A lot has been written about great coaches-how they recruit, motivate, and lead their teams. But what happens when things aren’t going well: when players make mistakes, teams aren’t giving their all, or leaders won’t accept the role that their coach needs them to embrace?
In startups, as in sports, it’s important for the founders and management teams to have a vehicle for calling out and correcting poor performance. What can we learn from how the best coaches criticize their players?
As a former professional basketball player, longtime coach, and founder of CoachUp, the nation’s leading sports coaching company, I’ve been afforded a rare opportunity to see coaches at their best-and at their worst. From my experience, many coaches can be categorized as either a “Show Boat” or a “Player-Focused” coach. Here’s how the two different types approach criticism:
The Show Boat Coach
Whether a 60-second timeout in basketball, or a one-minute break between rounds in a boxing match, a "show boat" coach will jump right into “the lesson”-providing as much direction and information as possible in a short period of time. This seemingly “active” coach is constantly advising, correcting, and motivating (often yelling). This coach appears to be “really coaching”-often sweating, red in the face, clapping his or her hands aggressively, and using authoritative gestures.
If you stopped this aggressive behavior in the moment, and asked the coach, “What do you hope to achieve by criticizing your player so passionately?” they would likely respond with something along the lines of: “This is the only way to get through to my players, so that they can learn from their mistakes.”
But what the coach is not really saying is this: In their minds, the athlete’s performance reflects poorly on their leadership. The show boat coach’s instruction aims to make it clear to the athlete, team, fans, and whoever else may be watching that it’s the coaches’ fault. How would you feel if you are the athlete in this situation?
I’ve been there. You already feel bad about making a mistake, and now you’ve been pulled from the game and humiliated. You are upset with yourself, but even angrier at your coach. Regardless, you aren’t in a position to avoid the previous mistake, or to mentally get back into the game. Your coach has done a disservice to you, and to your team, from his self-interested desire to place the blame onto your shoulders.
It’s clear that the “show boat” model of coaching is broken.
The Player-Focused Coach
Let’s take the same scenario all over again from the perspective of a “player-focused” coach. An athlete makes a mistake and the player-focused coach decides to bring in a substitute. As the athlete walks over to the bench, likely visibly upset, the player-focused coach puts his arm around the athlete, pulls them away from the bench and makes a joke. Yes, seriously: “That has got to be the worst pass I’ve ever seen you make, it actually made me laugh. That pass was so bad man, what were you thinking!? Now, if you were to get that same read again, how would you handle it?”
The player likely knows what he or she would do differently. If not, then the coach can chime in with, “Can I make a suggestion? Next time you run that play, make sure you don’t telegraph your pass. Take a quick breather and I’ll get you back out there.”
What has this player-focused coach done?
- Shifted the athlete’s focus: Taking the athlete from being visibly upset to being comforted with a friendly arm around the back and a joke.
- Supported the athlete: With not only a compliment, but a promise of getting back in the game soon.
- Directed the athlete: After giving a chance to see if the athlete is aware of the error, and understands how best to correct the mistake in the future, the coach offers a direction-”don’t telegraph your pass”-that is likely to register in the athlete’s mind. The direction sticks because of the set up work the coach did to shift, and support the athlete following a bad play.
In your workplace, the next time you feel a need to criticize one of your employees, be sure to remember how player-focused coaches do it:
- Shift the subject: “How was your weekend?”, “Did you see the new Batman movie?” The goal of the “shift” is to show respect for your teammate as a human being, and re-establish that connection as peers.
- Support your teammate: “You know, you have been doing a great job dealing with XYZ…”
- Direct your teammate: “Do you think we could have done anything better with our last release? No? I actually have a few ideas, if you don’t mind reconsidering some of the features…”
And there you have it. Remember that the goal of the player-focused coach is always to imagine yourself as the player: How would you want to be perceived by your peers and managed? What would motivate you to get back out there and give it your all? It’s about the athlete (or the employee) feeling good so that they can ultimately do their best work-not about you as the coach, or the manager, pointing a finger to absolve yourself from being a part of the problem.
Why do former players make the best coaches? Why are the best managers the ones who previously had both good and bad managers? Because they understand how to step into their players shoes, and are intimately familiar with focusing their efforts on performance improvement, above all.