Building hard-working team is the hallmark of a great coach in any sport. Many teams have ridden a single gifted player’s talents to a championship or two, but it takes solid coaching skills to develop a team whose players simply expect to win — game after game, season after season. A winning culture is what every great coach is after, and getting there requires a strong, concerted effort. It definitely does not happen by accident.
Focus on Positives
There may be no better teacher on this topic than one of the most successful coaches alive, Gregg Popovich of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. Coach Popovich is well known for adopting ho-hum players into the Spurs’ championship culture and winning year after year.
“Boris Diaw? The slightly doughy Frenchman who never played hard and was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats in March 2012? He’s now a critical big man off the bench, and played a key role in shutting down the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals,” says the Rolling Stone in a 2014 piece.
“Marco Belinelli? The non-descript Italian jump shooter playing minor minutes for a variety of unmemorable teams? He’s now an assassin, drilling open threes at a prodigious clip and stealing the hearts of countless female fans,” the article continues.
That those players would become NBA Champions with The Spurs is no accident. It’s all part of Popovich’s coaching practice of staying focused on player’s positive attributes and down playing their weaknesses. This, as numerous writers have observed over the years, puts all his players — not just the superstars — in a position to win at any time during any game in any season.
Build a Buzz
Good coaches also devote much attention to building a winning spirit in the community around their teams: parents, player’s friends, and, well, all others in a school or even an entire city. It’s a coach’s job to create an expectation among these others that his or her team will always be a winning unit. This inspires winning enthusiasm from nearly everyone his players come in contact with (even outside of practices and games). If nearly everyone around a player is saying, “I hear you play for a winner!” the actual winning will often seem quite natural, perhaps even automatic. That is the proper mindset for winning consistently with a team.
The Association for Applied Sports Psychology offers some great tips for building this kind of buzz around any team. Creating t-shirts that highlight the team’s winning attitude is but one idea. Winning coaches often organize community pep rallies for their teams or send press releases to local media highlighting big performances and games. And they certainly make sure school marques and announcement bulletins always include mentions of their team’s successes. In general, good coaches are always on the watch for public opportunities to say something encouraging about their team.
Communicate with Your Players
High quality communication with players is another key to building a team that wins consistently. On this, coaches can learn from human resource experts and others who specialize in inter-personal communication.
Following team-building ideas popular in the corporate and academic worlds, coaches should be ready to delegate some of the team leadership to the players themselves. Instead of dictating precisely how team practices and meetings will go, good coaches often invite players to evaluate their teams for themselves and, perhaps, design drills that would address any weaknesses.
This type of communication may go against a coach’s natural instinct to be a strong leader, but experts say it helps a team build winning ways. When a coach’s communication techniques allow players to incorporate their own ideas into the team’s overall program of practices and meetings, players have “ownership” of “their” team. And, when all players identify the team as theirs, hard work from all will be the natural result.
All sports have common practice drills that highlight teamwork. During team practice sessions, good coaches focus mostly on these, leaving most individual-based drills for players to work on privately.
The United States Tennis Association offers some good examples of standard tennis drills that promote a teamwork atmosphere in practices. Though tennis is mostly an individual sport (except in the case of doubles, of course) creating a spirit of corporation during team practice sessions — with a little lively competition mixed in — adds to the overall winning team attitude that a coach builds with the other methods we have mentioned. When players challenge each other through these types of drills the incentive to improve skills comes internally. In other words, it becomes “theirs” rather than their coach’s. Good coaches find that this spirit translates into hard work, which translates into consistent improvement — and wins.
Important note: many standard drills in most sports focus strictly on a player’s individual skill. When devoting team practice time to these types of drills, good coaches will often modify them with a team building component. Typical agility drills — dribbling around cones, for example — can become a team-building game if players are divided into groups that race each other.
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