Character by Design at the NSCA National Coaches Conference, 2020

Simon Sinek’s wildly popular TedTalk encouraged an audience to identify the heart of their purpose (their why) in order to fuel their actions (their how and their what).

Why do you do the work you do?

As the dregs of routine take over – early mornings and long nights, countless small fires to be managed – it can become difficult to keep a professional purpose in mind. In the work of the Good Athlete Project, we regularly find coaches who are familiar with the need to identify a why, a purpose, a mission… yet they do not take the time to do so. It’s not uncommon to hear lines like “I know why I’m doing this” and “I know what I’m about, I don’t need to write it down.”

Without regularly rekindling the flame of purpose, it is difficult to organize one’s professional thoughts and behaviors.

One value of Good Athlete Project workshop sessions is that they afford professionals time to reflect and be explicit about purpose. In a presentation at this year’s National Coaches Conference in San Antonio, a group of devoted strength coaches came together to do just that.

We broke up into small groups and spent time considering three important prompts:

  1. What drew you into coaching?
  2. What are your favorite parts about coaching?
  3. Name the qualities of one of the most powerful coaches/mentors in your life.

What we found was fantastic, though not surprising. The most common responses regarding the initial draw to coaching were versions of

  • love of sport and training
  • the energy of the environment
  • seemed like a natural next step
  • wanted to help people
  • wasn’t ready to get away from sports

In short, many enter the field of strength and conditioning because they like it. They like sports, they like training, and they want to continue to be a part of that environment once their careers as athletes are over. They are worried that they’ll miss the sounds of the bar against the rack, the cheering of teammates, and the energy that comes with young people chasing their optimistic dreams.

The appeal of strength and conditioning as a profession is obvious. But what keeps coaches in this demanding career is a little deeper. Consider some of the thoughtful responses regarding coaches’ “favorite parts about coaching.”

  • being part of ‘breakthrough’ moments for athletes
  • when athletes share how much what you do has helped them
  • help others reach their potential
  • when the transformational light comes on for the trainee
  • show my athletes how hard work and determination can change their life for good
  • creating meaningful relationships with young people
  • to help young people grow confidence, have fun, encourage each other

There are few professions which see these “why” moments so clearly, so regularly. Truly, when the right culture is created, strength coaching can be one of the world’s most rewarding professions. Many in attendance at the NSCA conference acknowledged the humbling idea that this work is a gift.

A few coaches recognized that many of the young people they work with find the strength environment more comfortable than any classroom. They claim that they have been with young people who trust their coaches more than their teachers, other school employees, and in certain situations, more than their parents.

With this gift of opportunity, what one chooses to teach takes on new meaning.

Meaningful Education

Once we recognize that this might be the prime teaching moment of a young person’s day, we must identify what are we filling it with. We must be clear about the cultures we hope to create.

Are we imposing our own values on these young people? using language that conjures violence over healthy competition? villainizing young teenagers from the next town over?

If so, that’s a mistake.

With this in mind, the group we assembled at the NSCA Conference worked to identify key outcomes within our professional pursuits. There was no discussion of reps and sets, only an analysis of why the reps and sets take place – for progress, for growth, in service of the opportunity to guide young people along their journey.

This part of our work – the harvesting of motives – is always heartening. Especially when we get to the questions regarding mentors from the past.

We ask coaches to reflect on some of the most meaningful coaches and mentors from their childhood and early development. We all have fond memories from our time in sports, many of which can be directly tied to the leaders in that space. Often we reflect most positively on the coaches who were both tough and kind, competitive and caring.

Coaches think back to those who got the most out of them, but did so in a way that made them believe that their time spent together, the shared purpose and the relationships, ultimately outweighed athletic outcomes. They recall the ones who understood the purpose of their work.

All the more reason for us, the current coaches, to work toward understanding the true purpose of our work.

Coaches often acknowledge that a mentor from their youth was essential in setting them on the path to becoming a coach, but say that they haven’t bothered to think of them in a long time. And when they do recall those meaningful people, they do not do the work of identifying why.

Why were these mentors so meaningful? What were the qualities they espoused, the values they championed? How would they describe the way they made their athletes feel?

When we brought these questions to the group, we were overwhelmed by the adjectives used to describe those meaningful people: caring, encouraging, driven, relatable, high character, low ego, grateful, optimistic, positive, supportive, honest, believed in me, inspired me to challenge myself… the list went on.

It was clear that this groups of dedicated coaches had been exposed to some truly influential mentors over the years. Sports had offered them a classroom, and this crew was lucky to be exposed to a great group of teachers.

Then we asked an essential question: twenty years from now, will the young people we work with be saying the same things about us?

Identifying Barriers

Once we’ve done the work to be explicit about why we do this work, we must then be honest with ourselves and identify that we are not living our mission often enough. Even the best coaches will succumb to the stressors of their jobs and daily lives.

This can be a difficult but necessary recognition. Elite coaches don’t shy away from it.

Only once we identify what’s standing in the way of living our purpose – of bringing our why to life – can we troubleshoot and improve our situations. The group of coaches in San Antonio was vulnerable and forthcoming with these necessary truths. 

In almost every case, coaches identified focus as a primary concern. They mentioned that maintaining the attention and focus of their athletes was a challenge. Many also admitted that they occasionally found it challenging to maintain their own focus outside of work hours, noting that long, intense days spent with athletes left them feeling drained in the off-hours.

Coaches mentioned pressures from work and regular life, “external distractions,” and lack of accountability in certain age groups. Concerns like “lack of investment” came up repeatedly. “Outside influences and peer groups” are difficult to control for.

Each set of goals, barriers, and solutions is context-specific and unique. There is no way to troubleshoot them all in this article, but the Good Athlete Project prides itself on the ability to do this work in individual workshops and consultations. Still, there is one bit of universal advice we can offer: take care of yourself.

A degraded state of personal wellness – physical, mental, or both – will negatively impact the way a coach engages with any situation. One coach aptly noted that their biggest barrier to accomplishing their professional purpose occurred “when I have not taken the time to take care of myself.”

When we are not taking care of ourselves our frustrations rise, our thinking slows, and our best intentions fall victim to our own degraded state.

Coaches, as you strategize to overcome the barriers to impact in your situation, remember to take care of yourself first. As on an airplane, remember to put your metaphorical oxygen mask on first – if you pass out, you’re no good to anyone else, no matter how noble your aspirations might be.

Moving Forward

The NSCA National Coaches Conference was a great experience. The group of coaches who assembled to talk about the concept of “Character by Design” was fantastic and makes me proud to be part of the strength world.

As we move forward in this work on our own, Coaches, remember to identify why you chose this profession, work to appreciate the moments wherein your mission is upheld, and take care of yourself along the way.

Yours in one of the world’s most powerful platforms for education – take your charge seriously. Return frequently to the question “does your behavior match your goal?” and feel free to reach out to us for support at any time.

Hope to see you at a conference in the future.

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