One of the wonderful things about the arrival of spring is SPORTS! My kids, 14 year old boy and 11 year old girl, started baseball and soccer here in Indiana. They’ve grown so much over the winter, and it was great to see them out there playing hard, competing and having fun! As I took them to practices last week and games over the weekend, I subconsciously observed a few things about coaching kids sports that came together for me this morning as I was thinking about my work week.

A lot of what we do at Project Brilliant is coaching. I have several meetings this week with current and prospective clients. A few of these conversations will help prospective clients understand what Agile coaching is and what outcomes to expect from a partnership engagement. Others will be routine check-ins with existing clients. And still others will be more direct conversations about course correction or the need to revisit goals and expectations. As I mentally scroll through the conversations coming up in my work week, some observations about coaching from my kids’ sports leagues start to seep in, and I wonder how they apply to my work.

The Zealot
The first that stood out to me, while I was watching my daughter’s first soccer practice of the season, was the Zealot. Coming from the adjacent field, I could hear a Liverpool (think thick English accent, like John Lennon) accent coming from a man whose passion for foootbol emanated through every word he spoke. They were having their first practice and about 20 minutes in I heard “Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop. Give me the bool! Now girls, we talked about this. We need to focus on good solid passing. Passing and dribbling are by far the most important part of the game. When we can pass effectively, then we’ll really be playing the foootbol the right way! Crisp passes from now on, ok?!”. As I watched the blank stares of the 6 and 7 year old girls, who were quite likely playing soccer for the first time, I could see there was a mismatch between the Zealot’s approach and the receptivity of his audience. This approach can be tremendously effective when preaching to the choir and rallying motivated believers to greater levels of excellence but not so useful when dealing with the uninitiated and non-believers.

The Buddy
The second coaching approach I noticed was the Buddy. This coach doesn’t want to be the bad guy. He doesn’t want to stifle the kids’ fun by bothering them with rules or structure. This is easy on the coach early on because he does not have the burden of wrangling the children, helping them understand the rules of the game, planning any formal drills, determining who might be a fit at what position, and formulating strategy for playing the game. The Buddy’s primary concern is making sure the kids feel good at the moment. However, disaster immediately ensues when the team takes the field for the first game. The players have been cheated of the opportunity to understand how to play the game, and they and the coach look disorganized and sad. The players don’t know they have to have both feet down to throw the ball in, what a corner kick is, and rarely even get the ball over the mid-field line because they don’t know how to play together. The complete lack of structure and understanding of the game spoils the fun because they’re unable to achieve any positive results. Everyone is angry with the situation, and the good players on the team start to lose interest in playing the game. The Buddy coach is the clear cause of the failure he was trying to avoid. This was my daughter’s situation a few years ago.

The Mentor
The third coaching approach, which I’m seeing in both of my kids’ coaches this season, is the Mentor. She meets the players where they are and tailors her approach to the situation. The first few practices are spent on (1) getting to know the players, (2) setting expectations, and (3) learning and practicing the fundamentals. My daughter’s soccer coach, who we’ve had for 3 soccer seasons now, asks the girls what positions they like to play, their goals for the season, what motivates them, and what they like best about playing soccer. The girls get engaged and take ownership in their participation. My son’s baseball coach walks the boys through expectations of each other as teammates, acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the dugout, being prepared “on deck” when you’re next at bat, what it means to be “baseball ready” in the infield. With expectations clear to the players, they gain clarity on what “good” looks like. They have the opening to course correct together when a player makes a misstep. This common understanding is important in any coaching relationship, especially if the players want to achieve something together as a team.

The first two approaches, the Zealot and the Buddy, show the extremes we often see in the Agile coaching world. Overzealous and rigid evangelists turn clients off because they lack the self-awareness to see that the client isn’t ready for, or just not interested in, their rantings and rituals. The Buddy stands by while an uninformed client does the wrong thing and tells them “it’s ok, just have fun”. Meanwhile the client is heading toward disaster, and they don’t realize it. Both of these situations end poorly for everyone involved.

Then there’s the Mentor coach. The one who actually helps the client by getting to know them, setting clear expectations, and meeting them where they are in order to move forward together effectively. This is the kind of coaching we offer at Project Brilliant, and of course the players and fans appreciate it as we consistently improve results for our clients… and we’re so lucky to have great role models to learn from in 8th grade baseball and 5th grade soccer!

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