The Double Defeat

The Double Defeat

When the scoreboard says defeat, and you have given yourself completely to the experience, you can hang your head high knowing you gave your all. 

But if you held back, and you lost, you lost TWICE: A double defeat.

That will for sure keep you up late at night sobbing about your "what if" story.

Attention to Detail

Attention to Detail

Coach, challenge your athletes to set the standard for the team. They will not adhere to seemingly arbitrary rules handed down on a piece of paper or written on a wall. You didn't when you were an athlete and neither will they. However, if you can get them to feel how the expectation will help them, you will see improved compliance. 

What to say on the first day of practice

 What to say on the first day of practice

You know first impressions matter. You want them to respect you. You want them to trust you. You want them to want to come to practice and give everything they have.

Doubt creeps in, bringing along questions you know are ridiculous, but you entertain them anyway.

Take Control of Your Destiny

Take Control of Your Destiny

This is a speech I gave to a championship football team three months before they were champions. It was a room full of young men, but the speech could easily be for either gender.

Your future is being created right now, in this instant. Take ownership of what you can control and be the reason for your success, leaning not on the talent of others, but by the character of your best self.”

Opportunity is NOWHERE

Opportunity is NOWHERE

My friend Ed came to town visit and talk teaching leadership to athletic teams. After a few hours of great conversation, he sat back and said, "Alright, we have talked about a lot of stuff. But if you If you could only say one thing to a group of athletes, what would you say?"

The Whisper of Inspiration

“LEATH! LEATH!” I hear my replacement yelling my name. I jog to the sidelines and report to my position coach. He is furious. At 5’9, my defensive back coach played college football at the same position I was just relieved of. I prepare myself for a wicked tongue lashing, but I get nothing.

Kids are not mini-adults

"Get the rebound!”

I scream at these athletes to be more aggressive under the basket, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. I have three of the tallest girls in the league and we are getting outrebounded! I slap my clipboard to get their attention, but it seems nothing is working.

Then, the plastic clipboard shatters into about ten pieces and falls to the court all around me.

I call a timeout. Embarrassed by my actions, I frantically pick up the pieces of my shattered clipboard. My sixth-grade girls basketball team walks toward me with their heads down. It is only the second quarter of the first game of the season.

“Girls, I am so sorry.” “Why do you keep yelling at me?” asks Halie. “I’m not yelling at you, I am trying to get all of you to box out and get the rebound.” I pause for a response. I get nothing but blank stares. The girls look back at me and say nothing. “Okay, a fresh start. No more yelling,” I say. "Let’s just have some fun out there. Randy, get a break and let’s get back to the game.”

The girls say a team break and I can tell immediately I have not only shattered my clipboard, but also their confidence in me as their coach. For the rest of the game, I try to win back their trust but I can see I have a lot of work to do.

We lost the game. The year before, the team went 0-10 under a different coach. It looks like I might be headed in the same direction. I kept the post-game talk to about ten seconds then released them to get on the bus.

A friend of mine came to watch me in my first game as a girls basketball coach. On the ride home, it is silent for a few blocks, then she turns the radio down and breaks the silence.

“Why were you so upset?” “I know, I am so embarrassed.” “But what did you want them to do?” “Just get a rebound!” I explain. "I don’t know why it is so hard. They are the tallest girls in the league, and…” “I know,” she interrupts. “Do they know what a rebound is?” “Of course they do!” What a silly question, I think to myself. “So, then what kind of rebound drills have you done at practice?"

There it is. Dang it! She was right. In three weeks of practice, I had not once taught the girls to rebound, much less “box-out” to make it easier to get a rebound. I made the common mistake of believing my girls would just inherently know how to use their height as an advantage. The fundamentals are never too basic to teach. I think of Coach Lombardi when he would start every football season as an NFL coach with a simple sentence as he held up a football: “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

Thanks to youtube, I found some great drills on teaching rebounding. I apologized to the team for my behavior and asked for their forgiveness. They accepted my apology, and and with hard work and determination, we ended up in the championship game losing in triple overtime.

Every season, no matter the level of the sport, a different team shows up. Though the athlete could be coming from the same school as the year before, every season has its own culture and feeling. 6th graders are now 7th graders, juniors are now seniors, so on and so forth. A lot changes in a young athlete’s life between seasons, and as coaches we should not assume fundamentals are as sharp as they were the year before, or that the athletes are coming with prior knowledge. As an adult, I need to be reminded more than taught, and that is also true for my athletes. Repetition breeds mastery, and as coaches we must not forget the importance of the seemingly mundane tasks of practicing the fundamentals. The lesson I learned was to focus on the basics and make it easy to unleash my athletes to reach their highest potential. The next time I coached at that level, I took a very different approach from the very beginning. (Here is a sample of one of the drills I do everyday).

Start your season with a clean slate, and make sure every athlete understands the expectations you have for them and the knowledge to live up those expectations. Good luck, Coach!

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You Hit Like a Girl

You hit like a girl!

I was sitting in the bleachers at my school enjoying a youth football game when I heard those words come from a coach directed at his running back. Apparently, the running back was not being aggressive enough and as a way to motivate, the coach decided to use that sentence.

It wasn't the first time I had heard that sentence. I remember the first time I put on a helmet and was asked to tackle my teammate in a drill. I lined up, barely able to see out of my helmet because it had come down to cover most of my eyes when I heard the whistle blow.

The ball carrier ran towards me and I was terrified. I closed my eyes, opened my arms, and braced for impact. The wind was knocked out of me and I started to cry.

“Get up, Leath,” coach says.

I could barely breathe. My teammate helped me up and the coach walked over to me.

I finally catch my breath only to receive the next devastating blow, one that will hurt me much longer than the previous one.

“You hit like a girl, and now you are crying like one,” he says.
I can’t see through my tears and I try with everything in me to catch my breath.

"Go to the end of the line, and come back when you decide to man up!”

I was nine years old.

It was years before I realized how damaging that can be to a young boy. When a coach tells a young boy in front of his friends he is playing like a girl, that has the power to destroy him.

And more importantly, what does teach him about girls? It took me a long time to answer that question for myself. In that moment, I was taught that girls are physically weak; that crying is an emotion that displays weakness and therefore reserved for girls and that behavior won’t be tolerated.

Children get the foundation of their identity, beliefs, and values from the people they meet on their journey through childhood. Parents get the first shot at passing on their knowledge and experience to their kids, but as they get older, teachers, religious leaders, and coaches gain credibility in the eyes of the student and an identity is formed that will later define who that young person becomes.

So when Cam Newton expresses how it is "funny" that a woman can understand routes in football, he takes all the fall out (and he should have consequences for such an ignorant statement). But we forget that apparently the many men in his life were either silent on negative gender specific stereotypes or a more likely scenario is that those men encouraged male-dominant behavior. Yes, he apologizes, but how unfortunate that he even said it in the first place.

A great coach will take Newton’s terrible choice of words and use it as a teachable moment for young boys to learn that young girls grow up into strong women and the world needs both strong men and strong women, working together.

I think a great myth in America is that sports build character. This is false.

[ctt title="Sports do not build character unless a coach intentionally teaches it and models it." tweet="Sports do not build character unless a coach intentionally teaches it and models it. @jamesleath" coverup="9d460"]

Respect for women is learned when men model that behavior to the young boys who want to be just like their coach. As coaches, we have been given a transformational voice that, if used intentionally, can help create a future where we don’t repeat our mistakes. It is an honor to have that voice, and we should all be reminded that we will be held accountable for our actions for every athlete who has us listed in their phone as “Coach.”

  No written word, nor spoken plea
  Can teach the kids what they should be.
  Not all the books on all the shelves   It's what the teachers are themselves.
            -Ronald Gallimore, quoted by John Wooden
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Are You Brave? Empowering a Child to Find Courage

With juice and a donut in hand, Cameron and I are sitting on a park bench outside the gym where we just finished playing our second basketball game of the season. "Cameron, why don’t you shoot the ball during the game?” I ask. “Last year, my coach told me I wasn’t allowed to shoot.”

“Hmmm.” I pause. Take a bite of my blueberry donut and fight the urge to ask who her coach was so I can have a few words with that man or woman, but I snap back to the present and focus on the magnitude of this moment in this 10-year-old’s life.

“Well, you are my center… and the tallest girl on the team. What happens when you shoot?” “I miss…a lot.” She looks down at her feet, embarrassed by her performance. “So, what if I told you on this team, you are allowed to shoot, and miss?” “Seriously?” Her face lights up. “Cameron, do you want to get better?” “Yes.” “Do you want to help your team be successful?” She nods. “Then from now on, you are allowed to shoot.” She smiles, then looks away, contemplating her fate. “And if I miss…” “I don’t care if you miss, Cameron. I just want you to be brave. If you see the shot, take the shot. If someone is in your face, then pass to your teammate.” Cameron looks out to the field. I can tell I have sparked something in her. There is a competitor in there and I need to draw it out.

“Are you brave?” “Yes, coach, I am brave.” She straightens her back. I can feel the energy shift. “I know you are. These girls look up to you. I want you to know you can be brave during the game and at practice. These girls look up to you, and I trust you.” We clink our juice boxes, she leans over to give me a hug. The smile on her face in that moment is worth every minute I spent volunteering to coach that team that season.

The next week, Cameron takes her shot in the first 45-seconds of the game. It misses the rim completely and the other team gets the rebound. The team sprints to the other side of the court to set up for defense. Before Cameron can turn around, I am already on my feet. “Good job, Cameron. I see you. Do it again.” She smiles, gives me a thumbs up, hustles to the other side of the court.

We won the game, 32-14. Cameron had 12 points.

We didn’t win every game that year, but a child felt loved and gained confidence in herself. That is why we coach.

[ctt title="Empowering a Child to Be Brave" tweet="Empowering a Child to Be Brave by @jamesleath" coverup="g4C1_"]

Recommended Reading:

  • Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

As for you, my fine friend, you are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you run away from danger, you have no courage. You are confusing courage with wisdom. Back where I come from, we have men who are called heroes. Once a year, they take their fortitude out of mothballs and parade it down the main street of the city, and they have no more courage than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a medal. Therefore, for Meritorious Conduct, Extraordinary Valor, Conspicuous Bravery against the Wicked Witches, I award you the triple cross. You are now a member of the legion of Courage.”

-The Lion formerly known as "Cowardly"

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A Coach's Voice

Billy Graham once said, “A coach will impact more young people in a year than the average person does in a lifetime.” Like most older brothers, I was a bit of a bully to my little brother. I remember once in 7th grade my coach pulled me aside before practice to speak life into me that had nothing to do with sport, and yet I remember it still to this day.  “You know,” he said, “Your brother looks up to you. Maybe you could find a way to be a little nicer to him.”

I had heard that before from my mom and my dad, multiple times, even to the point where I would get grounded or lose privileges. But coming from my coach, it had a different influence over me. I’m not saying what my parents said was not important, or that when they talked I did not listen, but coming from my coach it hit me harder than when I heard it come from my parents. I wanted to impress my coach, as most young athletes do. He used his influence to speak to me, not down to me. It was a suggestion, taken by me to be a way that I could make this man proud of me.

Consider asking the parents of your students about what message you as a coach could help reinforce. Raising great kids is a team effort, and beautiful things can happen when coaches, teachers, and parents work together to help a child grow up.

As parents and coaches, we are in the business of creating adults, so the more we can work together, the better off our future adults will be.



Yelling vs Coaching

I stand in front of seven 6th-grade basketball players as I try to teach them a lesson in communication. <Opening Scene>

“Imagine you are on the playground 100 feet away from your best friend and you want to know if they want to join your game."

“Like jump rope?" asks Taylor.

“Sure, like jump rope. You yell out ‘Hey Tasha, want to join our jump rope game?’"

Emmerson interjects. “It’s not really a game, coach, we call it a turn."

“Okay, great, thank you Emmersen. So you yell out to them to take a turn using this voice [I raise my voice as loud as I can] ‘Hey Tasha, come take a turn.’

That is me yelling to Tasha to join us. Now, here is a different way I could do it [I use a deeper voice with attitude and frustration] 'Hey Tasha, come take a turn!’ I used the exact same words, but do you hear the difference in how I said it?"

Chase raise her hand, excited to contribute. “I do! The first one you were encouraging. The second one you were mad."

“Yeah,” Tasha agrees. “It’s like the first one you were yelling to us, but the second you were yelling at us.”

“Well said, both of you. Now, what is something I say during the game, a lot?"

“Get your hands up!" says Alex, our best defensive player.

“You’re right, I do say that a lot.” I look over at one of the shorter players who often forgets to make herself bigger by raising her hands in the air on defense. I raise my eyebrows--she smiles and puts her hands up. The team giggles.

“Like a thousand times a game, coach."

“That sounds about right, Maddie. Okay, Alex, scoot back 10 steps and yell to me to get my hands up. Camryn, you go with her and yell at me to get my hands up."

We yell at each other, to each other, the lesson is learned, we giggle, we high five, then begin practice.

<end scene>

Communication is dependant on the relationship between the sender and receiver. If there is a problem with the relationship, that will affect how the receiver interprets the message.

If the relationship is healthy and there is trust both ways, then communication will be received as trying to help.

If the relationship is rocky and trust is absent or has been broken, then it will be heard as trying to hurt.  

In my experience, the people who can communicate the most effectively often end up being the most successful in their field. I have heard it said many times that success belongs to the one who can tell the best story, and I agree. Former NFL Football coach Jon Gruden*, said he chose to study communication in college because he knew he would, for the rest of his life, need to be able to communicate a game plan to his players and coaches. I was in my third year of college when I read that sentence and it made so much sense to me that I literally changed my major to communication the very next day.

There was an unintentional side-effect of the scene described earlier. During practice, the girls got loud--real loud. They had now been given permission to yell to each other with the understanding that is was not to be taken personally. That trickled into our games and improved everything because there was trust that one person could yell in the direction of a teammate and not offend them.

During the game, parents are cheering, feet are hitting the gym floor, basketballs are flying, whistles are blowing, and music blasting. Any good coach knows they have to use a loud voice in order to be heard over these noises, but the better coaches know there is a right way and a wrong way to yell. More importantly, do what you can to foster trust between yourself and the athlete by taking an interest in their world outside of sport.

Teach your young athletes to know the difference between yelling to hurt and yelling to help and keep your own emotions in check. Use yelling as a tool and use it sparingly so when you need to get their attention on something important, it doesn’t sound like everything else you yelled to them.

*Gruden, J., & Carucci, V. (2003). Do you love football?!: winning with heart, passion, and not much sleep. New York: HarperCollins.  Amazon Link

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Confidence beats Complexity

In 2009 I was in my third year as the head coach of a very successful youth football team. In the eyes of the fans, they would say we were successful because we won a lot, but winning a game says nothing about the character of the team— the true measure of success. Those boys (and a few girls) were successful because they practiced hard, paid attention to details, and bought into the idea of playing every play until the whistle blows. For as long as I have been coaching youth football, my playbook has not changed much. It consists of 2 formations and 10 plays. I don’t focus on the x’s and o’s, instead, I learn new ways to teach the fundamentals. In coaching youth football, and I have found

  • complexity creates confusion;
  • confusion leads to hesitation;
  • hesitation leads to failed plays;
  • failed plays leads to defeat.

An athlete who hesitates will not be successful in the game of football, or in most other sports for that matter.

Here are a few reasons my playbook is so small: 1. Ask a 6th grader to raise their left hand and they will, about 50% of the time.

  • During warm-ups we do not do sprints. We get in the huddle and practice getting to the line of scrimmage efficiently. After the first week, with only 2 formations, most players know exactly where to line up, even if it is their first time playing that position. Additionally, the players know where those around him or her should lineup so they start coaching each other. "You're too close, scoot out." "Get closer to the line." "Put your other foot forward." The players begin to coach each other and create an environment where it is okay to lead each other.

2. A player can play a different position quickly because the play is simple.

  • The tight end always lines up on the right, every play. If I need someone else to play that spot, the other players can help police that player. Saves me time and because the players are helping each other, it creates a sense of ownership of their team.

3. I can quickly change the play before the other team can adjust.

  • Since the players are always lined up in the same spot, I can see an opportunity in the defense and change the play in less than 3 seconds. They approach the line, get set, and the QB knows to look at me before he starts his cadence. I yell, “Check, Check!” and 11 face-masks are pointed at me. I yell “Sweep right!” and every player hits the side of their helmet letting me know they heard me and they run the play. Of course, the smart players on the other team here "Sweep Right" and cheat to the right. But because they are facing us, they literally take themselves out of the play because their right is our left.
  • Before the coach can let his players know how to adjust, we are already running the new play. Note: some opposing coaches pick up on this and are able to let a player know it is coming to them. However, just because I yelled a play out does not mean we are actually running that play. My team knows only to run the play when “the sign” is given. You have to practice this, a lot. Again, we do it during warm-ups.

It doesn’t happen often, but one time I was approached head coach of the other team after the game and he wanted to talk privately. We had just beat them 35-0 despite pulling out all my starters in the second half. He asked me very frankly, “Will you give me your playbook?” We met for coffee the next morning and I gave him everything I had installed that year and things I planned on installing. We met in the playoffs a few weeks later and I could tell he had implemented almost everything I gave him. The only difference was that my offense had evolved as the season progressed so we had a little more to work with. We still won, but this time it was 21-8. He had the same players as before, but he kept things simple, his players were confident, and it felt like we were playing a completely different team.

[ctt title="Confidence beats Strategy. " tweet="Confidence beats Strategy. @jamesleath" coverup="ewcTB"]

The strategy is important, of course. As the age of the athlete increases, so should the size of the playbook. But a young athlete with confidence is his or her ability to do the job they have been given can overcome a strategy that might not be as advanced as the one the opponent has prepared.

The focus of the coach should be on creating confident, fundamentally sound athletes during the week. Then, on gameday, let them play. Give the athletes the tools they need and let them build a victory. When the game starts, it is less about coaching anyway and more about managing. If your young athletes can master the basics and they truly understand their job on each play, then you are way ahead of most youth football coaches I come across who focus more on tricking the other coach than on developing sound football players.

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Increase Emotional Intelligence with Intentional Interruptions

“…after that, we’ll break up into defensive groups and work on technique.”An athlete walks into the room—three minutes late—while I go over the day's practice plan.

I pause, we make eye contact. He nods, I nod back, and then he quietly sits down with his team.

A few minutes later, everyone knows what is going to happen today at practice except one person.

“Are there any questions?” I ask. “What time does the bus leave on Saturday?” “9am, but be here no later than 8:30am or you will not get on the bus.” “Got it, thanks coach.” “Anything else?” Blank stares from a room full of athletes are eager to start practice. “Alright, get a break and let’s have a great practice.”

The athletes huddle up, do their pre-practice chant, then sprint to their stations.

Mr. Late hustles to over to me.

“Sorry I was late, coach.” “Everything okay?” I ask. “Yes, my mom got off work late and we got here as fast as we could.” “How often will that happen, you think?” “She said only on Tuesdays, but not every week.” “Okay, thank you for not interrupting when you joined the group. Will you text me next week on Tuesday before practice to remind me you will be late?” “No problem, coach.” “And if you forget?” “Bear crawls after practice?” “Deal. Get with a teammate to see what you missed.” “Thanks, Coach.”

When I was late to practice as a kid I was usually sent on a lap. Rarely was it my fault, since I couldn’t drive and was at the mercy of my dad to get home from work and drive me the 9 miles to practice.

As a coach, now I realize how dumb that was. Not only am I late, but I am punished for something that is out of my control. I won’t pass on that confusing message.

There are a few things to note in this conversation from a few months ago.

The athlete did not hijack the meeting. The young man came late and quietly joined the team. He knew I would ask him about the situation once I was done speaking. At the beginning of the season, I take the time to teach the athletes how to interrupt, whether they show up late or need to interrupt a conversation because they need something. This is not a skill that most kids know and it takes a few minutes to teach. For example, if I am speaking to an adult, they are to wait for a pause in the conversation, politely touch my elbow, and say, “Excuse me, coach, can I speak with you, please?” I gave them that line. We practice it. The athletes don’t know this, but I set them up for opportunities to interrupt. I’ll tell an athlete to come see me before practice, and when I see him coming towards me I’ll grab an adult and start a conversation. If they do it wrong, we practice. I do it with love and am careful not to embarrass the athlete, but they get the lesson.

The athlete had answers. He had already asked the questions he know I would ask. He took ownership of the situation. This was not the first time someone was late. I don’t know this for sure, but I think he spoke with one of the other athletes who were late the week before. I think is safe to say he trusted I would not get mad, just like I did not get mad at the athlete the week before.

The athlete now has accountability. No laps for being late. No extra running. He is rewarded for taking ownership of the situation about something out of his control. By asking him to text me, now I have something to hold him accountable for that he can control. If he doesn’t text me, he has bear crawls—a consequence he came up with.

The athlete was late the next Tuesday and did not text me. He knew right away when he got there what his consequence would be. After practice, he did bear crawls with the captain. There were no complaints, no justifications. Just some bear crawls facilitated by the captain. Both came and shook my hand afterward and that was that. No big deal.

The following Tuesday, I got a text.

Start on time, every day. End on time, every day. Teach the athletes what to do if they are late. Don’t make them run when they are late, that just makes them more late. Assign a team captain to facilitate consequences after practice for those who are late. If no one is late, the captain doesn't have to stay. It only takes once for a captain to have to stay after because of his or her teammates. Peer pressure is WAY more powerful than whatever you have to say about the subject.

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You, Me, We: An Exercise in Building Team Culture

In my senior year of high school, I decided to see if my athleticism could transfer to the volleyball court. I had been a two-way starter on the football team all four years and had spent time on the wrestling team, baseball team, track team, and the competition cheerleading team. How hard could it be? Although I made the team, I did not play much. Volleyball, like any sport, requires a particular set of skills that must be developed and mastered. Not only did I not possess those skills or the years of developing them like my teammates, I was the shortest guy on the squad which did not help my playing chances. I remember my first day of practice being in awe of these athletes. They would soar through the air and smack the ball with a loud thud that echoed throughout the gym with ease. A ball would speed at them faster than I could track and they would somehow move their bodies right in front of it, bumping it perfectly to the setter to then create an echo from the air-assault on the ball.

Though I did not play, I took away lessons that I would later use as a coach. At the end of every practice, had us repeat an exercise I still use to this day. She would gather us up in an informal huddle and randomly ask each player one of three questions: with a few

  • What did someone else do that was good?
  • What did you do that was good?
  • What did the team do that was good?

She called it “You, Me, We” and we never ended a practice without spending a few minutes celebrating the good things that happened that day. I later found out she kept a record of who he asked on her clip board so no one would go more than a few days without having to answer one of the questions.

[ctt title="You, Me, We: An Exercise in Building Team Culture" tweet="You, Me, We: An Exercise in Building Team Culture @jamesleath" coverup="pa4Zu"]

YOU Getting a compliment from a peer is very powerful. As a coach, you may not have noticed something good that one of your athletes did during practice. This is an opportunity for players to notice each other and build each other up.

ME Many athletes dwell on past mistakes and that slows down their improvement or they focus on the mastery or mistakes of others. Give your athletes an opportunity to search for the good in their performance. Did they hustle more than the day before? Did they improve on something today? Force them to recognize some sort of improvement in their game and try to notice that in the next practice.

WE Celebrate the team. What is the team getting better at? Was there a moment in the previous game when the momentum shifted? Is the energy level of practice improving?

Focusing on self, others, and the team is going to happen whether you do this exercise or not. However, I find that doing this helps you as the coach guide the thought process of your athletes, leading them to focus on positives instead of negatives.

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