Barking mad

Yesterday, I observed a clinic in how not to lead and motivate a team. It was tough to watch.

I was at a nearby ski hill, training for an annual hiking trip back east. Living in a relatively flat Midwest town, the best way for me to prepare involves trudging up and down this modest mound several times/week over a couple of months. It’s not fun – you wouldn’t choose this workout unless highly motivated to achieve a specific, important goal. But because it more closely simulates actual hiking, it’s more effective than any gym workout.

The failed clinic involved about 25 boys, ages 14 or 15, preparing for the upcoming junior varsity football season. Several boys were out of shape and a few were seriously overweight. Because regulations prohibit high school teams from holding official practices until a few weeks right before the season, all of the boys must have “volunteered” for this workout.

Four parent/coaches, all in their 30s or early 40s, stood at the base of the hill, with one watching from the top. If some of the kids were out of shape, then these coaches looked even less fit.

On their first dash up the steepest part of the hill, most of the boys relied on youthful exuberance and camaraderie to overcome burning lungs and screaming quads. A couple of players stopped running and walked the last few yard. One or two dropped to their knees and, eventually, finished the first leg.

The parent/coaches remained below, yelling personal insults and attempting to shame the struggling players into finishing. I heard no encouragement – no “you can do it,” “power through it,” or “way to go.”

Initially, the haranguing seemed to motivate a few of the boys. But on subsequent climbs, the pack broke up and drifted apart. Several boys sat down and didn’t get up for minutes. Two boys straggled farther and farther behind. After one of the two said he had fainted, a couple of considerate teammates helped him get down the hill.

I could hear the boys mutter as we passed on my climbs and their descents. They were miserable. The two stragglers were clearly humiliated, sticking together in shared embarrassment. I wondered if they would quit then and there. I offered a few positive words, and one thanked me. Later, I was impressed when he powered through his last hill sprint after stopping two-thirds of the way up the hill.

I was angry with the parent/coaches. Instead of offering positive encouragement, they criticized the kids repeatedly. Instead of leading by example, they stood at the bottom of the hill, barking out orders. They badgered the team’s weakest links and even withheld praise from the strong.

I could only wonder: how would these adults feel if their bosses at work treated them the way they were treating these boys? Would they quit? Become actively disengaged, disruptive or even violent?

I’ve played football. As much as any sport, it requires physical and mental toughness, which is built during training.

But this was no way to motivate and toughen young men, especially a group of insecure teens.

Instead, what if the parent/coaches had…

  • Led by example, running some of the sprints with the boys?
  • Provided tips on more effective technique and complementary training?
  • Offered encouragement, using positive motivation rather than criticism and shame?
  • Recognized performance, cheering the two boys who helped their teammate and the one who powered through his pain?

I’m not suggesting that every player deserves a ribbon and heaps of praise just for trying.

But on the field and in the workplace, to build a high-performing team with the mental toughness and discipline required to overcome adversity, a healthy mix of positive motivation and encouragement will produce better results over time.


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