Know What’s In Their Backpack

By Joseph Hartigan, CSCS, YFS

We as coaches have a bigger responsibility to our athletes than to simply deliver a great training session. We are in a unique profession that gives us a platform to influence children for a lifetime and not only groom athletes but build great character.

One of the easiest ways to have an influence over these impressionable minds is to coach with empathy or what we call know what’s in their backpack. Now I’m sure that plenty of your athletes drag their backpacks from school into your facility but that’s not what we’re talking about. What you want to do every time your athletes walk in the door is take a mental inventory of their body language, check their facial expressions, talk to them and check their tone. Are they as engaged and excited as usual or are they withdrawn?

The fact is we as coaches only see our athletes for maybe 3 hours a week and we have no idea what is going on for the other 165 hours. Kids these days have jam packed schedules and they are expected to excel in every aspect of their life with extreme pressure from parents and year round travel teams/coaches. A typical kid may have to wake up at 6:30 a.m. go to school get straight A’s, come train at your facility and expect to perform at the highest level possible, go to travel team practice and be a star for 2 hours, go home and study and do homework for 3 hours so they can get A’s then go to bed at 11:00 and do it all over again the next day. Couple the performance requirements from parents, teachers, and coaches with peer pressure and the ever present bullying epidemic and you can empathize with how stressed kids are these days.

athletes backpack

Picture courtesy of o5com

Knowing what’s in your athletes backpack will allow you to connect with a child and make him or her feel cared about. It is your job as a coach to realize the daily state of your athlete and tailor your coaching style to his/her present need. We must realize that the IYCA’s athlete profile can change on a daily basis both in motivation levels and skill levels, the constant stress and pressure may change the athlete’s daily readiness. So don’t generalize athletes into each category take a daily inventory and coach them as needed.

One of my athletes recently walked into the facility with a scowl on his face at 8:30 p.m. When I and another coach greeted him at the door he just walked past us completely ignoring us. We tried to greet him again and he screamed back at us “What do YOU want! In front of other clients in the lobby.” Now we as coaches had a choice as to how to react. Many coaches would be embarrassed by this and, motivated by their own pride, scream back at the kid and exert their authority position. We just started the other clients as normal ignoring the outburst. During the warm up I pulled the athlete aside and talked to him in a private room. The sophomore broke down into tears, voicing the stress of competitive high school academics, 3 hour long baseball practices, and pressure from his parents. The ensuing talk made this athlete feel cared about, someone empathized with his problems and did not simply pass them off as over dramatic teenage drama. He had the best workout of his life and at the end of the session shook my hand with a smile and looked me right in the eyes and said, “Thank You for your help.”

This athlete was in emotional distress. What would have happened if I screamed back or crushed him in a workout to avenge his attack on my pride? How would this athlete have left my training session? It certainly wouldn’t be a positive experience, he would probably label me as a terrible coach and person, and he might not show up for the next few workouts. Instead the athlete left feeling better than when he came in, he felt cared about, and he felt that no matter how stressed he is or if he can’t perform well on a given day he still has inherent value as a person.

Greet and talk to each athlete as they enter the door. Observe their body language and tone. Realize that their problems are real problems. Don’t bypass a B on a test as not a huge deal, or missing last night’s soccer goal as a non-issue. Again you have no idea how the child’s parents or coaches or teachers react to those situation’s, if the child is upset about it he has most likely already been berated and belittled or preparing him/herself for the coming storm. Know the social pressures of school, the constant and ever present bullying, the exploration of relationships, and the effect it has on these children. Do you remember your first breakup? It is not up to us as coaches to determine what is and isn’t a big deal. Empathize with your athlete, offer some advice if it is wanted, let them know you’re there to help if they need it, then direct your coaching style toward their daily need. Knowing what’s in your athletes backpack will allow you to utilize the platform you have as a coach, build and maintain quality relationships with your athletes and their parents, and help you influence the character of a generation to come.

Joe Hartigan (CSCS, IYCA) is Director of athletic performance and fitness training at Gabriele Fitness and Performance in Berkeley Heights, NJ. Joe has developed his training philosophy through years of practice training athletes ranging from 4th grade to D1 and blended it with his personal experiences while playing high school and Division 1 sports. Joe is currently writing his thesis for an MS in exercise physiology. Contact Joe at joe@gabrielefitness.com

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