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A recent headline pulled from the sports pages read: Coach Says Athlete Entitlement a Factor in Her Retirement. It was the story of veteran women’s college basketball coach Rhonda Rompola, who decided to end her 25-year coaching career in large part because “kids are not as coachable as they were years ago”.
I frequently hear coaches lament that today’s athletes are more self-centered. This widely held belief is often attributed to growing up in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘selfie age’. One of the more memorable experiences I had with this issue came from an exchange with an Olympic coach. The coach emailed me from overseas asking for advice about how to ‘bust the culture of athlete entitlement’. The coach had arranged to extend the trip to allow the athletes to train in some of their sport’s most renowned training grounds. Instead of being excited and grateful for ‘getting to stay’, the coach was taken aback when the teenaged athletes grumbled about ‘having to stay’ longer.
It is true that today’s generation of young athletes is growing up in a different culture, one in which individual achievements are often glorified and celebrated at the expense of collective achievements and self-sacrifice. Nowhere is this more evident than in the typical youth sport setting where parents aggressively push for their sons and daughters to get ‘noticed’, in the hopes of securing a college scholarship. However, coaches have long had to deal with athlete entitlement. Former NBA coach Pat Riley who won four championships with the Los Angeles Lakers three decades ago famously wrote an entire book about what he referred to as ‘the disease of me’.
The most effective way to bust a culture of athlete entitlement is to actively build and reinforce a culture of athlete accountability. A three-pronged approach is most effective for creating this type of team culture:1. Use messages to clarify the concept.
2. Practice team activities to develop and recognize the desired behaviors.
3. Model the message and the behaviors to reinforce accountability.
Printing personal accountability messages on t-shirts and player handbooks are examples of strategies frequently used to clarify the concept of selflessness. As part of his accountability building efforts, former professional football coach Mike Smith gave all of his players and staff bracelets with ‘No Complaining’ printed on them. The strategy worked so well the team declared that year their ‘No Complaining Season’ with many players wearing the bracelets throughout the season.
Some other common examples of messages coaches use to reinforce the idea of athlete accountability include:• Play for the name on the front of your jersey, not the one on the back. (Herb Brooks)
• We win together, we lose together, and we refuse to point fingers at one another. (Mike Matheny)
• Never make the same mistake twice, because the second time you make it it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice. (Pat Fitzgerald)
• Focus more on being the best player for the team instead of the best player on the team. (Bo Hanson)
Coaches working with high school or adolescent athletes might also consider using the following team activity as a way to clarify the difference between ‘selfless’ and ‘selfish’.• Prior to a team meeting, generate a list of related words for ‘selfless’ and for ‘selfish’. Common synonyms for ‘selfless’ are gallant, honorable, noble, brave, heroic, gracious, altruistic, thoughtful, coachable and respectful. For ‘selfish’ coaches might use egotistic, greedy, self-centered, narcissistic, self-absorbed, vain, conceited, arrogant, pompous, and boastful.
• Create two word search puzzles – one for ‘selfish’ words and one for ‘selfless’ words. Many free online puzzle generators are available, and a typical word search puzzle will take less than five minutes to create (http://puzzlemaker.discoveryeducation.com/WordSearchSetupForm.asp).
• Print the two puzzles on opposite sides of the same sheet of paper, and make one copy for each athlete. Do not identify the puzzle topics.
• At the team meeting present the word search puzzles as a competition. Either have athletes compete individually or in small groups to see who can complete the two word puzzles first.
• Debrief the activity by explaining that the words on one side of the worksheet define a ‘selfish’ athlete while the words on the other side of the worksheet characterize a ‘selfless’ athlete. Ask the athletes to then identify specific behaviors that correspond with some of the words on each side of the worksheet (e.g., What are examples of an athlete acting self-absorbed?).
• Finish by asking the athletes which side of the worksheet they would like to have their name written on if their teammates and coaches were asked to describe them. Have them sign their name on the ‘selfless’ side of the worksheet. Collect the worksheets, make a photocopy to keep in each athlete’s file and return the original to the athlete. Revisit the worksheet throughout the year – both when recognizing ‘selfless’ behaviors and during moments of adversity or when an athlete behaves selfishly.
Building a durable culture of athlete accountability though requires much more than clarifying messages. Behavioral standards and routines are needed to help athletes learn selfless and team-oriented behaviors. Many successful teams use a variation of ‘The Hard Hat’ award, described in detail in the book of the same title by Jon Gordon. After each practice or competition an athlete is selected – sometimes by the coaching staff, sometimes by teammates – who best exemplifies team values and selflessness. The athlete is then presented with the team ‘hard hat’, or some other representative symbol, and keeps it until it is awarded to the next recipient.
Another common strategy for teaching athletes how to behave selflessly is to design team activities around the theme of ‘everything earned, nothing given’. Newly hired University of Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall made news recently with this approach. Even previously taken-for-granted ‘givens’ such as jersey numbers now have to be ‘earned’. Before the season starts the team will vote to determine the order in which athletes will pick a jersey number, based on demonstrated work ethic and commitment to the team.
Finally, the simplest and most powerful way to develop selfless athletes is to model the message and behaviors on a daily basis as a coach. Coaches need to lead by example because athletes are always watching them. Coaches must demonstrate that they are not above the same standards for selflessness that they set for their athletes. St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is a tremendous case in point. In one well known example, he organized a team scrimmage in which the losing team was responsible for tidying up the clubhouse that day. Although not participating in the scrimmage, he assigned himself to the least desirable task of cleaning all of the toilets regardless of which side won the intrasquad game.
The importance of coach modeling is succinctly captured in a poem often recited by legendary basketball coach John Wooden:No written word, no spoken plea.
Can teach our youth what they should be.
Nor all the books on all the shelves.
It’s what the teachers are, themselves.
Although each generation of athletes presents coaches with unique challenges, dealing with entitled or selfish athletes is not one. Athletes have always been susceptible to moments of self-absorption or selfish behavior. Instead of lamenting ‘today’s kids’ or hoping that athlete entitlement doesn’t infect your team, create a culture of selflessness by using messages to clarify the concept, teaching accountability through team activities and rituals, and modeling the desired behaviors as a coach.
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