One of the greatest things to ever happen to me was also one of the worst.
What I mean is it gave me some of the hardest moments of my life, but they were also the most transformative. It was my good fortune to have an outstanding strength coach when I was wrestling in college. He was strict, honest, fair, and demanding. He did all the little things right and expected the same from his athletes. I didn’t understand how anyone wouldn’t want to run through a wall for him, but some athletes just would not comply. Some would complain, some would go through the motions, and some would be late or even miss a workout. These things were always met with some form of punishment—usually at 4:30am the next day.
I can vividly remember the first time I was late to training. I had overslept my alarm, not by much, but it was still enough to jerk me out of bed with my heart pounding—man we’ve all been there! So I threw on my workout gear, my sweats, and my coat, and I ran half-way across campus in the snow and blistering wind of Laramie, Wyoming. I somehow managed to make it three minutes early, BUT I had put on the wrong pair of shorts. When I got back to the weight room after finding the correct shorts, I was ten seconds—TEN SECONDS—late! To my strength coach, that was the same as ten minutes. So the next morning at 4 am, Coach arrived and escorted me to the turf where I began my punishment: ten up-downs on his command followed by five walking lunges, ten up-downs, five lunges, ten up-downs, five lunges—all for 200 yards. He thought I’d be tired, and I was, but as a hard-headed wrestler I said the worst thing I could ever say to a strength coach: “that all you got for me?”
I then had to perform log rolls for 300 yards. After my consequential reverse peristalsis, I vowed NEVER to be late again. I stayed true to that for the remainder of my time training.
Although that was one of the worst experiences of my wrestling career, I respected and valued it. But that was during a time that CARA and RARA hours didn’t exist; athletes could be summoned as early as coaches wanted. In today’s landscape, bringing in athletes so early is not allowed. Additionally, using exercise as punishment is a means we’ve moved away from completely. What worked to get me in line back in 2001 simply isn’t an option today.
So, what can we do to make sure our athletes are compliant with training if we can’t get them out of bed at dark-thirty and make them sick all day—even if it’s to teach them a lesson they need to learn? Rest assured there are other approaches that can be just as effective, if not more. In my opinion, it comes down to three fundamental things every team should have: culture, education, and buy-in. With these, you either coach your athletes up, or these fundamentals deteriorate rapidly.
What an easy word to throw around—culture—especially on social media. Transparency and consistent communication are important—you can’t ever communicate the team culture too much. But you can’t just talk about culture and expect it to happen magically. It must be well thought out, rooted in core values, and practiced and protected daily. Some examples of core values might be accountability, integrity, and a positive attitude. Your athletes must also adopt daily habits that embody your values, like staying positive, caring about what they do, and being accountable. Everyone must be all in. As I tell my team often, “I protect this culture like I protect my first-born!” Once you have someone who pulls in different directions and whose habits counter the culture’s core values, you’ve got a problem.
Here’s where the education piece comes in. The culture MUST be incorporated top-down. It needs to be established first with the head coach because they have the leadership roles. It then trickles down to the assistant coaches, support staff, athletes, and even to the people who work in various roles in the building. These roles may include building managers, marketing and game-day operations personnel, and even the janitorial staff. Everyone helps to make up the fabric of your culture, so it’s important to invite them to team meetings where the values, practices, and expectations will be explained. When everyone involved understands the importance of maintaining the habits of a positive culture, it can drastically decrease or limit negativity and distractions that could otherwise take away from the culture you strive to build.
Once you’ve clearly established the culture you’re building and a process for training everyone about it, getting buy-in is what will make it all come together.