Five Gifts Athletes Need From Coaches

A great read from Tim Elmore


Recently, I had the opportunity to share with the NACDA (National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics) community the following thoughts. I wanted to share them with you as well…

I made an observation some time ago that’s been confirmed over and over, among student athletes. Most want to be “seen” as leaders, but few want to “act” like one. By this I mean, they enjoy the perks of leadership, but not the price.

One of our Habitudes® is called “Thermostats or Thermometers.” (Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes.) Consider these two instruments for a moment. Both have to do with the temperature. The difference? Thermometers can only tell you what the climate is; thermostats actually set the climate.

I believe first-year athletes usually enter our teams as a thermometer. They want to blend in. They want to get playing time, keep their nose clean and not mess up. So they look around and try to mimic the players around them. They reflect the climate, good or bad. This is natural. I believe we must challenge student athletes to become thermostats as they move into their sophomore year and certainly, as they become upper classmen. They’ll be needed to turn up the temperature when passion is necessary, or turn down the heat and calm things down at other times. Influence is the essence of leadership, whether or not they have a title.

The Price of Being a Thermostat

In 2013, we surveyed Division 1 coaches from across the country, asking them what they’re observing among this new generation of students. Several patterns came to light, but I’d like to discuss one in particular. While students wanted to be perceived as a leader, they didn’t do confrontation or conflict well. They didn’t want to have to confront teammates, hold them accountable, or call them out on poor performance. After all, who wants to play the role of the “bad cop?” Once again, people want the perks without the price of leadership. The fact is thermostats are about changing the temperature and sometimes that means doing hard things.

The people I know who’ve earned the right to become a “thermostat” on their team, or in their department, always embody two ingredients:

  • They live by values.
  • They add value.

Living by values means I own a set of standards, that may be higher than my coach’s or teammates’ and I live by them, on and off the field. Even if teammates don’t agree with all my values, they at least respect me because I challenge myself to live by these excellent ideals. I earn the right to influence by living at a higher level.

Title or no title.

Barrett Jones played for the University of Alabama between 2008-2012. He entered college with distinct values, including excellence and service to others. How did this play out during his years as a student athlete? Barrett received his bachelors and masters degrees in five years, with a 4.0 GPA. Coach Nick Saban asked him to play three different positions on the offensive line; he was an All-American at all three. Off the field, he led service trips to Haiti to aid the earthquake victims there. He served the community in Tuscaloosa after the tornado in 2011. He was a servant-leader, and everyone recognized him for it. He was the winner of the 2011 Outland Trophy given to the best lineman in college football. Coach Nick Saban commented after Jones graduated from Alabama that this young man was one of the top five most influential people in his life. Wow. That’s what I call a thermostat.

The Process of Building Thermostats

As a coach or administrator, your job is to create a culture of leadership among your staff and students. The task can be summarized in one phrase: To transform young men and women from thermometers to thermostats before they graduate. So—how do you do this? I believe we build a culture of contagious thermostats when we practice what I call: The Big IDEA.

The Big IDEA for Building Thermostats:

I – Instruction

We must consistently teach them leadership—in the classroom, on our teams, and in the life skills we pass on to them. Your team or department needs a language for leadership. Student athletes need conversation.

Question: How are you providing a language of leadership for athletes?

D – Demonstration

We can’t stop at mere instruction. They must see healthy, strong leadership at every turn. We must model it for them. It’s show and tell. People do what people see.

Student athletes need observation.

Question: How are you demonstrating examples of healthy leadership for athletes?

E – Experience

The first two are incomplete unless we allow them to get up and practice leadership. They must do it. We only really learn what we apply. Practice makes permanent.

Student athletes need participation.

Question: How are you providing opportunities to lead for all athletes?

A – Assessment

Experience is not the best teacher. Experience requires assessment to not repeat bad experiences. We must offer places for debriefing, honest reflection and correction.

Student athletes need evaluation.

Question: How are you providing constructive places for feedback to athletes?

To be clear, some student athletes need to learn how to be a good thermometer before learning how to set the temperature. In other words, some need to learn how to be a good follower or a good teammate; to learn how to come under authority. Both instruments are necessary, and being a thermometer comes first. It’s far too easy, however, for staff and students to simply blend in, not stand out; to go with the flow and simply do what others do ; say what others say; listen to what others listen to; wear what others wear…all their lives. This kind of mindset fosters vague drifting, not clear direction. The culture and climate will be up and down all the time.

In other cases, you’ll likely meet some student athletes who are already thermostats, but they’re horrible ones. By this I mean, they have deep influence, but they lead fellow students in the wrong direction. Pause and reflect for a moment: Adolf Hitler was an undeniable “thermostat” in Germany during WWII, but it led to tragic results. He was a great leader…but he wasn’t a good leader. This is why we must embed into every student the idea of “living by values” and “adding value.” It’s not about me, it’s about we. Effective leaders know which way to affect the temperature.

Practical “Gifts” Leaders Can Give Athletes

From our work with dozens of NCAA athletic departments and professional sports teams, I’ve drawn some conclusions on what student athletes need from leaders. May I offer a handful of practical “gifts” you can give to the students you lead every day? Today’s athlete, the ones who make up what I call Generation iY, need five elements from you in order to become a thermostat:

1. Empathy – “I understand you.”

Being heard is so close to being loved that for most students, it is indistinguishable.

2. Incentive – “I believe in you.”

Students perform better when our messaging stems from our belief in them.

3. Standard – “I expect the best from you.”

Leaders must be both responsive and demanding; we must call out the best in them.

4. Accountability – “I won’t settle for less than our agreement.”

We all do better when we’re watched; when we’re consistently reminded of our standards.

5. Celebration – “I will praise effort, regardless of the score.”

Students need to be recognized for effort that is in their control and can be repeated.

Remember—we must go first. We teach what we know, but we reproduce what we are. If student athletes are going to become thermostats, we must first show them what that looks like in our own lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *