Sometimes, as coaches, we under-focus on team morale. Morale can be a key contributor to a team’s success in terms of wins and losses, as it’s common for demoralized people to perform less than optimally- but the biggest reason why coaches should focus on building and maintaining high morale is the impact it has on the prognosis for our long-term relationships with the kids we coach. Based on that premise, here are some ideas to keep a team’s morale in good shape.
In coaching, winning matters. That’s becoming unpopular to say, but it does happen to be true, particularly at the highest levels of sports. Given this reality, it isn’t unreasonable for coaches to feel the need to control certain aspects of the team that directly impact winning. In fact, virtually every great coach who ever lived operated more in a dictatorship than a democracy. That having been said, though, it’s important to understand the difference between limited control based on strategy and an attempt at complete control based on compulsion. In the latter case, perhaps nothing kills morale quite like a control freak who tries to micro-manage every aspect of people’s lives.
With this in mind, coaches should try to share ownership and decision making with members of the team whenever practical/possible. For example, here are some decisions where I would personally be OK surrendering authority completely:
Travel Attire, Curfews/Wake Up Times, Team Meals, Hotels, Uniforms/Gear, Warm-Up Routine (if we had one), Warm-Up Music, Team Captain(s), Individual Personality Expressions (head bands, arm sleeves, hair styles, facial hair, etc), and hopefully many more as they arose…
Assistant Coaches/Staff Members
Baseline Out of Bounds Offense, Baseline Out of Bounds Defense, Sideline Out of Bounds Offense, Sideline Out of Bounds Defense, X’s and O’s Versus Man Defense, Zone Defense, and hopefully many more as they arose…
In the examples above, I only chose things that I either don’t know much about or don’t really care about- but many of them are things that the student-athletes and staff members might care about a great deal. And when you put people in charge of things they care about, you not only boost morale, but you also get especially good work out of them in those particular areas.
In addition, I would personally be comfortable sharing control of decisions related to peer discipline/team discipline, team rules (if we had any), team goals (if we had any), practice plans, game plans, and hopefully many more as they arose. In general, relinquishing and sharing control of decisions sends a message that you trust the people you’re leading, which helps to build and improve morale.
Make Time to Listen
Way too many head coaches take suggestions as criticisms and questions as attacks, which makes assistant coaches and players reluctant to speak up- and when people feel like they have no voice in the organization they belong to, morale suffers. The solution to this fairly common problem is very simple- ask for feedback and be willing to listen to the people you’re leading. Great leaders care about the best way, not their own way, and they are constantly searching for ways to improve. It’s important to remember that a good idea can come from anywhere, and that giving your people a true voice makes them feel valued, which creates a huge morale boost.
Share Credit, Spread Recognition, Show Appreciation
It’s very unusual for people who feel appreciated to suffer from low morale, which is why it’s so important for leaders to share credit and recognize their people’s contributions. Given this, here are a couple of simple strategies for head coaches to build morale through the power of appreciation.
Mention people by name in interviews, and not just the superstar players, but the assistant coach who prepared the scouting report, the walk-on who did a great job on the scout team, the GA who coordinated the trip, the trainer who keeps the kids healthy, etc. It is a totally attainable goal to mention every single person in your program by name in an interview during the course of the season, and executing this plan would cause the morale of your team to spike, maybe even substantially.
Ask your SID to create an online profile with a picture and writeup for every single member of your team, not just the head coach, assistant coaches, players, and maybe the DOBO, but also your trainer, strength coach, student managers, SID, secretary- everyone. To me, this should be standard operating procedure- it’s free, it’s easy, it’s the right thing to do, and it will boost your team members’ morale (and consequently their performance) more than many people realize. When you’re the low person on the totem pole, having your contributions valued means the world. I still haven’t forgotten that Coach Willis Wilson chose to add me to the staff profiles at Rice University when I was the volunteer video coordinator, and my family, friends, and former coaches all really appreciated that gesture as well. Again, it’s free, easy, right, and smart, making it an absolute no brainer.
Thanks very much for reading, and thanks to Coach Rav for allowing me to share.