The words stung me as they were said.
I looked back over my shoulder and the muscles of my face worked overtime as I winced sarcastically. I figured acting defensive would buy me enough time to mask my pain and collect my thoughts.
I had been running around the whole morning organizing sessions and meeting with colleagues without a minute to sit and think. I was strung out, stressed out and had not had a full day off in over two and a half months.
I was busy, I felt overwhelmed and exhausted. So when an athlete asked me about his session plan, I didn’t even stop to answer, I just called over my shoulder ‘no time right now!’
No doubt my tone conveyed the sense of exasperation and self-pity I was feeling, still I was floored by his response. ‘You don’t even care do you!’ he shot back.
Sure he was smiling when he said it, but I knew that jokes often blanket truths that can be hard to stomach or say. And I knew that behind his playful exterior, to some degree he meant it.
I stopped, looked down at my shoes, covered in fresh grass clippings and soaked through to the socks. I was confused, I didn’t know if my anger outweighed my pain, if my shame overshadowed my embarrassment.
The comment had caught me by such surprise that I could not make sense of my feelings well enough to formulate a reasonable rationale response. So I just walked away without saying a word.
In the world of elite team sport, showing ‘weakness’ like this often attracts ridicule, on this occasion however there was pure silence. It was obvious I was unusually affected.
At home that night, I sat and thought about it. I wondered how it was possible that I could work so hard for so long and yet still be perceived as careless and cold by those I was working so hard for.
I asked myself three simple questions;
- Who am I doing this for if not for the athlete?
- Why and where am I neglecting the parts of my work that mean the most to them?
- Is this a one off occurrence or is this a pattern I need to address?
In answering these questions, I realized athletes don’t care about what we do behind the scenes, none of that is visible to them. What is visible is who we are and how we present when working with them.
Are we busy, stressed and short with our words? Do we take the time to notice the small things? Or are we so consumed with our ‘busyness’ that we forget or ignore that coaching is really just about people.
I had thought of ‘busyness’ as a sign of commitment and care. It’s not. In fact, it probably makes people who rely on us feel guilty and resent us. To show commitment and care, we must spend time with others when it matters.
Time is the most valuable commodity we can offer someone. No one regardless of status, wealth or rank has more time in a day than anyone else. So when we give others our time, we show them they are valued.
I am not talking about the time we give when we actually coach sessions, its the in between moments, when there is no obligation to spend time, answer personal questions or ask them. These can be great opportunities.
Once I began applying this new insight, I noticed my relationships with athletes strengthened, and the stronger the bonds, the greater my influence. Suddenly my athletes found new levels of focus and intensity whenever I asked for it.
Taking the time to listen, interact and just be with athletes is what really matters to them. And when we give them what they value, they give us what we value. To get commitment we have to first give it as they understand it, not as we do.