Athletes - Leadership/Character

The Framework for a Team Conversation on Race

By Maurice McDavid and Jim Davis

The team setting offers coaches (mentors) to have essential conversations with athletes (students). It is not always easy, and the methods are not always obvious, but with the right approach, the team setting can be the platform for truly meaningful education.

In a recent workshop with the athletes and coaches of the Knox College football program, Coach Maurice McDavid discussed some of these essential ideas. He discussed accountability and what it meant for one teammate to hold another teammate to the standards of the group. This can be a tall task for anyone, especially adolescents and young adults.

Ultimately, the group found themselves wrestling with the distinction between calling out and calling up. Calling out a teammate is easy. Anyone can name a problem and be vocal about their frustration. Calling up a teammate goes beyond noticing a problem and attempting to hold someone accountable, into a genuine desire to support them in a journey toward a higher, better, more thoughtful version of themselves.

Knox College Prairie Fire football team competes during Homecoming 2018, Knox 20 Illinois College 6.

Calling up vs Calling out

When a team member is exposed to startling or offensive behavior, behavior which does not align with the standards of the team, their instinct might be to call out the offender and scold the behavior. This can be useful at times. But “calling out” isolates a person and their actions in a moment when they are – assumedly – not the best version of themselves. 

Those moments are already emotionally charged. If a person is called out it further heightens the emotionality of the moment. This increase of emotion leaves less space for logic and, ultimately, decreases the opportunity for thoughtful conversation. 

If the true goal of a response is to change behavior, then it is important to note that it cannot be done effectively through calling players out. You can’t put out fire with fire.

This is not to say that some behavior should not be immediately stopped and, in that way, called out. If there are situations where an athlete’s behavior is creating an unsafe situation for those around him, then that is a different story. Act fast, Coach. Do what is necessary.

But when the infractions are comparatively minor, the hope would be to call someone up. “Calling up” is a concept based on the assumption that the behavior exhibited is beneath the true character of that person. The call up is a request for that person to operate at a higher level of behavior, to more effectively communicate their best self. 

“Call up” communication has to be done with care, and is most effective coming from the person who has been offended. Patience and deliberation are essential. A coach or teammate must have enough care for the other athletes that they are willing to distinguish when a player’s behavior or communication does not align with their character or the expected character of the program. 

The person receiving the call up must approach the situation with humility and an understanding that the coach or teammate has their best interest in mind. That’s a tall task, especially from an athlete in an emotionally charged environment. For this response to occur, the groundwork must already have been laid.

It is important to listen. Listen without concession or condemnation.

Culture of Coachability

Calling up a teammate is a high level concept that requires maturity, patience, and goal-directed behavior. To increase the odds of this high level behavior, a strong foundation is key.

A caring correction and a humble response are not things that happen on accident – they are products of what Coach McDavid refers to as a “culture of coachability.” Engaging with somebody who might have said something offensive is not unlike a coach engaging with a defensive end who has missed a tackle. The job of the coach is to find a way to get that person to do better. Correction in the film room is an ask of the player to perform at a higher level. Developing a culture of coachability includes treating the third string player and the All-American similarly, with each athlete trusting that the direction and correction is shared to bring the player up to a higher level. That player, regardless of their status on the team, can keep growth and improvement as shared outcomes. A coach must routinely make this clear. When the team shares a goal, the framework of trust and of coachability has the potential to build.

Mutual trust is important. Coaches should recognize that trust might not be as innate when it comes to more difficult concepts.

In difficult conversations, gut-level, emotional responses can be expected. As coaches, we have to identify trust as a core expectation and ensure that it is maintained, especially when it comes to the deep work required to have complicated conversations. Each participant must know, without question, that the other participants have shared outcomes in mind and be willing to raise each other up, to work through challenges together.

“I am, because we are.”

African proverb

Application within the Conversation on Race 

The conversation of race in America will be difficult at times. In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protests and riots which followed, it is a conversation we need to be prepared for. But that is not the only difficult topic a coach will have to entertain. Conversations on sexual assault and gender come up regularly within the realm of sports. As coaches, it is necessary to be prepared to promote this concept of calling up, of asking everyone in the program to communicate at a higher level, regardless of the topic. A team can grow together. “I am, because we are.”

Coach McDavid’s conversation with the Knox College football team focused primarily on race and racism. It is a complicated conversation. Adults step on their own toes when wrestling with the topic of race – that will happen regularly when young people are having the conversation, especially for the first time. They will need to be coached in a style of communication that goes beyond the field of athletics. 

The reality is that most athletes are exposed to or experience microaggressions, or small moments of (possibly unintended) offense. In the conversation of race, offensive statements are often made out of ignorance. Statements can bubble up because a person grew up with that sort of language, not knowing that it was offensive. One should work to understand these moments – to understand does not meant to permit. To identify and eliminate these moments, a culture of coachability comes into play.

When the offensive statement happens, everyone involved should understand that the team members come from a place of care and mutual respect. A team has to explicitly and routinely share these ideas. If that environment exists, there is space for the person being called up to maintain humility.

The person calling a teammate up will do so without harsh judgement, but with accurate assessment and a genuine desire to change behaviors for the better. It will be hard for all parties, but it is necessary.

If one is called out for missing a tackle, it will show up on film. There is no debate. But if one is challenged for not putting forth enough effort, an assumption has been made. Only the person performing the behavior knows what is going on below the surface. From an outside perspective, that assumption might be correct. It might be way off. Either way, the conversation turns to character and, as a result, people are understandably more defensive.

Once again, patience is necessary. As always, a culture of coachability should be firmly in place.

In these conversations it is important to advise people to press against the echo chambers that tell you you’re right all the time. It is healthy to find people who will respectfully disagree with you – not to play devil’s advocate, but with genuine desire to scrape the corners of shared experience. 

It is important to listen. Listen without concession or condemnation.

All of this together – calling up instead of calling out, creating a culture of coachability, and developing a willingness to have necessary but difficult conversations – stand a good chance at changing people’s lives for the better. We hear all the time that sports teach life lessons… well, they certainly have the potential to, but life lessons don’t happen automatically.

Life lessons are a result of you, Coach. They are a result of the culture you create, the intentional lessons you share, and the values you model. Does your behavior match your goal?

Leave a Reply