How Knowing Your Players Promotes Success
3 tips for coaches and parents to implement a powerful shift in perspective.
Coaching and parenting student athletes is hard.
On the coach’s side, there are personalities to manage, competing demands on students' time, and a healthy dose of drama.
For parents, the physical, emotional, and financial commitments of supporting a student athlete can be incredibly demanding
While parents and coaches play different roles in an athlete's development, they converge on two important points.
1. Coaches and parents are working towards the same goal; to support students to get the most out of their sporting experience and to achieve their full potential, both on and off the field.
2. Work towards this goal with no predetermined roadmap or guidebook. Being a coach or parent of a student athlete is a tough job and there are different opinions on how to do it. Ultimately, every parent has to figure out how best to support their athletes.
There are no “easy tricks”, or guaranteed paths to success in either of these roles. But there are some overall principles that can increase the chances of success, and promote a more fulfilling experience for all involved.
What we're going to cover in this article is an approach to coaching that can pay serious dividends, both in athlete performance and job satisfaction. We have included parents in the discussion, because the points covered are just as relevant to them as they are to coaches.
The content for this piece comes from an exclusive video interview with Tim Walton, a highly awarded and respected college softball coach. We’ve pulled out the main points from the video, but to hear everything Tim has to say on this topic, you’ll have to head over to Versus and sign up.
If you're not already familiar with Coach Walton, here’s a bit of background.
A Facilitator Of Success
With prior history as a professional baseball player, Coach Tim Walton has racked up an astounding 20 consecutive years as head coach of American college softball teams. He started at Wichita State University, before moving to the University of Florida in 2006.
As head coach of the Florida Gators, Walton led his teams through some impressive achievements, and received several personal accolades. A few notable examples are:
- Set the single-season record wins for the Southeastern Conference (27) and the NCAA (70) in 2008
- Eight of Walton’s ten Gators teams made appearances in the Women’s College World Series, with back-to-back championships in 2014/15
- Walton has led the program to a Southeastern Conference- leading ninth regular season championship
- Compiled an overall win-loss record of 962-246 (.796)
- Was named Southeastern Conference (SEC) Coach of the year on five occasions, with additional national awards and nominations for his team of coaching staff
- Instrumental in countless athletic and academic awards being given to his students, including 43 National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-American Honors, 2 USA Softball Player of the Year, 10 SEC Player and Pitcher of the Year, 18 College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-American Honors, and countless others.
As we will get into shortly, Coach Walton views his role as that of a “facilitator,” not a director.
He attributes the impressive successes of his teams and athletes to a culture of collaboration, cooperation, and mutual understanding.
Walton states, “The most important thing about doing what I do, and doing what you do, is about relationships”.
And how does Coach Walton build relationships?
He gets to know his players.
In his words, “If you’re a parent or coach and you want to help your athletes get somewhere, you have to know them”.
Here are the three key points Coach Walton identifies as essential for coaches and parents to get to know their players.
With Coach Walton, when he discusses communication, he’s mainly talking about listening.
On this subject, he goes so far as to say, “For me personally, I feel like I’ve been successful because I listen to my players. I know what's important (to them). I try to be a mentor.”
This idea of importance (or meaning) is central to Coach Walton’s approach to goals.
Walton is all about goals. They’re fundamental to everything he does. But they have to be the right goals. According to Walton, the right goals are those that are important to the player. Most of his communication advice centers around finding ways to collaborate with athletes to identify goals that are going to best support their development as a player and a person, and are also meaningful to them.
On a general level, Walton encourages an individualized approach to communication. He points out that each athlete will have different ways to communicate best. Some prefer text, others prefer a conversation in person. Some will come and seek him out, while others he has to chase down.
According to Walton, it’s the coach’s (and parent’s) job to find out the best ways to communicate with their players.
Walton also takes the lead with some innovative communication strategies. For example, he’s a big proponent of DiSC profiling: A personal assessment tool aimed at improving teamwork, communication, and productivity.
He’s also set up a player day. This is an exercise where each player is invited to present to the team in any way they like. Athletes are asked to cover who they are as a person, what's important to them, things that will help them motivate and contribute to the team, plus a rundown of their family background.
Finally, Walton explains that it’s important to find ways to connect with players outside of the game. He reports “This helps them perform better in school and on the field because they know you care. They know you pay attention to the important details about them.”
This key point took Coach Walton ten years to fully realize.
He always knew there was something important about self-evaluation in the coach—athlete relationship, but it took him a while to figure out exactly how to harness its power.
Understanding this point in Coach Walton’s process highlights the strategic way he utilizes listening and communication. He’s not just blindly listening to his athletes and setting goals based on their initial responses. Coach Walton uses a structured listening-based communication process to refine goals and get everyone on the same page.
Walton explains that there is always going to be a pecking order in a team between starters, non-starters, and role players. This works well if everyone is on the same page, but when there is a mismatch between players’ and coaches’ evaluations of what role they play, “you’re never going to perform at a high level”.
To remedy this problem, Walton developed a straightforward self-evaluation form. He asks athletes to rate themselves on a simple scale from 1—5 in areas like work ethic, teamwork, and sports-specific skills (ie. hitting, running, pitching).
Walton explains that “The whole point is to get the coach and player on the same page, so we can have the same goals and speak the same language.” When this occurs, he reports far less controversy and drama in parent—player, player—coach, and player—player relationships.
In this collaborative, self-aware environment, Walton finds he’s able to get more out of his players and set them up to perform at a higher level.
3. Life Skills
At the end of the day, particularly for student athletes, sports are about life. Outcomes matter, but in a lot of ways, how you play the game is just as important as the outcome.
Reflecting on his own experience with baseball, Walton states, “I thought baseball was going to be about being a better player. What I quickly found out was that baseball taught me how to work. How to think. How to act. Baseball is a game that teaches you about life.”
This goes for all sports, not just baseball.
Walton explains that when he’s recruiting, he rarely talks about softball. He’s asking about the student’s major. What do they want to study. What things are important to them.
In Walton’s mind, he’s always trying to create a good person, a good student, and a good softball player.
First and foremost, Walton encourages going for the good person. As he explains, “If you’ve got a good person, you’re probably going to get a good student. If you’ve got a good person, you’re probably going to get a better athlete”.
To come full circle, the end goal of Walton’s strategies about knowing your players, is ultimately to help them become good people.
By knowing their players, coaches and parents can set the foundations for sports to be an activity that helps student athletes become the best people they can be.
A Solid Foundation
No matter how seriously we take sports. How single-minded and goal-driven we are. Sports reflect life.
Coach Walton reminds us that the goal is to live life to the fullest. To improve the lives of everyone involved—athletes, coaches, parents, teams, and fans.
That might sound like a tall order, but it is possible.
It won’t happen on its own, though…
For sports to improve people’s lives, a solid foundation must be laid down by all of the leaders involved.
Coaches, parents, senior players, and staff—all have to do the groundwork to create an environment for student athletes to grow and achieve their full potential. Communication, self-evaluation, and a focus on life skills are key points in this process.
However, the process can only achieve its goals if it is anchored by the needs and desires of individual players.
And the only way to do this, is by knowing your players.
When done properly, knowing your players creates an environment where everyone benefits —because at the end of the day, they all want the same thing. Students want to achieve in sports and life. Coaches want to see their athletes grow and their teams do well. And parents want to see their children thrive and succeed.
Not many people could start with a seemingly simple topic like knowing your players and end up at this point, but that's Tim Walton for you.
We’ve covered Coach Walton’s three key points about knowing your player as best as we can in this article. But for the full experience, head over to Versus and sign up to watch the video.
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