced by oriental philosophies, lists “know when to step back and let people find their own solution to a crisis,” as his #1 management and motivational mantra. To illustrate the effectiveness of this mantra, Jackson describes a crisis in a 1994 playoff in which Scottie Pippen refused to return to the game when Jackson drew up a play with 1.8 seconds to go. The play called for teammate Tony Kukoc to take the last game-determining shot.

In the locker room after the game, Jackson stepped back and allowed the team to handle the situation. Veteran Bill Cartwright stepped in and managed to settle the crisis with great effectiveness. “I allowed my players to resolve crises and affirm their common goals,” said Jackson orchestrating acts of empowerment by doing less rather than more.

The dictionary defines empower as “to give power or authority to”. To me, this definition implies that when coaches are assigned the power to discharge coaching functions, it’s assumed they will exercise it in an efficacious, fair and ethical manner. Authority without responsibility leads to tyranny, whereas responsibility without authority infuses sentiments of impotence into coaches. Coaching leadership cannot be effective without devolution of authority and responsibility. However, a coach’s real power to lead is earned in his/her relationship with followers.

Since empowering, is by definition the transfer of authority and responsibility, we must pose the question: “How can coaches use their authority in ways that allow them to feel in charge of their lives.” Ex facie, it would seem the only way coaches can derive power is by the authority invested in them by administrators who control hiring and firing, salaries, and policy making. However, the truth is that coaches can also be empowered by athletes, parents, and even by themselves.

To fully understand what it takes to empower a coach, we need to examine the leadership roles coaches play. Leaders can utilise power variously. Legitimate power, derived by virtue of a leader’s position in an organisation, invests a coach with the right to direct, reward and punish. The legitimacy of some coaches’ power flows from administrators. In these cases, followers are the players assigned to the coach. In youth and school sports, followers include athletes’ parents.

Coaches and sports leaders can also derive power and authority from becoming respected role models (referent power) and from the knowledge and skills they bring to the playing field (expert power). Expert power is most effective in sports education because it allows coaches to bring out the best in each athlete by helping her become responsible for her own performance.

To best appreciate how power is invested in coaches by athletes, perhaps a few examples of power and responsibility separately given or withheld, will help.

Example 1. Well-meaning but totally unprepared dads/moms are often asked to coach a team because no one else is available. If players on the team have minimal experience, they’ll be quick to discern the lack of experience and will be reluctant to give the coach the respect she needs to lead. Having to assume responsibility without enjoying the respect of players can lead to a real sense of impotence.

Lesson #1: Coaches need to demo expertise and experience to win the respect of their wards. Without respect, it’s tough for coaches to become effective.

Example 2. A parent who continually criticises a coach’s decisions while making disparaging public comments can also undermine a coach’s power and authority. In such circumstances, athletes also lose confidence in the coach’s ability to lead and make her experience a sense of powerlessness.

Lesson #2: Coaches need to work on earning the confidence of parents. Without parents’ support it would become difficult for them to play an effective role.

Example 3. A sports administrator tells the coach that winning is the pre-condition of job retention. Pressure to win rather than play is often exerted on coaches of young children as well. In such cases, coaches can experience a sense of powerlessness if their students fail to deliver.

Lesson #3: Coaches need to be free from the unreasonable win-at-all-cost imperatives. Otherwise they may vent their frustration on their wards and/or prove ineffective.

If we assume good coaching and mentoring is essential for raising sports and athletics standards, it is in everyone’s best interest to empower coaches. When coaches are empowered and confident, their students will be open, attentive and respectful. Moreover, if coaches are committed and make the time to establish partnerships with their students, they can raise their goals and aspirations to sky-high levels.

The real paradox is that coaches strengthen their own power and authority by investing power and confidence in their students.

(Dr. George A. Selleck is a San Francisco-based advisor to EduSports, Bangalore)