How I Changed My Team Culture With One Simple Phrase
I started coaching youth sports when my 21-year-old daughter was 4 years old. For 17 years, I have been either on the field or the court coaching young athletes. Last summer, due to some health issues, I was forced to step back and watch from the stands.
It took only a few games for me to gain a new perspective, realizing the intense pressure our young athletes were facing from the ones who loved them most – parents, grandparents, and coaches.
After hearing the endless barrage of yelling, screaming, and stress coming from the stands and directed at the elementary aged-athletes, I knew I had to do something before I came back to coach for the fall basketball season. We adults needed to band together to support our athletes, not criticize and pressure them to perform in ways they were not yet physically or mentally capable of.
In my research and preparation for the next season, I came across a very simple phrase that I knew could address the issue. “I love to watch you play.” No pressure, no criticism, just positive support. I decided to make the phrase our team’s motto. At our preseason parent meeting that fall, I reminded the parents that the 3rd-6th grade girls basketball players in our program would not be ready for college or the WNBA at the end of our season. I encouraged the parents to tell their children, “I love to watch you play!” after the game regardless of the outcome and to realize it is okay for the players to make mistakes. That is how they learn to play the game of basketball, all other sports, and ultimately the game of life. I challenged the parents to partner with me in focusing on the positive and limiting the criticism this season. It would take only one simple phrase, “I love to watch you play.”
You see, I coach not only because I love the game but because I also have a passion for showing my young athletes that the game they play is great practice for playing the game of life. My philosophy is simple. I want my athletes to play with “no fear” – no fear of making mistakes, that is. The turnovers, double dribbles, strikeouts, and fumbles are not failures. They are part of the game. They only become failures if we quit trying. If we teach our athletes that it is okay to make mistakes in these regards, then they will learn that it is okay to make mistakes in other areas of their lives as long as they get up and try again and again until they get it right! Mistakes are acceptable in this context.
And just like that, when we took the focus off of the mistakes and the criticism and placed it on encouraging our athletes and allowing them to make mistakes, special things began to happen. The girls played team ball. They communicated with each other. And in a nailbiter of a recent game, toughness, confidence, and teamwork led our 4th-grade team to a buzzer-beating win. Amidst the deafening roar of the crowd and cheering of the fans, the young lady who hit the winning shot turned to me and asked, “Who won?” At that moment, I knew WE had won. She didn’t count or fear each mistake. She played for fun, and she played on a team that played like a team.
I want to encourage the adults involved in youth sports – the parents, grandparents, and coaches to tell your athletes you love them and that you love to watch them play and see what happens not only on the court but also in the game of life.