I started coaching as a favor and it was a huge mistake.
I'd recently graduated from college and was working for the NYC Fire Department. My high school wrestling coach reached out to me and asked if I could help out the program. They needed a new coach and he knew I'd wrestled a bit in college and had a work schedule that would allow for it.
I said yes, but I probably shouldn't have. If I'm being honest, I was only in it for myself.
Not the best attitude for a coach.
The truth is I was super competitive, and I wanted to find a way to stay involved in the sport I loved.
So I jumped into it. I was all about winning and I made that very clear to our team.
I was a worker so I went to work. I was full-steam ahead: work harder, work longer, push my guys harder. I thought I knew it all. Honestly, it's a little embarrassing to think about how arrogant I must've seemed back then.
But that wasn't even the worst part.
I would've done anything within the rules to win. I wasn't going to cheat, but I certainly cared a lot more about winning than about building successful young men and women. I was a coach - not a parent, not a psychologist and not a guidance counselor.
I was my own caricature of a transactional coach. And, at the time, I thought I was doing all the "right" things.
But there was a cost. My "coaching philosophy" definitely hurt our program more than it helped. Our team, which wasn't doing very well to begin with, started doing even worse. Kids were quitting. Others avoided coming to practices. I was teaching kids to hate the sport I loved. And for what?
I can tell you now it was for my own ego. Chasing wins. Wanting to be a hard-ass. I'd made it all about myself.
The irony was we weren't winning anything!
And the worse it got, the more frustrated I got. "It's not me that's the problem," I rationalized. It was "the kids these days." They were too soft. They were too self-absorbed. They were only in it for themselves. They just didn't "get it."
I was getting more and more frustrated and blaming everyone else but myself. I didn't realize I was reaping exactly what I'd sown.
By the time I started my third season, I think the only reason I still had the job was that they couldn't find anyone else who wanted it! I didn't realize it at the time, but I was so obsessed with winning that my frustration started seeping into other parts of my life as well. I stopped enjoying coaching. My close friends and family could see it more than I could.
We rolled into November and the beginning of the wrestling season and everything seemed to be going in the same direction again. I started telling myself it wasn't really worth it and was thinking this would be my last season. The way things were going at that point, it probably would've been the best decision for everyone anyway.
And then came Thanksgiving. And that's when everything started to change.
We were sitting at my parent's house for the holiday and I was venting to the whole family about my team. I'm sure everyone was sick of hearing it and finally my girlfriend (now my beautiful wife!) gave me some tough love.
"It's amazing how much time you spend complaining, why don't you stop bringing everyone else down and take a second today to think about the things you're thankful for instead. You've got it pretty good, you know."
She actually used a few more choice words that I'm not gonna share here, but that was the gist of it.
Whatever it was, exactly, that she said, it definitely shook something loose as I watched my parents and brothers all jump on the bandwagon and agree.
I didn't want to hear it, but I probably needed to hear it. At first I got a bit defensive, but deep down, I knew she was right.
That night when I got home, I made a list - a list of things I was thankful for in coaching and in my life. I read it again the next morning, right before I left for our practice.
I know it sounds super cheesy, but I remember feeling "lighter" that morning as I was driving to the school. Like I had less weight on me. I was happy to go to practice. I was happy to see our kids. We had a great workout that morning.
On the drive home, I really got to thinking. Everything felt different today in this weird, subtle way. I didn't "have to" go to practice, I "got to" go to practice. I was thankful for the opportunity. I could feel my attitude that day was a little different and I could see how that impacted the kids on the team.
It was the combination of that feeling and a feeling of desperation - that whatever I was doing wasn't working and that I'd try anything to turn things around - that gave me an idea.
I think it was on that drive home that I made the connection how being thankful and expressing gratitude forced me to take my focus off of myself and put it on the world around me. When I looked at my whole team through that same lens, I realized the group of kids that we had were unhappy, selfish and competing for themselves because that was the culture I created. It was all on me.
If I kept focusing on the things I was grateful for and could get these kids to do the same thing, maybe I could change the vibe on our team in a much more meaningful way than I could by just yelling, being negative and pushing them harder.
An idea was shaping, but I was still pretty skeptical about how something like this would be received by a bunch of "tough-guy," relatively immature high school wrestlers. The more I thought about it though, the more convinced I became, and, finally, a few days later, I decided to take a leap of faith.
So here's what we did:
One day at the beginning of practice we circled the team up to talk.
From there, I spoke to our guys. I'm paraphrasing now, but I told them something like this:
We're all human and there's days we're more fired up to come to practice and days we aren't. Motivation comes and motivation goes. That's just human nature. It's easy to dwell on the days we don't wanna be here. It's really easy to think to yourself: "Ugggh, I HAVE TO go to practice today." We all know it can be a grind.
But here's a challenge: We all know we have some control of the thoughts we put in our own heads. So what if you twisted it around? What if you stopped telling yourself "I HAVE TO go to practice today" and started telling yourself "I GET TO go to practice today?" What kind of difference could that make?
We're pretty lucky that we get to come here everyday, push each other to get better and participate in a sport we love. Not everyone gets the opportunity to put on these uniforms and represent themselves, their team, their family, their school and their community all at once. Man, we're really lucky to have this opportunity everyday - even on the days we don't feel super excited about coming here!
I can tell you guys, I'm human too. I'm not super motivated all day, everyday. But I do remind myself how lucky I am to have this opportunity where I GET TO coach you guys everyday. I'm thankful for it and I'm grateful for it. I've been trying to remind myself of that as much as I can.
So now we're gonna take it a step further. We could all use a bit more remembering of what we have going for us and what we're grateful for, especially when times are tough, so let's start remembering right now. Our coaches will start things off and share something they're grateful for right now and then we'll go around and we'll all get a turn.
As you might imagine there was a groan or two. But we did it. Most of our kids shared some pretty superficial things.
"I'm grateful that I won my last match."
"I'm grateful we have a short workout today."
To be honest, I wasn't sure if this would do anything, but what did I have to lose?
We got through it. And then we did it again. Not that same day. Not everyday. But maybe once or twice a week for the rest of the season.
Soon things started changing. Soon kids started getting a lot more thoughtful, a lot more personal and a lot more vulnerable with what they were sharing.
"I'm grateful for my parents being so supportive of everything I do." - I couldn't believe I was hearing this come out of a 17-year old kid's mouth.
"I'm grateful for my teammates not letting me cut corners and forcing me to get better everyday even when I don't want to." - this was like music to my ears!
It took some time, but suddenly these "entitled," "self-absorbed" teenagers were talking about how appreciative they were of their teammates, their coaches, their parents, their teachers, and the opportunities they had in their lives.
It was crazy - I couldn't believe what I was hearing!
Slowly, but steadily, our culture of individuals morphed into a culture of one unified team. You saw guys making an effort to help each other more and more - both in and out of practice. You saw kids making decisions that benefitted the team more than themselves. You saw a level of support and empathy that we never had before. And guess what? We started winning more too!
Now I'm definitely not saying this was the only thing that moved our culture in a better direction, but it absolutely, 100% contributed to it!
Here's the thing: the kids on my team are not a bunch of unique, special snowflakes. They're regular, everyday kids. This REALLY worked for them and I'd be willing to bet it could really work for your team too. What have you got to lose?
It's little strategies and tactics like this, implemented over and over again, that have really moved the needle to create an amazingly, positive culture in our program and develop stronger, higher character young men and women. Young men and women who can then take these qualities out into the world and find success in any endeavor. And, let's be honest, it's a lot more fun to coach a team like this and get some more wins as well!
When we started to combine this strategy with some of these other unique and powerful culture-building tactics, that's when we really created an amazing, positive culture in our program and everything about our program changed for the better.
And it's definitely made coaching a whole lot more satisfying - for both myself and our kids.
For most of my coaching career when it came to activities like this, I can tell you, I was a hardcore skeptic. The last few years, though, have really opened my eyes.
I'm a believer in the power of gratitude and how it can completely change a team's culture. And this month, that's one thing I'm very thankful for.
Pete Jacobson has been a varsity HS coach in New York for almost 20 years. He also works with coaches of all levels through WinSmarter to help them get better at what they do, have a greater impact and go home happy. Check out 10 Insanely Powerful Tactics for an Amazing Team Culture for some of the most unique, impactful tactics you can use to build a Championship culture quickly.