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Making Changes


“Some coaches don’t have the energy or willingness to make the emotional commitment to motivate people to attain the standard required of them to compete successfully at the highest level (We could also say some coaches don’t have the energy to require their athletes to make changes every day). Coaches sometimes are not willing to make that commitment because it is so exhausting. They are not willing to confront players when they are not exerting maximum effort and achieving maximum performance (or when they aren’t making changes) because it’s a stressful, uncomfortable situation. To constantly motivate players, you have to be a driving force and make personal investments for which you can pay dearly. There are times when it might not be an easy or popular environment for you to challenge them, but there are times when they are just going to have to suck it up and deal with it. And, trust me, the standards most players set for themselves will usually be in a comfort zone that is well below their potential.”
– Anson Dorrance

We all know that change is uncomfortable. Some of us deal with it better than others. However, when you tell your athletes the same thing over and over, year in and year out, it begins to feel like insanity. Sound familiar?

The definition of insanity is – Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

My favorite athletes to coach aren’t necessarily the best athletes. They are the ones who have the ability to make changes. I don’t have any science to back up this thought, but it seems to me that some athletes need to be taught how to make changes. They have to learn that in order to change, they have to be mindful. In other words, it’s a natural skill for some, and an acquired skill for others. Maybe we can even add a third category, and say that a small group of players simply can’t change.

Teaching your athletes to embrace change is something you should talk with them about early in your season. They need to know how important change is to you, your staff, and to their development.

One of the reasons we like to use keys when teaching skills is it simplifies the learning process for the athletes. We think it helps athletes make changes easier, and faster. We know that people have a limited ability to process information, and simplifying feedback is a big priority.

My wife (Erin) is a Bikram Yoga Teacher. Last week we took class together from a rookie teacher. After class I heard Erin giving the new teacher some feedback. 45 minutes later I finally interrupted their conversation and said, “it’s time to go.” On the drive home Erin asked me why I interrupted their conversation. I began explaining the “limited ability to process information” concept. It was obvious that after 5 minutes of feedback, this teacher was in “la la land.” There was no processing going on. The following week Erin was again approached by the same teacher, and she gave her one little tidbit to really focus on in her next class. Based on what we know about learning, this will be more effective.

I think we can all relate to Erin’s first round of feedback. I’ve caught myself in practice giving feedback that is all over the map. Personally I have found it to be much more productive when we focus on one thing at a time. For example, during this drill we are going to work on eye-work and nothing else. If the athlete has bad arms, we can deal with that tomorrow. It can also be highly productive to assign yourself and your staff specific coaching responsibilities BY DRILL in practice. This can have a great impact on both your coaching and your athletes ability to make changes.

We have all experienced those athletes who don’t know how to change, or who don’t want to change. Typically what happens is we start the season with high hopes, we are giving lots of feedback, but still no changes. As the season wares on, our feedback to these types of athletes decreases. By the end of the season they aren’t getting any feedback because they won’t change, and we are exhausted as coaches.

Another common scenario is you continue giving feedback all year long. As time goes on, feedback goes in one ear and out the other. Your feedback and voice has most likely become counterproductive.

How can we create an environment where change is embraced?

1. As a coach, you are a sales agent. You need to sell your players on the importance of making changes. It needs to be important to them, and they need to know how important it is to you. This should happen at the beginning of your season.

2. You need to structure your practice and your feedback in a way that maximizes athlete’s ability to make changes. For example, keep your feedback specific. Provide your athletes with some activities that are strictly “cognitive (not focusing on the outcome).”

3. As the season goes on, continue to talk with your players about making changes.

4. When you run in to athletes that won’t change (and you will), don’t allow the insanity to set in. It needs to be addressed in a timely manner. It is possible that certain athletes need to be taught how to make changes. They need to learn how to be cognitive when playing volleyball.

5. Many athletes fear change because they are too concerned with the outcome. Teach your athletes that it’s OK to screw up while making changes. The important part is that they are cognitively trying. They need to know that by making changes today, they will be better tomorrow. Begin with the end in mind.

6. Shower your athletes some love when they make a change, and ensure the rest of the team hears you. Find opportunities to be a sales agent.

7. Video sessions. Watching film of the athlete can be a great teaching tool when trying to make changes.

8. If an athlete simply won’t change, regardless of meetings, encouragement, video sessions etc, you will need to make a decision that is in the best interest of your program.

Learning how to learn is arguably the most important task on our list, both coaches and athletes.

Mike Wall

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