By Stephanie Schleuder
“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
Teaching players to be more competitive is a topic that comes up frequently in coaching clinics. Rest assured, competitive behaviors can be taught – just like any other skill. But there’s a difference between training individuals to be more competitive and training a TEAM to be more competitive. With a team, you’re dealing with the complexity of group behavior. Molding individuals into a like-minded group presents many challenges. Nonconformists can create all sorts of hurdles. But, if you can get everyone to invest in the process, I firmly believe creating a competitive team spirit can be a life-changing experience for athletes.
Step 1 - Identify defeating behaviors
It’s important for you to lead a discussion where players identify behaviors that impede their team’s competitive spirit. Start by having one player record the comments on a white board. You might have to give the players some ideas from the “25 defeating behaviors list” to get them started. Your main objective is to help your team understand how one individual’s undesirable actions can negatively influence everybody. Eventually, you want your team to be aware and vigilant about eliminating these behaviors. Help them develop an ability to substitute competitive behaviors that are positive and productive for defeating behaviors.
25 defeating behaviors
- Make multiple errors / poor judgment
- Lots of excuses
- Start and/or finish badly
- Afraid / distrustful
- No energy or minimal energy
- Reactive and blaming communication
- Whiplash / behind the play
- Bitching / cliques
- Cancel success (e.g. great play, then bad throw)
- Trying to be perfect
- Lack of intention – no plan / stupid mistakes
- Quiet / withdrawn
- Unassertive / unforced errors (especially under stress)
- Attitudes: poor; inappropriate
- Rather be right than succeed
- Refuse opportunity to close out a game
- Allow teammates to fail
- Confused / lack of clarity / don’t know the score
- Check out / shut down / not present
- Focused on unimportant factors
- Lack of responsibility / late/ forget stuff
- No change after time-outs or subs
- Big swings in emotional intensity
- Play without enthusiasm
- Torn apart by adversity
Step 2 - Delete old behaviors
Getting players to buy into a new pattern of behavior is critical. Players have to choose to be part of this process or they will never totally accept your leadership. Tapping into the frustration of losing can be a powerful motivator. Pitch it to them as a new model for enhancing competitive excellence. Put the players into small groups, and have them complete these steps:
- Have the team identify their most common defeating behaviors.
- Have them identify the cue or event that engages the behavior.
- Have them choose a positive, substitute behavior for each defeating behavior. (This should be a behavior that can be communicated to the entire team with 1-3 keywords.)
Step 3 - Install a new model
Once players have identified unproductive behaviors, they should begin to form a new, productive model that includes:
- Collectively agreeing on the new choice.
- “Flipping the switch” to change old behaviors.
- Frequently revisiting the agreements and evaluating their progress.
Example of how Steps 2 and 3 might unfold:
Players have identified a problem as “starting slow in games.”
Deleting that behavior
- Problem: Lack of intensity, intention and energy in warmup, resulting in the team not being ready physically or mentally to start the game.
- Cue/event that engages the defeating behavior. It might be gathering slowly without energy and without intention for the pre-game meeting with the coach.
Installing a new model
- All players agree to be on time for the meeting, ready for warm up and bring their “best self” to the warm up. (Have them define their “best self.”)
- Captains may have to be responsible for reminding others of their agreements.
- Do spot checks to see how everyone feels about agreements and what kind of effect the agreement is having on the old problem of starting slow in a game.
Step 4 - Establish guidelines for team behavior
- The coach is in charge. Players look to you for guidance.
- Talk to your team about what kind of personality they want to have. For example:
What types of activities enhance group cohesion and readiness to play? One of my teams decided they should talk about the game and scouting report on the way to the game rather than being in their own little world with headphones.
- Do they want to display “togetherness.” For example: Walking into the field together, dressed alike, no headphones.
- What kind of behaviors would show their “team personality?”
- Define acceptable and unacceptable behavior – before, during and after games.
- How will we handle winning and losing after a game – with officials, opponents, teammates, media and even parents – after the game and at the next practice?
- What does it mean to be a good loser or classy winner?
- The time between runs (dead-ball time) is critical. Talk about what a winning team looks like in dead-ball time. This must be practiced. If behaviors like negative self-talk and shutting out the coach or teammates are allowed, they will only become exaggerated in a game.
- What comments are acceptable and unacceptable to a member of the media?
- Winning and losing should not be linked with self-esteem.
- What are the behaviors they have totally within their control? For example:
- Knowing your responsibilities.
- Giving your best effort.
- Having a winning posture on the field.
- Communicating in a positive way.
- Figuring out how to be successful.
Step 5 - Providing direction for competition
- Require players to run to the huddle. This keeps them from processing negative self-talk.
- Be intellectual about failures, not emotional. Getting mad isn’t productive.
- During post-game analysis, let them be involved in evaluating their plays and hits.
- Tell your team to be aggressive – make aggressive mistakes.
- Demand animation, communication, running to position during play. Movement creates energy.
- Control momentum. Don’t lose a couple of runs before reacting. Determine if the problem is emotional or strategic and change whatever is appropriate.
- Keep information simple. Players will usually only remember the last couple of things you say in a time-out.
- Never personally attack a player verbally.
- Keep the coaching comments as strategic as possible. Don’t coach techniques.
- Prepare unscripted subs as much as possible. Let them know they might be going in at a specific position.
- Have “de-stressing” techniques to use when the team gets stressed. I’ve been known to make light of some situations. (e.g. “Now we have ’em right where we want ’em.”) Tell a joke in the huddle, remind them of their strengths, or remind them of a time they pulled through in a similar situation.
Step 6 – Main goals for the team
- Player initiated intensity. Necessary for being competitive.
- Increased communication. Call “Mine!” or “Ball!” Talk to who you the fielder is throwing to, encourage the hitters up to bat, talk about what is happening and what might happen.
- Engage in figuring out how to be successful and how to score runs.
- No judgment in defense – just go for it!
- Clarity in knowing plays.
- Competitive posture at all times.
Random but important thoughts.
- As soon as you quit trying, you become a victim. A competitor is never a victim.
- “Run your practice, not your mouth.” –Russ Rose
- Be a problem-solver, not the problem.
- Learning how to tap into a competitive spirit is a skill that will help your players be more successful in all phases of their lives.
Stephanie Schleuder coached college volleyball at Alabama, Minnesota and Macalester. She retired in 2009 with 702 career victories and was inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame in December of 2015.