Character & Mental Toughness – Fear & Accountability

1969: A child’s parents blame him for his bad grades. Today: A child’s parents blame his teacher for his bad grades.

I was discussing sarcasm the other day.  I grew up in New Jersey. I went to college near Boston. It’s ingrained in me.

But I live in an area a little more removed. A place where sarcasm, symbolism, and satire are not well understood.  I interact with a lot of literal people, so I am always guarded in my conversations as I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  People who don’t readily understand the three S’s do understand tone, so I’ve learned to tamp down on my phrase play. It’s not fun for anyone if nobody else gets the joke.

That discussion about sarcasm led to a point made by one of my former players from my early years of coaching.  He said my players might not always understand me, but instead they did what I asked of them because they were afraid of me.

I imagined he was referring to my ripping them, or running them, or having grueling practices. Things I’ve done less and less of over the years. Not because they are ineffective, but because they lead to problems.  Let me explain.

Football isn’t like all of the other sports.  It requires relentless orchestrated physical contact. Players must be smart, strong, fast, quick, relentless, powerful, quick thinking, cooperative, responsible, disciplined, tough, etc.  Those traits have to be developed and developed to a very high level in order to succeed.  In football there are endless things to be held accountable for, but there are also endless things to take pride in.  Football is accountability dependent and pride producing.

One must also understand that, unlike most of the other sports, in football you need a whole bunch of players who are willing to be held accountable and take pride in their efforts and performance.

When things are not being done as instructed, then changes need to be made.  When those changes are not executed, confrontation must occur. Otherwise, the unsuccessful behavior will continue.

There are different levels of confrontation. I’ve always started with a friendly non verbal, then progressed to a concerned non verbal. A non verbal is a look and/or facial expression.  Sometimes that’s enough.

When non verbals are ineffective confrontation escalates to a friendly verbal, and then on to a concerned verbal.

I learned the levels of confrontation early in my education career when I served as a counselor at a school for adjudicated boys.  It was there that I learned that confrontation is sometimes needed to create change, to create growth. Those boys experienced great growth because through those confrontations they changed their behavior and ultimately their lives.  Most made drastic changes and started on a path of achievement. You see, in order to get someone to do the right thing confrontation is often required.  You keep confronting until the behavior is changed. Once those boys recognized all that they were achieving, they came to appreciate all those confrontations they initially despised.

At the reform school everyone was on the same page regarding the minimal levels of acceptable behavior.  In my current position, that’s not the case.  I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.

In short, a modern teacher or coach is accountable for the performance of their students or players. However, when the teacher or coach now confronts the student when their behavior is not in keeping with the goals of instruction, the student, player, parent or supervisors no longer accept confrontation, or at least confrontation beyond the friendly verbal level.

When my former player said he and his teammates did as told because they were afraid, something popped into my head.

No Fear = No Accountability = Failure to reach potential = losing

I can no longer hold students and players accountable if I don’t have the ability to make them afraid.  I can’t make them afraid if their parents fail to see any value in fear. I can’t make them afraid if the parent calls the supervisor and the supervisor does not support the method.  There is no fear in the player or student under performing if their parents or the supervisors don’t have the ability to recognize the fruits of such confrontation.

Accountability creates a fear of failure and therefore avoidance of failure by increasing performance. This is what I was raised to believe and witnessed as being very effective in my early years of teaching and coaching.

Where as fear of being held accountable for poor performance used to motivate performance, now fear of being held accountable for negative performance leads people to fear participating at all.  The player quits or won’t challenge themselves and the parent, or supervisor supports the player’s decision to take the easy way out.

If someone doesn’t define failure and hold one accountable, then that individual will never develop the safety net of intrinsic pride which establishes a minimal acceptable level for achievement.  In short, that someone never learns to do better and not accept failure.

As a teacher and coach, accountability, and the pride it leads to, requires courage; the courage of parents, teammates, coaches, and administrators.  However, if one or more of those pillars lack the courage, the will, the intellect to understand accountability, then there can’t be accountability.  This is because it won’t be allowed. The result is any hope for a high level of performance is crushed.

The norm in some organizations or communities is that it’s members will hold each other accountable.  This leads to consistent success.

The norm in other organizations and communities is that it’s members will not be held accountable.  This leads to consistent failure.

There is of course a third norm. One where the level of  permissible accountability fluctuates year to year, instance to instance.  This leads to inconsistent achievement.

What does all of this mean?

Well let me tell you how it applies to my situation. I’ve just finished up my 11th year as a head high school coach.  Last Spring I informed my administrators that I would like to coach a 12th season and then resign my position and possibly move on to coach somewhere else.

I’m leaving because I’m tired. It’s time for someone else to come in and fight the battles, the largest of which is accountability.

I have been fortunate to work with administrators who understand this.  They recognize that accountability of players leads not only to success on the field, but the vital installation of intrinsic pride I spoke of earlier. That pride will lead the player to a lifetime of achievement.

Unfortunately, I’ve come to accept that I have been coaching a team from that third type of community.  As parents and players have come through, some have the courage, the will, the intellect to hold themselves and the other members of the team accountable. Others do not have such courage, will and intellect.

If you don’t understand how they could not, then look at the cartoon above and just substitute a coach for the teacher.  Then have the parent talk to the coaches athletic director, principal, superintendent etc. rather than speaking first with the coach.

As I head into my final season, questions linger in my head.

Some of our players skip workouts or parts of workouts. Will enough of my players have the courage, the will, the intellect to call out their teammates and hold them accountable? Will enough of my players be willing to be held accountable by their teammates to start doing things the right way?  Will players quit rather than face being held accountable for doing what needs to be done, the way it needs to be done, when it needs to be done (workouts, camps, 7 on 7, practicing hard, showing up for games ready to play, fighting through when things get tough) ?

What about the parents? When their son doesn’t have success will they have the courage, the will, the intellect to hold their son accountable or will they start calling even higher up the chain of command?

I don’t know.  It depends on the year.

I believe our seniors to be have it in them to both speak up when someone needs to be held accountable, and to listen when someone holds them accountable.  They have the courage, the will, the intellect.  I just don’t know if they will consistently act, or will  too often look the other way when it’s time for someone to be held accountable.

We will have a new principal next year. Will he or she have the same commitment to accountability?

Then there are the parents.  Like I said, it depends on the year.  We have a strong crew, but will they be strong enough to keep those who lack courage, will, and intellect at bay.

I don’t know. It depends on the year.

At some point, someone is going to ask me how we are going to be next year.

A great many factors go into whether we have a winning or losing season.  Talent is a factor of course, but our talent is always pretty much the same.  Administrative support is important, but that has been consistent.

See it doesn’t really come down to me, or the talent level, or the administration.  I’ve coached the program to some of the best seasons in school history, none of the worst, and plenty of the mediocre.  I may not yell as much, or run them as much or make practices quite as grueling.  I’ve changed a little bit because I’ve come to realize it’s dependent on the players and parents.

We will win if the players have some fear. We’ll win if they have some pride and realize losing is unacceptable.  We’ll win if they have the courage, will and intellect to call each other out and listen when called out.  We’ll win if enough of their parents allow them to be held accountable so they can get the work done and develop some pride.

We’ll lose if I solely have to hold our players accountable for doing every little thing (showing up to lifting, getting all their sets in, squatting to the appropriate depth, stretching with effort, handing in their paperwork, bringing out the water, finding a ride to camp, etc, etc.).

We’ll lose if more than the inevitable couple of parents start making phone calls and reach someone who holds no value of accountability and pride.

You see a high school football team never really resembles it’s coach, because the coach can’t recruit or draft from anywhere he chooses.  He only gets to coach the kids in that community. Instead a football team represents the parents, the players, the administrators, and ultimately the community that it evolves from and represents.

Those communities vary in their approach to accountability, and therefore vary in their level of pride and success.  Some win all the time, some never win, and others win some and lose some.

I write this, so that people can better understand why different communities with the same talent level consistently win, while others consistently lose, and still others are forever vascillating between the two.  I write this so we can accept that in order to be able to win, our players will be accountable for having the character and mental toughness to consistently get the work done this off-season, in practices, and during games.

In order to do that, I’m going to need a whole bunch of them to have the courage, the will and the intellect to buy in.  If they do, then not only will we be successful, but those young men will learn the character and mental toughness skills necessary to succeed the rest of their lives.

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About coachbillmoore

Educator/Author/Speaker/HS & NCAA Coach Character Coach Read Coach Moore’s book “On Character and Mental Toughness” Paperback available at Barnes & Noble or Amazon. "The measure of your character and mental toughness is the space between what you are doing and what you could be doing." -Coach Bill Moore
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