Before Labeling an Athlete ‘Uncoachable,’ Try This

This article was first published with Power Athlete – thanks to their editors for the opportunity.


Coaches are in the business of taking people to places they would not have been able to go alone. They are leaders, mentors, and motivators. They are guides.

For these Sherpas of athletic purpose, there is nothing more frustrating than an athlete who veers from the path. At the Good Athlete Project, we have had the privilege of bearing witness to hundreds (if not thousands) of these interactions.

“He just doesn’t get it,” a coach might say, since he has “told that kid 1,000 times and he keeps running the wrong way!” 

When athletes do not follow the path a coach sets out for them, it can be infuriating – and if it goes on long enough, it can be disheartening for both player and coach. In these moments, coaches can benefit from a framework that has served us well over the years. Whether it is a team workshop, in-depth consultation, or our own coaching, we return to a simple formula: filter the situation through U.M.A., which stands for Understanding, Motivation, and Access. [fig. 1]

There are countless variables to effective influence, habit adjustment and – ultimately – Good coaching. So many variables, we decided, that it became clear that we needed an organizing principle to help people sort through it all.

Because the truth is, there is no such thing as an “uncoachable” athlete. There are only the athletes we quit coaching – in our opinion, there’s no excuse for that. The U.M.A. framework makes sure people don’t get stuck.

The current version of the framework is designed specifically for coaches. It does not pretend to have all possible solutions; rather, it helps a coach diagnose where the next step toward effective influence should occur.

[fig.1]

Understanding

How often do young people hide their ignorance so as to not feel judged by their peers? The answer: all the time. 

Whether it is in a math class, the weightroom, or on the football field, when the instructor asks “do you understand?” students will nod their heads, even if they don’t. When the instructor asks if there are any questions, only the bravest of the bunch might tentatively raise a hand.

There is a big difference between memorizing plays and understanding one’s role on a team. If there is something missing in the athlete’s play, if it just doesn’t seem to be clicking, the coach should slow down and ask questions to identify potential gaps in understanding.

We return to three key questions:

  • Does an athlete know what they are supposed to do? (assignment)
  • Does an athlete understand context and compounding factors? (situation)
  • Does an athlete understand how their role fits in to the whole? (scheme)

Using a football linebacker as an example, his assignment includes knowing what defensive formation was called and how he is supposed to line up. In the called defense, he will need to know his “read key,” or the player(s) he is supposed to read once the ball is snapped. If he doesn’t know the formation, where to line up, or what to look at, then there is an immediate and obvious gap in understanding. 

When this gap in understanding is identified, a coach should have the patience to slow down and bridge the gap. Too often, we get caught up in the desire to go fast, get more reps, and advance in the playbook (or programming). 

Slow it down. Get it right.

Once a linebacker has his assignments down, he will then be asked to understand situations. Often, this will occur in the form of conditional assessments (if/then propositions). For example, if the offensive guard (the linebacker’s “read key”) pass-sets, then the linebacker should drop to cover the pass zone to which he has been assigned. If the guard down blocks on a run play, then the linebacker will fill his assigned gap. This understanding takes both logical understanding of the conditions and plenty of repetition. It is hard to build this level of understanding without experience. 

The athlete should also understand how his job benefits the team. Whether it is in a walk-through session or in the film room, coaches should show athletes how their piece helps complete the puzzle. In the case of the linebacker, he might not make the tackle by filling the backside A-gap, which makes it hard for him to understand why he is doing it… but if we help him understand that as each player on the defensive front fills their respective gap then there is nowhere for the offense to run the ball, then we improve the likelihood of him continually doing his job.

An effective coach will ask these questions routinely. They will work to confirm an athlete’s level of understanding on each level, taking into account the fact that athletes will learn at different speeds – just like in the classroom. You would never throw 80 random people into a math classroom and expect them to all be on the same level. That holds true for the athletic field as well.

In the absence of thorough understanding, results will be limited. 

Still, when it comes to effective influence, understanding alone is not enough.

Motivation

Once an athlete understands what he is supposed to do, a second question arises: will he do it?

Motivation is a billion-dollar commodity. There are more “motivational” videos on the internet than any other sort of content (not including age-restricted websites, of course). 

We are a population in need of motivation – we want it for ourselves and we want to know how to stimulate it in others. Energy drinks, pills, and posters with cats hanging from clotheslines promise to “give us wings” and encourage us to “hang in there.” The modern American is a motivation sponge… which is why we sometimes fail as coaches in motivating others.

When we fail to motivate it is often because we have neglected to identify the motives of those in our charge. Without aligning with an athlete’s motives we – by definition – cannot motivate them. Instead, we repeat what we have seen, or impose our own motives on young people. 

I think back to my own high school football experience – as a freshman, I remember a coach’s pre-game speech including the phrase, “if you’re not excited for this game you need to check your pulse.” We were playing our cross-town rival and this was apparently a very big deal. The problem was, none of us knew it. We were 14 years old, had yet to learn about the rivalry, and none of us were shaking with excitement. The coach, who was a great guy, was attempting to motivate us using a method that did not align with our motives. We just didn’t get it.

A few guys on the team put on mean faces and pretended to understand the long-standing rivalry. Most of us were just hoping that we would remember the plays so we wouldn’t get yelled at. We wanted to make friends on the bus and have fun playing football. There was a gap in the alignment of team motives. 

Effective motivation always begins with the alignment of team goals. A team without a purpose is a group. I was in a group of people at the grocery store the other day, it wasn’t that exciting. But I was on a team in college that shared a purpose and it brought me to a higher level of myself. 

As a coach, this is one of the most difficult components of the framework to assess. The framework does not present a guaranteed solution, only a set of questions for the coach to reflect on. What works one day might not work another. What works for one athlete is not guaranteed to work for them all.

A few key questions to ask when assessing one’s own motivational strategy:

  • Does it align with the athlete’s abilities?

Can he do what you’re asking him to do? Asking him to perform a task he is physically unable to do will lead to frustration on both ends, ultimately decreasing motivation.

  • Does it align with the athlete’s current state?

What else is going on in his life? When one’s dog dies, football practice might feel less important that day. Sometimes you have to meet people where they are before you can take them where the need to go.

  • Does it align with the athlete’s understanding?

The most motivated linebacker in the world, going 100mph and willing to run through a wall for his team, will still be ineffective if he’s running the wrong way.

The coaches who are willing to assess, try new strategies, listen to the feedback of their athletes and evolve their motivational strategies over time WILL succeed. It takes patience and resilience. And when it all comes together, it’s worth it.

Still, when it comes to effective influence, motivation alone is not enough.

Access

When an athlete understands what they are supposed to do and is motivated to do it, good coaches will then examine whether or not they have access to the tools and systems needed to be successful.

From a tools perspective, access is often easy to assess. If an athlete wants to play football but cannot afford a helmet and shoulder pads, then there is clearly an access issue that must be resolved before proceeding. If the athlete wants to be at practice but does not have a method of transportation, then coach and athlete have to identify a potential solution.

You cannot paint without a brush. You cannot attend a team Zoom meeting without a computer and internet access. You cannot eat healthy when shopping for groceries at a gas station. 

Occasionally, access issues seem so obvious that coaches forget to ask. Without access to necessary tools, an athlete cannot progress. We have to close those gaps.

From a systems perspective, access can be more difficult to assess but is equally important. Systems-level concerns often appear out of logistical necessity, with the creators of the systems being unaware of how their decisions impact athletes. 

Insufficient sleep opportunity is one of the most frequent examples of a system-level access concern. We all know how important rest and recovery are to an athlete. Performance is dependent on the physiological relationship between stress and recovery, which ultimately leads to growth. Sleep is essential. Without the recovery piece, advancement is limited. 

So why do the structures of so many schools and teams limit the sleep opportunities of young people? 

After practice the average student-athlete goes home to shower, eat, and do some homework before bed. If practice ends at 6:00pm, getting to bed by midnight is a quick turnaround. The average school start time in the U.S. is 8:03am – which means that if a student wants to shower, dress, eat breakfast, and commute to school for an on-time arrival, they will have to wake up before their bodies and minds have fully recovered. There is little to no chance an athlete will receive the CDC-recommended 8-10 hours of sleep.

And in some of the more urban areas where we work, students who take public transportation find themselves waking up at 5:30am or earlier. The systems have limited access to an outcome. 

Then, after a Friday night football game, the hypothetical linebacker we keep referring to might stay at school until 10:00 or 11:00 at night. He has been mildly sleep deprived all week and on Friday he has been awake for 17+ hours and played a football game before going home to recover. He might stay up a little while eating food and coming down from the excitement of the game, then ultimately fall asleep around 12:30/1:00am.

This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that the coaches have called a film and lift session the next morning. It starts at 8:00am. If he skips the morning shower and grabs breakfast out the door he might get about six hours of sleep. 

The system has failed him. He has access to a pillow and a bed, he does not have access to a sufficient sleep opportunity.

This can be seen all around us. On the Southside of Chicago, in what is referred to as a food desert, it is more expensive to find an apple than it is to buy a bag of Cheetos – there is an access issue standing in the way of their nutrition.

Coaches should be sure that what they request of their athletes is feasible. They should be sure their athletes have access to the tools and systems necessary to do what is expected of them. If we can close the access gaps for athletes and more regularly align with their situations, we can bring them closer to peak performance.

Still, when it comes to effective influence, access to tools and systems is not enough.

The Whole Puzzle

Too often coaches (and armchair quarterbacks, and news pundits, and friends sitting around a table on Friday night) see one piece of the U.M.A. puzzle and develop both logical and emotional attachments to it. 

The athlete on the Southside of Chicago who does not have access to an apple cannot possibly accomplish his goal of good nutrition. But that is not the end of the story. If he does not understand why the apple fits in to a healthy nutrition plan and if he is not motivated to eat well, then he could have access to all the apples in the world and it wouldn’t matter.

From a coaching perspective, effective influence hinges on the ability to change behavior. Behavior change does not happen without understanding, motivation, and access.

Coaches are often visionaries and it is our job to see the whole puzzle. The U.M.A. framework helps coaches do that. Coaches are inherently problem solvers – once we troubleshoot a situation for U.M.A. limitations, we can get to work. Coaches are often high energy. And while that is excellent and often necessary, sometimes we have to slow down and look a little closer.

Albert Einstein once said, “if I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions,” recognizing that how one defines a problem precludes their ability to solve it.

If you think your athletes are “lazy” or they “just don’t get it,” then you might be right. But it might also be worth taking a closer look. There might be a small gap in understanding or access that is limiting their motivation. And if you define the problem right, it might not be all that difficult to solve.