A Player-centric approach to coaching can lead to more participation, greater performance and long-lasting greatness
I’ve been following the Michael Jordan Documentary, The Last Dance, and I’ve been most impressed by the coaching style of Chicago Bulls coach of the 90’s, Phil Jackson. It shows again that no matter what level you coach at, a player centric approach is paramount to success.
The Last Dance
“A results-oriented approach may get results 90% of the time, but it may also cause you to rely on an individual or couple of individuals in the team. In the Bulls case, there was no plan B and C, only a plan MJ..”
When one works with a team it goes without saying that you are dealing with a group of unique and diverse individuals. A group of individual personalities provides endless amounts of potential behavioural patterns, depending on the make-up. But how do we organize this potential into working towards one common outcome goal? I often ask this question in my workshops and often get told that the outcome goal is always winning so regardless of personalities, everyone will work towards winning at the end of the day. At face value this may seem logic, but indeed is very rarely the case.
In the Chicago Bulls team of the late 80’s, Michael Jordan’s goal was without a doubt winning, but it was also to be the best player alive and the top scorer in the league. The game plan, according to the coach at the time, was to get the ball to Michael and get the f out the way. This is a classic example of a results-oriented approach. This worked most of the time, until the Detroit Pistons took Jordan out the game, and they lost in the playoffs to the same team for three years running. A results-oriented approach may get results 90% of the time, but it may also cause you to rely on an individual or couple of individuals in the team. In the Bulls case, there was no plan B and C, only a plan MJ.
What is it?
” Knowing and dealing with your players on an individual level allows them to experience a sense of being valued”
A player-centric approach is a focus on every individual. Knowing and acting at al times as if the players are people first, with personal lives and families, and then players. One player in the Bulls team speaks about Coach Phil Jackson as a “best friend, rather than a coach.” Knowing and dealing with your players on an individual level allows them to experience a sense of being valued. As coaches we often make the mistake of telling players how good they are or can be, in order to give them the sense of value, but let me tell you why that never works.
Firstly, as human beings, we do not place any value on our worthiness to a cause in terms of only ability. The basic principle is that all humans have three inherent needs. The need to be valued, the need to belong and a need for competence. Therefore, if we are consistently focused on ability or competence, we ignore a player’s need to feel valued as a person and need for belonging or connectedness. Secondly, when we focus on a player’s value based on their ability, they feel that they are only valued if they perform and are therefore not worthy when they don’t perform. This creates a huge anxiety-related response in performance situations, and we then label players as mentally weak or with little BMT. Meanwhile, we as coaches have created the issue.
What about winning?
“After the game we can hear coach Phil telling Michael, “you did it the right way”. ”
A player-centric approach does not mean we are not result oriented; results are always important. It simply means we are taking a different route to get to the end goal. In the process we are also developing more individuals as people and as players. In the 1991 NBA final coach Phil calls a timeout and asks Jordan to shift the ball to Paxson, an unexpected player, in order to make the shot. Jordan abides and Paxson ends the game with 10 points in the last 4 minutes. The outcome being that they win their first ever NBA title. Phil Jackson had not only managed to get Jordan to see the value the other individuals can add, but also managed to get Paxson to believe in himself to make those shots. This was not done the day before the final, this was two years of work, often behind the scenes. After the game we can hear coach Phil telling Michael, “you did it the right way”.
The Long-term Plan
” In the short run they will make many mistakes and we may lose, but in the long run, we have expressive, confident players winning consistently and becoming great.”
A player-centric approach does not only allow players to feel valued as individuals, it allows them to grow as individuals. A coach with this approach has to swallow his ego and allow his players to have a voice and an opinion. We often get caught in the idea that we as the coach must have all the answers. We tell players what to do without ever letting them tell themselves what to do. We seldom ask their opinion on strategy, moves or technique. When it comes to them needing to think for themselves under pressure, they are left stranded waiting for us to bark orders.
When we consider an athlete like Beuden Barrett, AB de Villiers or Conor Mcgregor, what makes them truly special is their ability to problem solve and find solutions on the spot. They don’t make that line break, play a reverse lap shot or shoulder bump the opponent’s jaw because a coached told them to. That is intuition, creativity and confidence, and we as coaches need to encourage that and allow that to happen. In the short run they will make many mistakes and we may lose, but in the long run, we have expressive, confident players winning consistently and becoming great.
This leads me to the last point, making mistakes. When we adopt a player-centric approach and allow players to make decisions, we allow them to make mistakes. When a person makes a mistake, they have an opportunity to reflect and learn as we have empowered them to take responsibility. When we tell them what to do and it is a mistake, they cannot take responsibility for it and they probably feel that they are not worthy of your expectations. Making mistakes on their terms allows you to debrief with them. Here, you can ask them their thoughts and after that coach them on what they perhaps could have done or how to do it better. A player has now learnt something new, they feel comfortable trying things as it leads to growth, and they feel valued as you have dealt with them on a personal level.
The key to being a great coach is to know when to speak and when to be quiet. I am always by no means claiming that a player should always have the voice. Part of a player-centric approach is knowing your players on such a level that you can speak, discipline or listen without ever enforcing a negative emotion such as fear, rejection or worthlessness. There are times that a coach needs to take the lead and direct the team. Players need that as well. I like to refer to it as Direction and Guidance coaching. When we lead from the front we direct the way, when we lead from the back we are guiding, allowing the player to walk in front and bump their toe every now and then. If we can adopt this approach to coaching, specifically at youth and junior level, I believe we will see a great surge in participation, performance and greatness.