Team long run

Listen To Me Coach

“Listen to me coach.”


“Listen to me, Coach.”

Just a little punctuation (much like the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma”) can completely change the meaning and context of the same three or four words.


I was out for a long run and those two (not the Grandma ones) sentences came to mind.  


I remembered how important it was for me when I began as a coach to make the athletes listen to me, to hear what I was telling them. I was their leader, and I knew so much more than they did. Furthermore, there were time constraints. There were so many kids on the team that I figured I only had a few minutes per kid per practice to make myself heard. You need to listen to me.


Getting the athletes to pay attention and “buy in” was often a contest, a battle of wills. I appreciated the kids who were natural listeners. They had either been brought up to pay attention to authority or were just generous souls. I resented the kids who weren’t. I’d invent incentives. I remember instituting “listening drills” at practice for the first team I coached: “Run up and down this hill until you hear me say ‘enough’.”   would say “enough” very softly, and only after I knew they had really gotten the message. They would listen very carefully, but only because they were being punished.


Don’t get me wrong- it is very important for athletes to be respectful and listen. They need to accept that responsibility quickly (if not immediately) and consistently. It’s also a skill that’ll serve them well for the rest of their lives. It’s one aspect of “coachability”, that elusive quality that makes any prospective team member attractive and valuable. Over the years I’ve found that one of the highest compliments I can give a former athlete (especially during a job recommendation interview) is that they were coachable. Employers love hearing that.


Good listening isn’t just a skill, it’s a behavior. As a coach, my work was essentially influencing behavior. The only bullet-proof method I found for influencing behavior was through modeling the behavior I was hoping to see. If I wanted to see punctuality in the kids, I had to be punctual. If I wanted to see kids accept responsibility for their mistakes, I had to accept responsibility for my own. I know this method of teaching is self-evident, and people have been shouting it from the rooftops for centuries, but it took me many years to figure it out for myself. Once I did, though, I relied on it every day.


If I wanted better listeners in front of me, I had to be abetter listener myself. I began to ask the kids more questions and I paid closer attention to their answers.  I didn’t set a timer on the process, but it didn’t take long to see a change in team culture. Once the kids knew I was listening to them (“Listen to me, Coach”) they were ready to listen to me coach.  


Of course, better listening also made me a much better coach. If I knew, from listening, how a kid was feeling, or how they were responding to training, I was able to better apply my expertise to help them make progress. I had a clearer picture of what their goals were. I learned about the kids, and I’ve never learned anything by talking.

I also learned that louder isn’t necessarily clearer. Towards the end of my collegiate coaching career, I would wander out to the quietest, most remote spot I could find on the track or cross-country course so that I could coach the athletes in a speaking voice, the voice they were used to hearing. If I shouted during a race, it made us all feel a little unsettled, panicky.

I’m now coaching much younger kids in a very different context, and I’m sometimes troubled by what I recently heard described as the “Culture of Disrespect.” Simply put, many kids arrive at school without an understanding that sometimes they need to wait, to share, to be quiet, to follow rules, or to listen. It seems as though it’s been left to the schools to teach these things… to somehow work these fundamentals into an already crowded classroom on an already crowded day.  


I’ve found that I need to establish some very basic standards of respect and listening immediately, and that those standards give us all some breathing room.  Without them, I don’t get a chance to model any behavior other than fuming. It takes some of the kids a while to adapt to those standards, and sometimes they don’t. My hope is that they’re at least hearing me, if not listening. In the meantime, I’ll try to make sure everything they hear is worth listening to.