by Paul Nemetz-Carlson, Tudor Collegiate Strategies
As seasons and careers end abruptly, we see dreams deferred, and questions and uncertainty dominate the college sports world, many coaches face unforeseen challenges around finding the right words and how to communicate effectively.
Without answers and a clear idea of how the Coronavirus crisis plays out across the country and the college sports landscape over the next weeks and possibly months, many are at a loss for what to do and what to say.
However, as coaches your leadership and ability to communicate has never been more important. There are a lot of people waiting to hear from you – to be informed, to be guided, to be led.
I know this because I’ve faced enough crisis in my twenty-plus years of coaching. Over my career I’ve had four members of my teams tragically pass away. The all-time great person and athlete who passed away in a car accident one year after graduation; a kind soul and highly-touted recruit in a one-car accident three days before high school graduation; the inspirational, ideal student-athlete and teammate, diagnosed mid-season, that lost a year long battle with leukemia; and the mother of two, captain of two national championship teams shockingly falling victim to colon cancer at age 37 – all left their teammates before they were ready. All special, unique and dearly missed by friends, family, and teammates.
I recognize that my experience with crisis is extreme. And, I share this personal journey – not looking for sympathy – but as background to offer some helpful thoughts on the importance of communication in navigating difficult situations.
In each case, I was where many of you might be right now – heartbroken, shocked, and confused – lost in trying to find the right path forward. But, I also quickly learned in this team environment that when crisis hits, a lot of people look to you and wonder what’s next.
And nothing was more valuable than communication. Here are four things I’ve learned about the role and value of coaches in times of crisis.
Stay Connected To Your Team: No piece of advice I share is more important than the call to stay connected to your team. Don’t let anyone go at it alone. They are searching for someone to bring them together, reassure them, and guide them – and it’s you. Especially, now as the natural support network of teams dissolves with a shift to distance learning, individuals on your team will feel more isolated and face new challenges. Coaches’ biggest responsibility in the coming weeks will be finding consistent ways to maintain connections between staff and teammates.
Communicate What You Know: It’s okay not to have all the answers, but you probably have more than your team. Make sure you are sharing accurate updates of what you know. Be regular, but not over the top when assessing how much is too much. Things are changing quickly and it’s important to have as complete of information as possible. In the school environment, it is important – as most coaches aren’t the actual decision makers – that your communication is consistent with institutional policy and action.
No One Is Wrong: In challenging times, I’m always struck by how differently everyone reacts and feels toward the same set of circumstances. One of the first things that helped me through it was the realization that despite the fact we approach it from unique perspectives – no one is wrong. My feelings as a leader won’t always match the feelings of the individuals on the team. Emotion, grief, loss would hit different people at different times, in different ways – and in order to heal or make it through a crisis it is important to be accepting of all points of view and reactions.
Do Something Special: Finally, as the leader it’s on you to lead the effort to do something really special to celebrate, beyond a social media post or simple thank you. In the current situation, that will mean finding a new way to highlight seniors, special accomplishments, and the unrealized potential of a group whose season was cut short. I’d challenge you to think BIG, because your team might not have the capacity or experience to properly identify ways to meet the moment. In my case, we were able to have national and conference awards renamed and make extraordinary efforts to honor others’ memories.
How does all of this relate to recruiting?
In an uncertain time where questions come faster than answers, your prospective student-athletes are looking to you as a trusted source of information and the leader who will guide them through this crisis by providing a vision of their athletic and academic future.
Clear, consistent communication has never been more important or more valuable.
So, in addition to your efforts with your current team, stay connected to your prospects and their parents. Reach out to them and provide accurate updates about your season, your institution’s policies and responses, and your plan to keep telling your recruiting story. Show the impact of those who didn’t get to compete this spring and celebrate their contributions to your program.
Be personal and individual in how you address the questions and needs of your prospective student-athletes because their perspective on how they view and understand this process is changing as we speak. Only a consistent, effective story will reach the individual who is re-evaluating distance, the level, or the role a coach will play in their health, safety, and overall success.
Over the next weeks and months, you will need to embrace your role as your program’s leader in ways that will challenge you like never before. You’ll be asked to do things in different ways and asked questions without answers.
While others stay silent – communicate, connect and lead! Your team and prospects are waiting to hear from you.
Be Distinct. Be Different.