Here's how we made it happen. You can too.
So I wrote a week or so ago about the "virtual practices" we've been having with our team and how impactful they've been.
Since our kids can't train the way they normally would right now, I've been thinking a lot about what we *can* do - how we can be there for our kids and make our team stronger in the process?
I've been thinking a lot about how we can use this difficult time for the better.
It's inevitable each year in our programs we're gonna face some adversity during the season, whether it's injuries, tough losses, outside circumstances. Teaching our kids to overcome these setbacks is a big part of coaching.
This is a little different, though. In New York, where I coach, almost everyone's been directly affected by the pandemic in some way. Most know someone who's been pretty sick and it's been tough for a lot of our kids.
So, our coaches have been trying to figure out the best way to support them right now.
What we keep coming back to is relationships and leadership.
As a wrestling coach, the spring is technically our "off-season", and yet here we are having virtual meet-ups with our team twice a week. That's far more interaction with most of my guys than I'd usually get at this time of the year.
It's a great opportunity to focus on building the kinds of relationships and leadership in our kids that will help them work through this difficult time and make our team stronger. Any other, "normal" spring season we'd never get the chance to do this, and now we do - maybe that's some kind of silver lining to this really difficult situation.
So, here's how we've been making that happen:
Relationships are everything
As we've continued to figure out how to make our online team meetings as engaging and valuable as possible, there's been a lot of trial and error - I'm not gonna lie.
I'm gonna share one thing we started doing, though, that our kids have really responded to and has clearly strengthened the bonds throughout our program:
Like I told you guys in my last email, we've been using an app called Zoom to run our online team meet-ups.
One cool feature of Zoom is the ability to easily split the meeting up into smaller sub-meetings and then pull everyone back into the larger meeting.
Zoom calls these "Breakout Rooms", and we've been taking a few minutes during our meet-ups to use them. It's been awesome for us!
Here's exactly what we do: before we split up into the Breakout Rooms, we give the kids a specific topic to talk about with each other. The idea here is to get them to share their thoughts with their teammates. We give them a set amount of time to do it - usually about 5 minutes total.
Having these conversations in small-groups allows for far more personal connection than we ever get in normal practices and certainly more than we get in a full team video room with 20-30 kids. Giving them a short time limit keeps the conversation on task and doesn't take too much time from our overall session.
These Breakout Room talks have led to much deeper, more meaningful conversations between our kids and given them a great opportunity to support each other.
I've had a bunch of our guys tell me this is their favorite part of our meet-ups and the reason many of them keep coming back right now. A couple told me they feel closer to their teammates now than ever before! Crazy!
Zoom lets you decide how many kids you want in each Breakout Room (I suggest no more than 3-4 - that's worked best for us), and automatically splits your team into these rooms randomly by just hitting a button. This is pretty cool because it pairs together kids that might not necessarily interact that much otherwise. So easy!
So, what do we have them talk about?
We've been trying to get creative with this and even let our kids suggest topics for future "practices", but some ideas for this:
Why are relationships so important?
Well here's a few reasons:
We need leaders
It doesn't end with relationships, though. Building strong leadership in our program is another area we've been able to double-down on right now that'll pay huge dividends as we move forward.
Probably now more than ever, having strong leadership in your program can be the glue that holds things together. It's one thing to be a good leader as a coach, but it's a whole other level when you have strong leadership coming from your athletes. That's one of those make-or-break factors that tend to separate championship programs from all the rest.
Think about teams you've coached in the past and the leadership you've had - Think about teams you've coached in the past and the leadership you've had - how much easier is your job when you have strong, positive kids leading the group?
That doesn't change now!
Here's the thing, though, very few coaches I've spoken with have an organized system for developing strong leadership in their programs. So they just kinda get what they get. Sometimes it's great leaders and sometimes it's not quite.
We realized in our program we didn't want to leave that to chance anymore. Having great leaders makes my life so much easier that it's totally worth it to make sure we have them every year.
The problem we always run into is how do you make this happen? Who's got time during the thick of their season to invest in "leadership development"? It was always just one more of those things that sounded great, but we never had the time for. In fact my head assistant coach and I were literally just talking about this yesterday (Thanks, Bill!).
After all, practice time during the season is our most precious resource.
So, it took a lot of work but over time we developed a system for creating strong leaders in our program year-after-year. I'll get into that a bit more in future emails, but the bottom line is right now, while we all stuck at home with life on pause, it's a great time to really help build some strong leadership on our teams.
Here's three quick ways we've been doing just that:
Start with you (then add a friend!):
For our regular practices, there is a set time you have to be there and others expecting you to show up.
Now? Not so much.
That got us thinking about the first way we could help develop leadership in our kids: give them accountability partners on the team and make them responsible for each other.
We set each of them up with a teammate to be their accountability partner going forward. We asked each pair of partners to share their weekly commitments with each other and then told all the partners: "From now on, you're each responsible for making sure your partner follows through on their commitments each week."
This has done a few cool things for us to help develop leadership:
Be there for others:
We talked about how not everyone is probably handling the current isolation environment as well as everyone else. There'd be guys on our team that could use some support. There'll be guys who won't reach out and might fall through the cracks. We let them know it was their job as leaders to be there for everyone else as much as they could right now.
We asked each leader to be responsible for connecting with each kid in their group at least once a week - to check in on them, to catch up with them, to see how they're doing and to see if there's anything they need.
If this lasts more than a few weeks, which it very well might, we're thinking about shuffling the groups around to give each leader the chance to connect with more kids on the team.
This has been a great way to help our leaders develop selflessness, empathy and a team-first perspective. We talk a lot in our program about how "it's not about you," and this is a great way for our leaders to really internalize that lesson.
Keep 'em growing:
We'll ask the kids to share with each other the ways in which they lead the team this week. Talk about any issues with the team or any kids they want the coaches to know about. Talk through any challenges they've faced. And get them brainstorming, together, about how they can lead and support the team more effectively right now.
We'll use this time to also have a quick discussion of some particular facet of leadership and usually give them some kind of task, challenge or skill to work on in the upcoming week in their interactions with their teammates.
Not only does this call keep them growing as leaders, but now we're getting them to put their heads together and think about how they can grow the team as a whole.
This has generated a ton of ownership on their end and has allowed us to transition them from thinking about just themselves, to them and a partner, to a small group of teammates, and, now, to the entire team.
There are a lot of ways that the current environment we're all in is challenging. We literally can not run our programs the way we're used to and that's definitely uncomfortable - at least it is for me!
The framework we've been using for our virtual "practices" has been really well-received by our kids and has kept them coming back week-after-week. You can check out exactly how we run our practices here.
The overwhelming majority of us have never faced a situation like this before in our lives so it can be daunting and it's tough to find ways to keep moving forward. Hopefully this gives you a few ideas about how you can continue to develop strong, positive athletes and a great program, so we can all emerge on the backside of this thing stronger than we entered.
Happy to answer any questions you might have - reach out anytime!
Pete Jacobson has been a varsity HS coach 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.