How Open Communication Changes your Team’s Culture

You can find the original publication of this article on the Team Snap Blog

Managing the Complexity

The dynamics between players, coaches, and parents have become notoriously difficult to manage, and understandably so. The complexity that results from the intermingling of these relationships is due to the very nature of sports and competition. Generally speaking, the coaches agenda is centred around the team, a players agenda is centred around themselves, and a parents agenda is centred on their child’s wellbeing. This is not to say that a player can’t care about their team, or coaches always disregard the wellbeing of their players, but usually this is where priorities lie. To put it another way, the allegiances of all parties involved are usually directed (and rightfully so) towards their primary interests. These allegiances can cause coaches to be insensitive, players to show disrespect, and parents to overstep their bounds.

In youth sports, the majority of this friction could be laid to rest if all players received one specific thing from their coaches and parents. This one thing is a mindset as much as anything else, and if all future decisions can be measured against this principle, everyone will benefit. Players simply need: honest, truthful, supportive communication from their coach and parents. This may sound simple, but the impact can be dramatic. Here are three ways that this type of communication will have a positive effect on everyone involved.




Realistic Expectations

Sports (especially when you have to deal with tryouts, playing-time, and other similar issues) can be a great learning and growth experience for many kids. However, I believe one of the biggest reasons athletes can have a negative experience with their coach or team is because their expectations are never met since expectations are never set. If an athlete walks into a team with a particular set of expectations, and the coach never communicates his/her expectations with that player, inevitably someone will be disappointed.

Players simply need: honest, truthful, supportive communication from their coach and parents

In my opinion, truthful communication about a coach’s expectations for both individual players and the team is one of the most important moves that diffuses toxic feelings between players, parents and coaches. A coach should lay out expectations at the beginning of the season with the parents, as well as during the course of the season with the players. Players roles can change and expectations can shift with the ebb and flow of the season and a coach should do their best to be on the same page with the players regarding these issues.


Truth is the Best Medicine

Truth is the best medicine when it comes to potentially toxic communication in youth sports. If a coach fails to communicate to a player how he sees them fitting into the team, then the player is left to patch together a picture of his role from the mysterious verbal and non-verbal cues he sees in practice and games. This guessing game can drive players crazy and undermine a coaches credibility.

Truth is the best medicine when it comes to potentially toxic communication in youth sports.

Although it is more difficult on the front-end to sit down with a player and tell them they might not be seeing a lot of playing time, ultimately this is the healthiest type of communication. This removes the ability of parents and players to blame the coach for any kind of deception or misconstrued information.

In the same way, if a coach delivers truthful feedback, it is the job of the parents to do their best to honestly assess how their child could improve. Parents can offer feedback without undermining the authority of the coach and should do their best to empower their children to improve through hard work and skill development. The truth can sting at times, but ultimately it is the best stimulus for growth and character building.



Positive Opportunities for Growth 

Every directive from a coach to a player should come with a caveat on ways and opportunities to improve (should the player choose to). Positive communication begins and ends with the idea that regardless of how much playing time a player gets, that their inherent worth is never tied to performance. Sports are so much bigger than minutes played, or baskets scored because they teach us about ourselves. Opportunities for personal growth abound in the world of youth sports; but coaches and parents alike need to prioritise providing these opportunities for their athletes regardless of skill level. When honest, truthful, and supportive communication becomes the norm, everybody wins.

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The Kobe Leadership Dynamic


The recent article in ESPN the Magazine (by Henry Abbott) on Kobe Bryant’s destructive patterns of leadership bringsPeek-behind-the-banners to light many interesting questions. Abbott obtained quotes from several NBA agents, players, and insiders that described the toxic leadership dynamic of Kobe Bryant. One agent described Bryant as the unmovable object that has inhibited the growth of teammates and stagnated the organization. By comparing Bryant to a “big rock in your front yard” the agent was essentially saying that Bryant has forced everyone in the Lakers organization adjust to him and his way of doing things. Bryant as the ‘immovable object’ necessitates that everyone else circumvent their position to comply with his needs, instead of using his leverage to empower and inspire others.

Abbott interviewed another agent who sited Bryant as the primary reason many of his clients wouldn’t entertain the idea of playing for the Lakers. The players worried that Bryant would use his influence to pin the blame on them if the team started to lose games. Kobe has created a culture of fear in where his teammates must pay homage to King Bryant or suffer the consequences. The tools of public humiliation and alienation are used to control the proletariat from veering outside of their prescribed zones of operation.

In contrast to the Bryant leadership style, I want to suggest that great leaders have the ability to accomplish three specific things as a direct result of their influence.


Great Leaders Draw People to Themselveskobe-bryant-shaq

By definition, a leader is someone who other people are willing to follow. Great leadership at its most foundational level has the ability to attract a group of talented individuals to accomplish a shared goal. Bryant has been a toxic repellent that many players have avoided like the plague. Instead of enticing talent to join him in Los Angeles, his demanding personality and me-first attitude has made the Lakers an unattractive destination for possible free agents.


Great Leaders Accentuate the Talents of Others

I-think-itd-be-nice-toBryant has made it clear that he is uninterested in developing the talents of his teammates as evidenced by the mass exodus of talented players – particularly big men who require guards to give them the ball in the post – in the last several years. According to Basketball-Reference Bryant has hoisted the 4th most shots in NBA history (24,416 attempts at a pedestrian 45%), and will easily move into 2nd position (surpassing Karl Malone and Michael Jordan) if he stays healthy this season.

Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum are just a few examples of players who have left under the inauspicious dynamic of a Bryant dominated system. Steve Nash a renowned teammate, leader, and well-respected point guard was unable to mask his frustration in an interview with Zach Lowe.

Leaders accentuate the talents of their teammates by helping them surpass the limits of their abilities. The mark of leadership is always measured by the growth of people around them.


 Great Leaders Create a Community of Trust

In contrast to creating a community of trust, Bryant has fostered a community of fear and compliance. Bryant is the ruler of his kingdom and would deal harshly with any teammate who dared challenged his reign.Anyone-who-could

Teammates would learn to fear Bryant or risk being squashed by one of the most powerful players in the NBA. The ideas of open dialogue, communal trust, and transparency were replaced by marching orders to accept Bryant and his standards or face the consequences. Great leaders earn the respect and trust of their followers by submitting themselves to the same standards they enforce on others. They understand that double standards, favouritism, and hypocrisy cripple healthy team dynamics and glorify the individual instead of the group. Trust is the most valuable currency a leader can have, and without it the community crumbles.

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