CoachingHigh School SportsSoccerSport

A few nights ago I went to a graduation. Not a high school or a college graduation, but one far smaller, and far more personal. In fact, there were only seven kids, one of which was my 9-year-old son TJ. He and six others were being recognized by their amazing teacher for their dedication, hard work, and persistence in overcoming their struggles with a language-based learning disability that strikes one in five children. They all have dyslexia.

The teacher began the ceremony with a talk about self-efficacy.

“Self-efficacy,” he said, “is the belief that your effort and hard work matter. It’s a child’s belief in their ability to achieve their goals and complete tasks. In our schools, in our sports, so many times these kids lose that belief because of a learning disability. They are called slow learners, they are called frustrating, they can’t sit still so they are called disruptive, and yet, in reality, they probably work harder than anyone else in their class. They just have a disability that impedes their progress, through no fault of their own. They work so hard, and yet are led to believe that their work does not matter. So they eventually give up.”

One by one the seven kids were called to the front of the room, and their teacher described their unique gifts, their unique paths, and how they had overcome their own unique struggles in school and in life. He gave each of them an award related to their contribution and development, not just in reading, but in art, in laughter, and in relationships with others. He caught them being good at things and recognized them for it. And as he described each award, I saw an amazing thing: a smile on each kids face that could light up a room.

As the famous conductor and speaker Benjamin Zander says: “Look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it.”

I saw seven pairs of eyes shining that day. Which brings us to an important question:

Are your players’ eyes shining when you coach?

Does your presence make your athletes day a better one?  Do you recognize each and every one of them for their unique gifts and contributions to the team? Or do you only spend time with a few of your players, likely the starters and/or upperclassmen. Have you ever wondered why you had a roster full of talent, but no team? I have.

Many years ago I had a group with lots of talent, but no team. We had players dissatisfied with their role. We lacked effort in training. We were outworked in games. I had front row seats watching our season go down the tubes. Thankfully, I also had a friend and mentor who happened to be a 6x national champion NCAA soccer coach, Jerry Yeagley from Indiana University, whose words stick with me to this day:

“John, coaching isn’t just running practices and X’s and O’s. It’s about culture, and unity, and recognizing every player for what they bring to the table. Your problem is you have a bunch of piano players. Every team needs some piano carriers too, and if you want people to carry the piano in training and games it’s up to you to let them know that they matter too.”

Those words from Jerry nearly two decades ago changed how I coached, how I led, and how I set up my teams. But something far more important happened that day.

The fact that the legendary Jerry Yeagley cared enough to help me – an unknown, unimportant college assistant and youth coach – made my eyes shine.  He made me feel like the most important person in the room. He made me remember how my favorite coaches made me believe in myself and let me know that my contribution mattered. And he made me feel like I was progressing, and I had a future in coaching.

What I realized that day was this: If I can make my players feel like Coach Yeags just made me feel they would run through a wall for me, and for each other. If I could get them to believe in themselves like his words made me believe in myself, then nothing could stop us. I learned that day that coaching isn’t only about X’s and O’s, but about relationships. I realized for the first time that if I could win the relationship game, I could help my teams win the game on the field too.

I realized that I had to make my own players’ eyes shine!

Most coaches ignore the relationship game. They assume that players know when they are doing well and when they are not. They forget how great it feels to get a compliment, or to be trusted and believed in. They forget what it was like as a player to see progress, and have your contribution recognized. Maybe that is the way they were coached, so they assume since they were OK with it, everyone is OK with it. But they are not.

Another mistake coaches make is that they spend too much time focusing on their top performers. Yet what about the other players on the team, the ones who don’t get the recognition? The ones whose names don’t appear in the paper, and may not even appear on the game day roster. They may never score the winning goal, or make the big save, yet they are a vital part of the culture of championship teams. They make practices better. They are the top players #1 fans. They can be your biggest allies, or your worst adversaries. How do we serve them?

I recently had the opportunity to see business and organizational health guru Pat Lencioni  speak about his excellent new book The Ideal Team Player, and he discussed three areas bosses often fail their team members. In essence, he was discussing how we fail to make our people’s eyes shine.


Every athlete, whether a star player or the last one off the bench, needs three things from a coaching staff. The presence of these three things will help get every player to buy in. The absence, or worse, the antithesis, will destroy your culture, and tear your team apart.

Here are three keys to making your athlete’s eyes light up, improving performance, and building a championship culture:

Recognition: Every player on a team needs recognition. I am not talking about trophies for everyone and 8th place ribbons. I am talking about the absolute need for a coach to take the time to recognize the contribution of every player who comes to practice, gives her all, and fulfills a role. I am talking about the need for catching every player being good, and epitomizing core values. You see, the star players usually get plenty of recognition. They win MVP’s and all-league awards, and they get recognized by classmates and fans. But what about the players who don’t get to play? Without recognition, these players see themselves as anonymous. As Lencioni says, “people who see themselves as invisible or generic cannot love their jobs, no matter what they are doing.” The same goes for every player on every team. No matter how much they love a sport, eventually they will grow to hate it if they do not get recognized for contributing something to the effort.

Relevance: Every player needs a role. Some can be top scorer, others the top defender. Some can be leaders, some can be supporters, some can be the smart guy, others the funny guy. But most importantly, every player must be something. Players without a role feel irrelevant. They feel like their hard work and effort don’t matter. A coach who sends his reserves to work with the assistant coach every day and never coaches them makes them feel irrelevant. A coach who never calls a reserve player into the office and compliments them for working hard, raising the level of practice, improving their shooting, something, anything, will lose that player. You must find something about every player and let them know how that contributes to the greater good, and that their work matters. If you believed at your job that no one would miss you if you were gone, chances are you would jump at the chance to do something else, and rarely go the extra mile. If your players feel the same way they will disengage too.

A way to measure their contribution: It’s easy to measure goals and assists, points and defensive stops, tackles, and fumble recoveries. It’s easy to measure a time in a 100 yd dash or a swim meet. But how do you measure things that are harder to measure? Let’s face it, a defender on a soccer team might never have a measurable statistic beyond minutes played, and if a coach consistently touts the goal scorers and shot takers, that defender can quickly start to believe that her contribution doesn’t matter. But at least she is playing! What about the kid who doesn’t play?

You can have players measure free throws made, or juggling in soccer, and chart progress over a season. You can measure who shows up first or leaves last, and give recognition for that. You can also find tangible ways to measure your team core values. If your team values effort, you can give out hustle points in practice. If you value positivity, you can measure how often a player makes a teammate smile, or gives an encouraging word to a player who is struggling. Every sport is different, but the more things you can measure, the more ways you can demonstrate how an athlete is not only progressing, but contributing to the greater good. We value the things we can measure, so find ways to measure how each and every athlete contributes, or doesn’t contribute, so you can measure progress. In the words of Lecioni, “without tangible means of assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates as people see themselves as unable to control their own fate.”

If your talented team is going down the tubes, before you look at your athletes, you need to look at yourself. If you don’t like what is happening, it’s not only up to your players to fix it. It’s up to you to fix it.

Do all your players feel valued? If not, fix it.

Do all your players have a role? If not, make them feel relevant.

Do you measure everyone’s contribution? If the answer is no, figure out a way how to.

“Who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining?” asks Benjamin Zander. Who am I indeed.

Let’s make our athletes’ eyes shine. We might just win a championship. More importantly, we might just change a life.


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