Every team athlete, OK every person, occasionally needs a course correction. Sometimes the path of travel gets veered from because we lose sight of greater goals or our potential desired outcomes. That is why things happen that we don’t want to happen.
A t times, training gets tedious. Working the same skills over and over, practicing routines for competition and trying to polish the known skills rather than learning new skills can make it difficult to get “up” for a practice session. Sometimes when you work with a group or team, one person with a wandering mind or lost direction can pull another into their misdirection. Then like dominoes the whole group is listless, unmotivated, or frustrated (or all three). As a coach, I watch for those times. I monitor trends in behavior and outcomes and I look for the tell tale signs to tell me when a course correction, or as the kids call it a “J Lecture”, is needed. Many times the tone of the lecture starts out based in my own frustration; a frustration that grows out of not seeing progress and the progress isn’t happening because we are off course.
A few weeks ago I called the whole team over. Now I stand 6’2” which is a good foot to foot and a half above the heads of the gymnasts; but I still stood on a spring board adding height, and making them gather in a semi-circle around me. I think that if they’re looking up, they’re not looking around. I started with “OK, look: This cannot happen. I am unhappy and it’s because of you.”
Every kid I have on my team is a teen, or pre-teen, girl. One thing they all have in common is that they want to please their coaches. There is little “attitude politics” as I call it, when their behavior is intended to produce an emotional reaction; this is reserved for parents. With coaches they just want us to say “good job” because it validates their efforts and in turn, validates them. Telling a teen girl that they make you unhappy is hard on them to be sure, but having a coach say it can be devastating.
“You are not training hard enough.”I said. “You are not thinking that we have a meet in a few days.” “You are not aggressively cleaning and perfecting your skills.” “You are expecting a positive outcome and not working to guarantee it.”thought became words and shot out like bullets,“You are making me unhappy, because no matter how hard I try to help you, you are not progressing.” In essence, I was saying that it’s all your fault and they should expect failure.
If it’s one thing I do, that is often unnoticed: I observe. Everyone can occasionally miss a sign or communication subtlety but I am pretty good at seeing them. As I spoke I watched their faces go loose, like the muscle behind the skin was somehow turned to sand and it was barely able to keep the face from sliding down off the skull. Often when motivating an athlete you will see their eyes steel, their jaw clench and their lips pull tight; but I saw the opposite. I was in the neighborhood but on the wrong street. It was a wonder that they were still standing after such a blows, and because it was not my intention to hurt them I needed to course correct myself. I had lost them, they were deflated and because my speaking is often like a car’s tire skid, I can slow down, but not stop immediately. I saw tears forming in the eyes looking up at me. The skid came to a stop, I breathed and looked at my feet. Pause.
Now I know that you catch more flies with honey…. I know that if you don’t have something nice to say…. I believe it’s nice to be important but more important to be nice….I know, I know. But sometimes it takes awhile for a person to catch where they are, and then all those cliches come up and remind us. I looked up. “You are better than this” my voice changed to a little softer tone “you have the potential to be amazing”, “your’s should be the one routine that everyone in the arena will watch”, “you worked all year to get to a point, and it’s not this point, it’s beyond this point. Based on your work to get to this point, you deserve more.” I had their attention again,“You are MY team, MY pride and MY girls. I want the world to see what YOU can do!” I explained how we all get tired. How we all have bad days but that the trick is to make sure that bad days don’t turn into bad weeks or bad seasons. I explained that wearing a Gymfinity uniform comes with some expectations, not from the other teams or judges but from inside themselves. I went on; I told them that when they perform at meets, I am transfixed. I cannot look away; because I know what they are capable of and it can be glorious…… There it was; steel eyes, jaws clenched to keep the lips from quivering. They were almost there. I finished by saying that I didn’t want to watch them at a meet doing great and have to think that maybe, just maybe, it was because they were lucky. To think that they did well just by luck because they didn’t work hard enough for a great performance. I explained that they have to pay for great performances and that anyone can be lucky, but people who pay by working hard in preparation will make their own luck. I asked if they are investing their time and effort now? Are they proud of themselves at the end of their day?
With that, I made a joke to ease off the lecture and signal that the hard part was over. I left them to go to the next event with the rhetorical questions to be processed in their young minds and I watched them step up to finish their practice on a high note. Post practice I had 2 girls come and ask if I could watch them do skills that they felt, maybe I didn’t see, or that maybe they needed to show me just to prove that they worked hard. I watched, of course. I saw them drive and reach. I saw power and strength, I saw pride. “You are awesome” I said, “That is what I’m talking about.”
I’m a nice guy, really. I love what I do and the people I do it with. I love my team kids and I beam (no pun intended) with pride when they perform, but sometimes I forget how much I love it, and I can get off course too. That is natural. There are times when I wonder if I’m doing OK, or if anyone is improving and if they are, if I have anything at all to do with it. Sometimes I struggle to be “up” for practice just like the kids do. Then the universe provides guidance.
Last night a mother of a team girl pulled me aside, she had something to say and she sent her daughter to the car so we could have a moment. She shared with me that her daughter told her “the thing I like about J is that he makes me feel good about myself. Not always great; but I know he believes in me. I like that.” “I just thought you should know.” She said. I made a joke to ease the discomfort that giving/getting compliments in our society creates and to signal that the hard part was over.