• Bowie Matteson

Humor and Coaching: Laugh it Up with No-Nonsense Results

After a recent coaching session during an all-day sport-camp, a camper approached me after her team completed their hour rotation through a series of speed progression drills and strength circuit training. She wanted to apologize to me for her team’s behavior. "We laughed and joked around a lot", she said, wincing.

Yes, I agreed, their group was relatively laid back, not nearly as serious as some of my earlier groups. But I quickly ran through our session in my mind and tried to note things worthy of an apology. Maybe a missed direction or poor effort? There were some spot checks and some quick snaps to attention but nothing that struck me as distracting or disrespectful.

So what happened that made her feel like she needed to apologize? Three things crossed my mind:

1) Had she seen something from her teammates I hadn’t?

2) Maybe because she knew her team better than I did, she knew they weren’t performing to their potential?

3) Had she anticipated my assumption of laughter and joking as indicating poor effort?

It was a small group, 10-12 kids. For my coaching style, I rely on socializing with the kids as I coach. I try to do it in a relaxed, unrehearsed way. Talking, asking questions, cracking jokes and listening are my greatest tools in connecting with my athletes. So when I get my teams going, laughing can be a great sign. Using humor productively is a reflection of how well you know your players as people.

When it came to addressing this girl’s wanting to apologize for her team’s behavior, I made sure to emphasize context and team chemistry.

My ultimate question is: Did the work get done? And was it done purposefully?

That’s to say that there are a number of ways to get to a team’s goal. Accountability, order and discipline are commonly attributed to more rigid, militaristic styles of coaching. The laughing, care-free style of play is more associated with less precise team play. Yet, I’ve been a part of teams that thrived on a relaxed coaching style. Accountability, order and discipline were all very much a part of our day to day actions, but they were self-policed and handled internally by the team. There were common goals, well-defined roles and a trust in one another to uphold their end of the bargain. A more no-nonsense coaching style would have been an outside force disturbing our internal equilibrium.

Humor is an important part of the coach-athlete relationship. It’s an easy way to build rapport and it adds a human element to a potentially intimidating relationship dynamic. Sharing jokes can add to one’s feeling of belonging to the team and serves as a medium for kids to express their personalities.

But be careful: jokes and wisecracks can also be used to disguise animosity. Be wary of laughing at kids versus laughing with them. You never want a joke to be divisive or used to establish superiority.

When establishing team dynamics, there is a line between good-humored back and forth and silliness that detracts from the intensity of the session. My job as as coach is to find that line. I’ve found that its easier to approach from the disciplined side of things. Be firm in your expectations on behavior, work ethic and conduct. Deliver your baseline demands and allow for your personality to follow. The quality of the work being done over time is much more consistent when you begin on your terms and allow for the kids to open up afterwards.

We’ve all experienced coaches who prioritize a relaxed style. The "good guy", so to say. The kids develop their own expectation of behavior before the tone of the session is set. When a coach attempts to address any issues, it’s met with resistance. Kids can see this change from relaxed to critical as a betrayal of character. This inconsistency can lead to mistrust and, thus, poor results.

Remember, the entire reason kids play sports at such an early age is because it’s FUN. Fuel that fire and build a positive association between playing, laughing and growing.

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