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How to Win

Finding Ways to Motivate

Why do some coaches win ?

The other night over dinner, we considered the ingredients: Is it X’s and O’s? Or is it relationships? And since successful coaches probably offer a mixture of strategy and psychology, what is the ratio?

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a story on Jim Steen, legendary swimming coach at Kenyon College. According to the school’s web site, he’s overseen 27 consecutive national men’s titles, and captured 20 women’s championships.

How? What does he do? The Times quotes Judy Holdener, an associate professor of mathematics at Kenyon, as pointing to something that can’t be captured on a blackboard.

“You can copy his methods, but it’s the intangibles that set Coach Steen apart,” she is quoted as saying. “He has this ability to connect with people, to figure out what makes them tick. He’s a genius when it comes to that.”

Anson Dorrance, coach of the University of North Carolina women’s soccer program, is one of the few people with a record anywhere close to Steen’s. In his book “Training Soccer Champions,” Dorrance says that at a certain point, coaching stops being about the drills, and instead becomes a matter of finding ways to motivate and to challenge athletes.

Rick Wolff, author and radio personality at WFAN in New York, gave a talk in South Orange, N.J., Wednesday night and fielded a question about great coaching.

He said the ideal coach is one who in a practice finds the time to call every athlete by name and to offer each some praise. “Young people LOVE praise,” he said. “We all love praise, but young people LOVE praise.”

Not every coach will be warm and fuzzy. Herb Brooks, architect of the 1980 Olympic gold medal in hockey, was famous for his put-downs. “You’re getting worse every day and now you’re playing like it’s the middle of next month.”

While youth coaches should never make the mistake of copying Brooks’ harsh language, EVERY coach, like Steen, Dorrance and Wolff, should be on the lookout for ways to motivate and inspire. That — not drills — is the real work of coaching.


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