"What do you remember about the best coach you ever had?" John O’Sullivan asked. He had passed out yellow sticky pads to all tables in the room and asked us to write down our top five characteristics- one per sticky. He stood in front of a room full of coaches, team managers, and a few other invited guests as he spoke. What he would reveal to us in the next five minutes would become an “ah ha” moment for many in the room and a lesson for you to think about the next time you're on the field of play.
List Five Qualities of the Best Coach You Ever Had
On March 6th, 2019, I received a generous offer from the Potomac Soccer Association in Potomac Maryland to attend their annual coaches dinner as a guest. Laurie Lane, the Executive Director for the Club reached out to me - honoring a practice of connecting with her community that I have come to admire. She and her leadership team spent some money to bring John O'Sullivan, the Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project, out from Oregon and she knew how much I've been inspired by his work. The evening didn't disappoint. The food was good. The company was invigorating, and the Keynote speaker, John O’Sullivan, was inspiring as always. He gave us a few minutes to write down the top five qualities we each remember from our favorite coach or coaches. “What things really stand out for you?” He asked. "What do you most remember that made them great?"When he was done, he pointed to two walls on either side of the dinner hall. The room was well lit so the light tan walls stood on either side of us like towering empty white boards. This should be interesting, I thought. Brainstorming, maybe. I wonder how he's going to sort these answers. There were easily 60 people in the room. That's at least 300 stickies by my count. I looked around as the last of my fellow dinner guests - most of them coaches and team managers - put down their pens. Lists complete.
John O'Sullivan (right) and I (left)
"If your sticky has to do with your coach's knowledge of the sport, the techniques, the tactics,” he said “place your sticky (on the wall to my right).” "If your sticky has to do with your coach's ability to connect," he continued, “this is the stuff like emotional intelligence, the connection, caring..." listening, inspiring, and other soft skills that don't have to do with knowledge of the game, tactics, or game strategy. "stick it on the wall to my left."
Within seconds, the throng of people moving to the soft skills wall made the point loud and clear. The "connection" wall that had nothing to do with knowledge of the game, with tactics, or strategies was soon covered with yellow stickies. The "knowledge" wall that had to do with the stuff that traditionally gets taught in coaching courses had some stickies, but there was no comparison. If I had to guess, the ratio looked like 4:1 in favors of coaching soft skills.
"Do we notice a pattern emerging? he asked. The message he was sharing with us became clear in a very physical and visible way.
Coaching Skills Beyond the Credentials
Skills centered around caring, listening, and passion seemed to top our list that evening, but it was clear that most items on the "Connection" wall, the stuff that this room full of adults remembers most about those who influenced them in life, had to do with making deep personal connection, supporting and inspiring people vs the technical elements of the game.
If this little impromptu exercise is repeatable (the fact that John has done this all over the world suggests that it is) and if there is something to be learned here, it is that good coaching is about a lot more than teaching X’s and O’s. It's about love, caring, trust, connecting, communication, etc.
Dual Meaning for Parents
As a parent, I'm looking at these two walls and drawing two big conclusions:
I might be meant to coach even if I don't know the technical details of the game yet. If I have the things found on the yellow sticky "Connecting"...
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