When an athlete quits in the middle of the season, it usually causes drama, stress, and a lot of extra work. Granted, sometimes it’s for the best (bye-bye drama queen and your insane mother!). Generally speaking, we want a culture of team commitment where athletes stay invested all season and year after year. We want to create a pattern of long-term team commitment.
How Many Are Returning?
Especially during those few weeks or days in between seasons (if you have an in-between) a coach will always evaluate the state of the team and how many athletes you expect to return. Some years you may have 90% of the team expected to return, other years, over half of them are gone and you feel like you have to start over.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a team where everyone who was age appropriate stayed and no one ever quit midseason?! Whether you coach at a 4-year school program or an all-star gym across all ages, team commitment is important and I’m here to share three simple strategies to guarantee long-term team commitment.
Team Commitment Means Coach Commitment
In order for an athlete to be committed to his or her team, they have to feel a sense of commitment to the coach. The coach is the face of the team and the one behind the team culture. If an athlete feels committed to her coach, she will be committed to her team. A strong coach-athlete relationship is at the core of team commitment. Coaches who are able to build and maintain rapport with their athletes are able to establish trust and build credibility. If the coach is trusted, the athlete is much more likely to follow through on their commitment to the team.
Do you know your coaching style? There are 5 different kinds, and coaches who approach their team with a democratic leadership style and/or a focus on training and instruction are much more likely to have a team who trusts them, demonstrates commitment, and feels happier as a part of the team. That means, it starts with YOU. Your leadership style will establish the team culture. That culture will either build a legacy of committed athletes for years to come, or create a team where you have to start over nearly every year because they won’t stick around.
Keep in mind, if you have a team where commitment is a problem I’m not blaming you. Maybe you inherited this culture, or the athletes are at an age where it’s more normal. Or maybe it’s the norm in the whole school or community. That said, you can improve commitment levels over the next few years, and I hope you do! Keep in mind, it will take time and commitment from you. And the best way to get started is to ensure you are coaching with a democratic or teaching-focused leadership style.
3 Strategies for Team Commitment
A coach’s leadership style and coaching practices determine the athletes’ level of commitment to the coach. The level of commitment to the coach impacts how an athlete behaves. This includes the level of effort, strong mental commitment, and team investment.
Research has identified three things that contribute to a committed relationship between an athlete and a coach. Once you can build a strong commitment between an athlete and a coach, the team commitment is a natural extension.
Athletes participate in sport because they love the sport and they want to grow. If a coach is not providing adequate training and instruction, the athlete is likely to quit and go searching for better training elsewhere. The athlete’s perception of the level of training he receives is directly related to his commitment to the coach. Therefore, a coach who emphasizes training will increase team commitment.
A coach is first and foremost a teacher. A coach should be able to focus on training his athletes and meeting each athlete’s training needs. If athletes are pushed and continue to see growth, they are able to perform their best for the team. They will feel a sense of contribution and remain committed to the team goals.
2) Promoting Teamwork
Coaches who also promote teamwork and encourage athletes to be a part of the decision-making process will foster a culture of team commitment.
A democratic coach asks the team for their opinion. She gives choices and options when appropriate, and doesn’t treat the team like a dictator or queen.
With a democratic style, coaches encourage teamwork and team investment from every member of the team. Not just the seniors, the captains, or the most talented athletes. If it’s truly a democratic culture, everyone has a voice regardless of standing. There is no hierarchy, and everyone will feel a sense of investment and team commitment.
Effective communication is key to creating a trusting and committed coach-athlete relationship. Just like any relationship, trust is built on good communication. An athlete will be more committed to their team if she feels well informed by the coach about any changes that affect her or any issues concerning her role on the team.
Interestingly, the research demonstrates that of the three, information sharing has the strongest relationship with commitment. Again, this communication style is more natural to a democratic leader. I encourage coaches to adopt an open communication style where you discuss things with your athletes. That doesn’t mean you never make a unilateral decision. However, if you do have to make a decision on your own, take the time to explain your reasoning to your athletes. Especially at the high school and college age, clearly inform your athletes of what’s going on. It goes a long way towards a strong coach-athlete relationship and team commitment.
It’s About the Process, Not the Outcome
The coach-athlete relationship is dynamic and ever-changing. Just like a marriage or a long-term friendship, these relationships need investment, time, and continued energy to thrive. The relationship is built on mutual appreciation and respect and requires the desire on both sides to discover the other’s needs. Exhausted yet?!? This takes a lot of work, and it’s why coaching is so emotionally and mentally draining. We can often teach the physical skills, it’s the relationships and mental toughness that are challenging.
Commitment is a Two-Way Street
When done with conviction and heart, a strong coach-athlete relationship creates a norm of reciprocity between the two. The coach offers the athlete good training, areas to contribute to the team, and decision-making opportunities, which signal the coach’s trust and respect. When an athlete feels respected and trusted by the coach, she will in turn respect and trust her coach. She will feel more connection and obligation to the team, leading to robust team commitment.
When you adopt a coaching practice that focuses on training and instruction and lead with a democratic leadership style, you have set the stage for team commitment. It takes a focus on training, encouraging teamwork, and sharing information to contribute to a superior coach-athlete relationship and overall team commitment.
Culture isn’t created overnight. It takes time and a lot of commitment to the process and your own coaching philosophy. If you’re struggling with team commitment, reflect on your own coaching style and ways that you can improve on the three areas discussed above. Don’t be discouraged if it takes more than a year for things to really turn around. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. These investments will pay off, both in the level of commitment you see from your athletes, and your own level of happiness, fulfillment, and success.
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