During a recent podcast interview, a coach brought up an interesting concept that–although I’ve heard many times before–really resonated with me. The coach said that one of the most important things a coach can do to be successful is to let the players know that you love and care about them. This is more than just words, it also involves actions. Players not only need to be shown that they are loved and cared for by their coaches, but they must also be told explicitly that they are loved. This got me thinking, “Do I love my players?” How important is it that they know I love them?
Now when I say “love” my players, I’m referring to the process of looking out for my players well-being and quality of life as an individual and as an athlete. It goes beyond about caring about their production as players and their eligibility in the fall. As the coach in our podcast eloquently said, “Players know you care about them as football players, but do they know that you care about them as individuals?” I believe this is a very important thing to consider because sometimes, as coaches, we do a poor job of letting the players know that we appreciate their efforts and we care about their well-being. Too often, coaches may feel like they have to be the authoritarian figure in their program–a “hardass” if you will. While there is a time and a place for being tough on your players and holding them accountable, it shouldn’t cross over into something that becomes a personal attack.
A coach at Gustavus once put it this way, “The players need to know that you are coaching them as a player on the field and not as a person.” What he was referring to was the idea that if you get tough on a player and say some things to challenge them, it was not an indictment on the player as a person. Rather, it needed to be constructive coaching related specifically to their performance as a player. I’ve always found this to be a good practice; however, it is equally important to convey this message to the players. Let them know that you are coaching them as a player and what you say on the field is only related to their actions and decisions as a player. Then, once you are off the field, you can begin to transition into coaching them as young men and helping them become the most successful version of themselves that they can become.
Players must also know that we appreciate them and we appreciate their efforts. This helps them know they are loved and valued. Everyone wants to be appreciated and noticed. For some kids, the most attention and the only attention they receive is from you, the coach. With the homes and family structures of our players being as diverse and unique as ever, it would be foolish to assume that a player is receiving praise at home. I’ve heard coaches argue that we praise kids too much and we have created entitled individuals who have lost the ideal of what hard work truly is. I respectfully disagree with that. As coaches, we create the culture and climate that our players operate under. I feel that if players are feeling entitled and disengaged from hard work, it is a reflection of the structure created by the coach. Done correctly, a coach can effectively praise a player and they can feel appreciated. Usually this praise is specific, more focused on the process, and personal. Players aren’t trying to fail in their activities or do poorly; they are trying to please. Let them know when they are doing well and hold them accountable when they don’t.
Loving a player isn’t always all the bells and whistles. I’ve been fortunate enough to be married to a wonderful woman for almost five years now. When I married her, I married her and everything that came along with her. I committed to loving her during the good, the bad, the tough times, and the joyous times. Marriage isn’t a matter of convenience or circumstance and neither is coaching. When you coach a player, you are coaching them during the good, the bad, and everything in between. We must remain committed to our players throughout the entirety of their decisions, even if that commitment is difficult. Our job is to hold them accountable for their decisions, teach them the proper values, and to love them unconditionally as if they were are own child. Sometimes, our players don’t have parental figures at home and sometimes they never hear that they are loved. That is why the role of the coach is so important and so special. We get to impact the lives of so many of our players. We talk about how much football teaches us about life. Well if that is truly the case, why aren’t we teaching our players how to love and to show compassion and appreciation for one another? And if we are already teaching these things, why are we hesitant to demonstrate their effects?
Coming full circle, I asked myself whether or not I loved my players. The answer was yes; however, I don’t know if my players know that. I know I’ve told them I love them and care about them after big games, but have I really demonstrated it outside of the season? The answer is probably not. I believe my actions and words reflect that I care about them, but I’m not sure if they fully interpret them that way all the time. When it comes down to it, some players are never going to know how much you care about them and that’s ok. The important part is that they’re hearing you. Sometimes being heard can make all the difference and sometimes your message needs to be said again and again before it resonates with players. As coaches, we constantly have our players as an audience. What we must continually ask ourselves is, “what is my message?” Is it a message of love?