What Every Coach Needs to Know about the Athlete's Experience

Many years ago, I got into a philosophical debate with another coach on whether sports were a means of teaching kids about life, through the experiences they had as an athlete, versus developing the athlete as the main priority, with the hope they would learn about life. Now if you re-read that sentence, you just might think that these two perspectives are really one and the same. However, through deeper examination, and what became obvious as our discussion heated up, they are not.

Developing the athlete as the number one priority, as important as that might be for success in sports, is, at least to me, only a part of the picture. It is one-dimensional. Coaches with that perspective tend to center their focus on techniques and strategies that make the athlete better only as an athlete, concentrating mainly on the “winning” aspect of sports. The betterment of the individual on the inside becomes more of a secondary concern.

And with some, maybe many, winning becomes synonymous with athletic improvement, and any means to get there becomes irrelevant, as getting “there” takes precedence.

If you take a good look at our current sports and youth sports culture and the complaints many have regarding the lack of character, arrogant entitlement-type of attitudes, and use of just about any means to improve athletic performance, you might come to the conclusion that this, developing the athlete first and learn about life maybe, has become a dominating thinking pattern. The intrinsic components, the internal characteristics that many insist sports help develop, get lost in the mix.

On the opposite side of this position, something I support, is one where life lessons take priority. Coaches with this perspective still have a strong focus on techniques and strategies that develop the athlete. However, their more global viewpoint of “teaching kids about life” first, never puts them in conflict with those intrinsic characteristics most would agree kids should learn through their sports experience.

These “teachers” take their athletes down a path where character, integrity, strong work ethics, proper priority setting, commitment, discipline, sacrifice, etc. become tantamount to athletic development as they focus on improving the athlete both inside and out. And, in turn, they teach the athletes under their direction about life, right along with making their athletes better and “winning.” It is a multidimensional approach to coaching.

Certainly one coach who fit this idea of sports as a means to teach about life would be the late John Wooden. A man who focused intently on developing his athletes from within, and much less on his next opponent or on winning as paramount. Coach Wooden prioritized the intrinsic, life applicable, components I am referring to here, and he did it throughout his coaching career with a style few have been able to duplicate.

And guess what? Coach Wooden not only won, he won a lot, securing ten NCAA Division I National Championships in college basketball with seven of them consecutively. How many people can say that?

And something else about the philosophical belief I am arguing for here, as I did long ago with that former coaching colleague of mine, it shows athletes under your direction that you care about them. They are not just chess pieces you move around a board in order for you to win games; they are individuals with wants, desires, and dreams of their own. Dreams that you can help fulfill through a coaching philosophy that centers on the athlete as a whole―a complete individual.

This is a much more rewarding, all-encompassing, life-enhancing, coaching practice than what some have adopted as it extends far beyond just the athletic arena. It is one that brings back to the athlete, and to the coach who follows it, unprecedented pride and a sense of accomplishment as you know, without a doubt, that you helped make a difference.


Original Publication  September 3, 2011, at Riot Sports Marketing


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