A few years ago, we were just days away from our tryouts, which includes tryouts for captains, and I was dreading it. Not because of the actual tryout process, but because I had one particular girl trying out for captain and I knew she needed some tough love before that tryout. For her sake, my sake, and the whole team. See, I knew she had it in her to be an excellent captain. She was the most talented on the team, and an extremely hard worker. I love it when I can have a senior captain who is super talented but doesn’t sit back and let that be enough.  The problem? Her delivery when talking to teammates. She was so passionate and fired up, that some of her teammates took it as bossy and rude. I desperately wanted her to be captain, but a GOOD captain, who know how to motivate within the positive culture of my team. That means we had to have a tough love conversation and I kept putting it off.

tough love

Finally, I had to suck it up and asked her to talk with me before our last clinic day. Tryouts were about to start, and I had waited to the last possible moment. But she needed to hear the truth. So while celebrating her strengths, I gave her the hard truth that shouldn’t get captain (based on my evaluation or the vote of her teammates) if she didn’t make some changes.

It was a rough conversation.

But I did it, and you know what? She took it to heart, and to this day is one of my most successful captains.

Why Tough Love is Important

I tell you this story to talk about the need for a little tough love in coaching because it’s essential if we want to push our athletes. We want to coach out of respect. We want good relationships with our dancers.  Of course, we genuinely care about them. But I think if you really care about your athletes and their ability to grow, you have to be a little tough on them too.

Sometimes it’s our job to share information they don’t want to hear. You may have to tell them, “you’re benched from this game,” “you’re in the back row of this formation,” “you’re an alternate in our competition pom routine,” etc. Delivering that bad news can be really hard on us as coaches. And personally, I hate all conflict, so I completely avoided those conversations for a long time. But that doesn’t serve the dancer or the whole team. They need you to be honest with them.

The dreaded participation trophy

If you’re coaching today, you’re likely coaching people who grew up in a participation trophy era and that can be hard to confront.  It’s especially if the parents still think you should fall in line with that philosophy. (For more on dealing with parents click here).

You may be the first, and only, person in this young athlete’s life to deliver some tough news. To not give them what they want immediately. To cause some negative emotions and allow them to sit in those emotions for a while without immediately fixing it.

That’s ok. And more than that, they NEED you to be that person in their life if no one else will.

Of course, how you deliver that tough love matters. It’s a fine line between hard truth and abusive communication. We don’t want to tear them down, so the hard truth has to be delivered honestly and be concrete (no wishy washy). You conversation should also have clear expectations about what needs to happen to overcome this obstacle. Plus expressing that you believe it’s possible.

What Does Tough Love Look Like?

If you think one of your dancers needs some tough love, consider these four equally important aspects of the conversation…Deliver hard to hear information:

  1. Clearly
  2. with expectations of how to overcome the barrier
  3. guidance on how to make it happen
  4. expressing your belief that’s it possible.

It’s not just about the hard truth. They need to hear that, but they also need your guidance and what to do next. Offer your corrections with care and concern, and never elevate to verbal abuse, attack, or intimidate.

My point is that you can offer tough love and give feedback that’s hard to hear with compassion and a plan for improvement.

Everyone is different

Another important thing to keep in mind is that people will respond differently. Some need you to be harsh and push them. Others will crumble. Keep true to your style and know your dancers. You know who needs a little gentler touch than others. But no one needs to be abused, and everyone deserves healthy communication one-on-one.

The other side to this, is that you don’t go to an extreme with praise either. If you offer empty praise, then it becomes meaningless. Set high expectations, create clear goals and achievement plans. Create a culture where failure is progress and mistakes are ok. And let them know you care about them as people not just an X in your formation book.

The Tough Conversation is Worth It

Back to my successful captain who needed some tough love… That conversation was hard for both of us. I let her know there were behaviors that should change because I have high expectations of my leaders. I let her know her peers probably wouldn’t vote for her if things continued the same way. Even though I was blunt, I gave some guidance about what needed to happen and let her go home and think about it. More importantly, I also let her know I was talking to her about it because I believed in her ability to be a good leader and I wanted to help her achieve that goal. As I said before, she came back a different leader is one of my strongest captains because I was willing to have the hard conversation. If I had remained scared to talk about it, it would be a disservice to her and my whole team.

That’s the moral of my story. Don’t be afraid of some tough love. Just remember both aspects of that phrase. It’s coming from a place of caring for the individual, and make sure they know you believe in their ability to do whatever it is your asking of them. Give them some guidance on how to reach their goals and let them stew on it for a while and decide if they’re willing to put in the work to make it happen. When someone we love pushes us, encourages us, but has high expectations… that’s when we grow.

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