The best way to protect your teammates from the sorrow of defeat is never accepting excuses or ‘the easy way’ out of a tough situation. While it is important to protect your teamsmates from unnecessary struggle, allowing them ‘off the hook’ actually does more damage to the team than most would ever think.
I walked into the Wichita State weight room early on a Monday morning, flipping on the lights with one hand while the other was holding a hot coffee. My mornings usually start with this routine; So much of this job is about understanding the functional anatomy of humans, the proper biomechanics and techneques of lifting execution, and the proper gauging of effort, intensity, and periodization throughout the competitive year. This is all true, and has deserved the recognition from many authors with vast more intelligence than I. An equally important and often overlooked aspect of most strength and conditioning coaches is the fostering and development of mentally tough competitors and athletes.
ACCOMPLISH THE MISSION
Erica, a tremendously hard worker in the weight room, walked into my office late this Monday afternoon and sat across from desk. The look on Erica’s face explained more than her words could ever express – surely she had one hundred pounds of stress and pressure on her back.
“What’s the deal Erica, I’m always here to listen” I said, trying to get her to open up.
Erica explained, “Adam, I have a tremendously hard exam that I need to prepare for, I don’t feel very prepared and I’m worried. Is there any chance that I can get out of today’s lifting?”
“Tell me what you have been doing to prepare for this exam for the last few weeks” I replied.
“Well, I’ve been really busy with school and I started working in the cafeteria recently and that has been taking time away from my current studies” Erica went on.
I allowed Erica to continue telling me the rest of her story, and I intensely listened to her tale. I always allow my athletes to tell me their side of the story and then I ask for five minutes of uninterrupted listening from them in return. If I show interest in their side of the story first, I’ve been successful batting .1000 when I ask for them to listen in return.
When Erica finished, I looked directly at her and held a long silent pause as I zeroed in on my thoughts during this teachable moment. A common theme that runs through any coaches ethos, “there exists a coachable moment, in everything”.
“Erica, I feel like I’ve heard enough from you to understand the pressure that you are feeling. I get it. I know you are stressed with school and you are worried that your studies are going to fall behind due to your new job and your athletic career here at Wichita State” I replied empathically.
“I also understand that you’re going to be angry and upset when I tell you that I’m not excusing you from today’s lift” I said sternly.
“There are two questions you need to filter your decisions through before acting upon them. First Erica, ask yourself if what you’re asking accomplishes the mission you’re responsible for? Secondly, does it protect your team? Make no mistake Erica, the order of these questions is concrete and doesn’t change. Accomplish the goal, and then protect your team. Exactly in that order” I went on.
“If I allowed to you to go today without lifting, I would be protecting you from the struggle and hard work associated with balancing academics with athletics. However, Erica, I wouldn’t be accomplishing the mission you’ve been recruited to do here at Wichita State. You’ve been hand-selected, groomed and prepared, much like a special operations soldier, to accomplish a mission of winning a conference championship” I said enthusiastically.
Erica did as I expected, wiped away the tears away from her face, and shrugged off the hundred pounds of stress off her shoulders. I knew Erica was going to be upset about my decision but this wasn’t about being unreasonable or not compromising with an athlete. I often find myself compromising with athletes regularly in order to create an illusion of perceptual control. This lesson was about protecting the team from the sorrow of defeat. If I allowed for Erica to find the easy way out of this tough scenario, she’ll always seek for the easy way without learning to embrace the struggle.
What I was teaching to Erica was the importance of protecting your team or your people while never compromising the mission. Too often, people sacrifice their goals in order to please or protect other teammates or co-workers. During races at Wichita State, I often punish those athletes who slow up several steps in front of the finish line rather than crushing their opponent. Perhaps the winning athlete was trying to protect the other competitor’s ego, but they indirectly did it at the expense of the team’s mission; to dominate our opponents and win conference championships.
Erica asked for ‘the easy way out’ that Monday. As a leader of the weight room, if I allowed her the day off, I would be protecting her from possible struggle and hardships in her academics at the expense of properly preparing her for Erica’s one mission at Wichita State – to dominate.
THE FINAL THOUGHT
The Monday proceeded like every other Monday, and Erica had one of her best sessions to date. Everyone needs a reminder once in a while as to what they’re mission is while at college. For some, it is to be the best student possible. However, for the athletes that are heavily recruited, their mission remains crystal clear; win games, dominate opponents and bring home conference championships.