Encouraging Athlete Input Benefits All

Author: Dr. Wade Gilbert


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Encouraging Athlete Input Benefits All

During the recently concluded NBA championship series between Cleveland and Golden State, one of the most talked about stories was the interaction between Cleveland star LeBron James and his coach, David Blatt. James, on more than one occasion openly refuted coach Blatt’s coaching decisions. The most vivid example occurred during a time-out in the third quarter of game 5 when coach Blatt drew up a play on his whiteboard for the team. James, obviously displeased with his coach’s choice of tactic, vigorously shook his head in disagreement. Blatt quickly erased the play and drew up an alternative that, apparently, was acceptable to his team’s best player.

Was this concession by a coach to an athlete appropriate? Should coaches make a practice of soliciting input from and deferring decisions to their players?

While the nature of the communication and the situations in which athletes have decision-making authority will continue to be debated, it is generally agreed that coaches should encourage and listen to athlete input. Two of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and the late John Wooden at UCLA, have pointed out the importance of listening to athletes. Wooden encouraged coaches to “listen to those under your supervision. Others, too, have brains”, and coach Kryzyewski reminded coaches that good ideas can come from anyone “and they should be secure enough to change plans based on the input of the team.”

Players immersed in the competition will notice little things the coach will never see, particularly things happening away from the main action. Athletes will pick up on subtle cues related to opponent tendencies and should be encouraged to inform coaches about their physical status (e.g., when they need a break) and playing conditions (e.g., slick floor or turf). This type of information is critical for making quality decisions and can often mean the difference between winning and losing a competition.

The ideal situation is where coach and the athlete observations are pooled to provide the most detailed view of what is happening. This puts the coach in the strongest position to make the right decisions at the right time. Although it is clear that soliciting input from athletes is a winning strategy, it does not mean that athletes dictate team strategy or coaching decisions. Furthermore, it does not mean that every decision has to be painstakingly negotiated.

Successful coaches adopt a three-step approach for effectively screening and using athlete input when making decisions during competitions:

1. Prepare to make a decision by quickly reflecting on game notes, personal observations and when possible insights from other members of the coaching staff.

2. Before enacting the decision, quickly ask athletes for their insights specific to the situation.

3. If athlete input confirms the decision no further discussion is needed. If athlete input sheds new light on the situation the coach should be willing to modify the decision if, based on their experience, it is believed the change will give athletes a better chance of success than the original coach-generated decision.

Next time you call a time-out or pull athletes aside during competition, try asking them what they are seeing and what they think might work best before you tell them what to do. This simple strategy will only take a few seconds but will greatly improve decision making and coach-athlete relationships. In addition to the obvious benefits of relying on multiple points of view, encouraging athletes to share their insights builds mutual trust and confidence. Athletes at all levels consistently report that playing for coaches who encourage their input is more enjoyable and fuels motivation.

Ultimately it is the coach’s responsibility to make the final decision. Successful coaches eagerly accept this responsibility and understand that their leadership is evaluated on the outcome of the decisions they make. Great leaders encourage and seek input but then act quickly and decisively.

Hall of Fame basketball coach Larry Brown summed it up best when he shared his three keys to coaching success: “The first thing players want to know is whether you can coach. Then they want to know if you can give them a chance to win. Finally, they want to know if you care. And that last one is really vital.” When you encourage athlete input you build a climate of mutual trust and show athletes you are willing and capable of leading them to success.


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