Resource Review: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

I recently read and reread Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business when there are no easy answers. It’s probably the best business book I’ve ever read as it reveals the excruciating realities of running an organization and strategies for dealing with difficult decisions. Throughout the book, I was able to pick out some key points that resonated and draw some parallels to coaching baseball. Below are my thoughts. 

The Fine Line Between Fear and Courage

“In high school football, being able to handle fear is 75 percent of the game.” – Pg. 4

Heard this one before? Baseball might not have the physical confrontation of football, but it does not make it any less scarier. For many of us, sports are our first experience in dealing with fear. The idea of no fear is a myth – all athletes must learn how to deal with fear. Horowitz learned this at a young age and used this experience to help prepare him for his time as a CEO. If you think playing a kid’s game is difficult, just try managing a million dollar business that’s weeks away from bankruptcy. 

To understand the fine line between fear and courage, Ben shared a quote from Cus D’Amato – legendary boxing trainer – on page 209. It read:

“I tell my kids, what is the difference between a hero and a coward? What is the difference between being yellow and being brave? No difference. Only what you do. They both feel the same. They both fear dying and getting hurt. The man who is yellow refuses to face up to what he’s got to face. The hero is more disciplined and he fights those feelings off and he does what he has to do. But they both feel the same, the hero and the coward. People who watch you judge you on what you do, not how you feel.”  

When Ben was running Loudcloud and Opsware, he never once felt brave. Most of the time he felt scared to death. However, he learned how to ignore these feelings by having the discipline to make necessary but unpopular decisions. He calls this the courage development process. For every hard, correct decision we make, we become a bit more courageous. For every easy, wrong decision we make, we become a bit more cowardly. 

As coaches, we’re going to be faced with plenty of difficult decisions that test our courage and ability to lead. We’re going to be responsible for a group of young men that look up to us for answers. When things go wrong, no one is going to take the consequences harder than us. We have to learn how to take ownership in these situations, but we can’t take things too personally. When things go wrong we can’t just put the weight on our shoulders. Horowitz explained saying:

“I thought that it was my job and my job only to worry about the company’s problems. Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have realized that it didn’t make sense for me to be the only one to worry about, for example, the product not being quite right – because I wasn’t writing the code that would fix it. If I insisted on keeping the setbacks to myself, there was no way to jump-start that process. . . A brain, no matter how big, cannot solve a problem it doesn’t know about.” 

At the end of the day, however, it is your company. You’re going to call the shots and make the decisions when everything seems like it’s falling apart. If you feel fear in these moments, understand you’re not alone – it only makes you human.

Plenty of people ask Horowitz what the secret sauce is when it comes to becoming a successful CEO. He said, “Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as CEO.”

Taking Care of the Most Important Thing

“Flowers. Flowers are really cheap. But do you know what’s expensive?” – Pg. 8

The question from above comes from Ben’s father as the two sat in 105 degree heat with three crying kids because Ben couldn’t afford air conditioning. When Ben asked what his dad replied, “Divorce.”

It was at this moment that Ben realized he was going to lose his family if he continued on the course he was on. He had never considered that he didn’t have unlimited bandwidth and could do everything he wanted to simultaneously. He said, “I thought I could pursue my career, all my interests, and build my family. More important, I always thought about myself first. When you are a part of a family or part of a group, that kind of thinking can get you into trouble, and I was in deep trouble. I had to stop being a boy and become a man.

“By doing everything, I would fail at the most important thing.” 

Don’t become so clouded by your passion that you fail to take care of what really matters. 

Why your employees need a clear set of expectations and training for their job

“People at McDonald’s get trained for their positions, but people with far more complicated jobs don’t. It makes no sense.” – Pg. 105

When you bring people into a company, they need to become assimilated as quickly as possible so they start growing your company immediately. If you want to get them up to speed, you need to first lay out exactly what their title is, what their responsibilities are, how to do their responsibilities, and how they will be measured or graded. This is accomplished by defining the expectations for each job and training the employee how to do it.  

Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, from HBO documentary The Art of Coaching

Bill Belichick – head coach of the New England Patriots – is very precise with his assistants about what will be expected of them. Nick Saban talked about this when working under Belichick in Cleveland saying:

I think that probably working for Bill Belichick probably helped me the most in that regard, because it’s really the first person that really defined the expectation for what he wanted everybody in the organization to do, whether they were in personnel, whether you were a coach, whether you were defensive coordinator. And that made the job so much easier for me and it made me grow as a coach, because I knew exactly what was expected.”

When you can set a baseline for expected performance, the next most important thing you need to do is train them how to do it. People are going to be your most important asset in a business. Hiring the “right guy” will only take you so far if you do not lay out how they are supposed to do their job. Andy Grove, author and well-known businessman, talks about the importance of training saying there are only two ways for a manager to improve the output of an employee: motivation and training. If your employees aren’t being trained, a disconnect is created between management and the employee. If employees aren’t aware of what should be done, how it should be done, and when it should be done, the only person you should be mad at as a CEO is yourself. 

Oh, and “not having the time” to train your employees isn’t a good enough excuse for Ben. “Keep in mind that there is no investment that you can make that will do more to improve productivity in your company,” said Horowitz. “Therefore, being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat.” 

If you have clearly laid out what each person in your organization needs to do and how to do it, you have given yourself the ability to hold them accountable. If you want to keep your group aligned towards a common goal, you need to be able to keep everyone – yourself included – accountable to what they’ve agreed on. This process requires one of the most uncomfortable things you need to do as a CEO: giving clear and honest feedback. 

Horowitz talked about the importance of feedback saying, “Companies execute well when everybody is on the same page and everybody is constantly improving. In a vacuum of feedback, there is almost no chance that your company will perform optimally across either dimension. People rarely improve weakness they are unaware of. The ultimate price you will pay for not giving feedback: systematically crappy company performance.” 

Ben Horowitz, from The Hard Thing About Hard Things (image source)

There are several keys to giving good feedback, but one of the most important is not sugar coating it. Ben described this using a story where he had to give feedback to a senior employee. He tried to give it using the sandwich technique where he wrapped the negative feedback between a couple of positive compliments. After Ben finished, she responded, “Spare me the compliment, Ben, and just tell me what I did wrong.”

When feedback is constant, honest, and immediate, it becomes the norm for your organization. If there’s a problem that needs attending, people won’t hide it because they’re afraid of being wrong. Your organization needs to be comfortable sharing bad news. Ben said, “A good culture is like the old RIP routing protocol: Bad news travels fast; good news travels slow.” If you let the bad news spread without addressing it immediately, you’ve opened up the opportunity for politics – what we’ll discuss next. 

How to Minimize Politics in your Company

“Political behavior almost always starts with the CEO. . . In fact, it’s often the least political CEOs who run the most ferociously political organizations. Apolitical CEOs frequently – and accidentally – encourage intense political behavior.” – Pg. 147

Politics, in Ben’s words, is “people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit or contribution.” No one likes politics, but plenty of people will use them. Trying to run an organization without knowing how to recognize and manage them is a recipe for disaster. Step one is learning how to set the tone from up top. 

Ben has found two techniques useful when it comes to managing politics. First, it’s imperative to hire people with the right kind of ambition. People with the right ambition are going to be motivated by the success of the organization while the people with the wrong kind of ambition are obsessed with their personal success. Getting the right people on board is going to be your best defense against political behavior. If you brought on someone who was motivated by a personal agenda, you need to examine your hiring process and find out why you made a mistake. Your people are the most important part of the organization. You cannot afford to shoot yourself in the foot and bring on people who have political motives.

The second technique Ben used as CEO was building and adhering to a strict process that would handle potentially political issues. These include performance evaluation and compensation, organizational design and territory, and promotions. This makes sure that employee compensation, raises, and promotions are done as fairly as possible and internal conflicts are handled efficiently. You’re going to get to a point in your business where people are going to complain about behavior or even competence. If it’s about behavior, you need to address the issues with both parties in the same room. If it’s about competence and it’s something you’ve known about, you’ve let the situation go too far and that employee more than likely needs to be terminated. If this is something you haven’t heard before, you need to disagree with the initial assessment and do research of your own before coming to a conclusion. 

The Right Way to Lay People Off

“People won’t remember every day they worked for your company, but they will surely remember the day you laid them off.” – Pg. 71

If you have decided you need to lay people off, you need to act on your decision as quickly as possible. If there is a gap between your decision and execution, you invite room for politics. When you’re laying off someone who trusted you and worked hard for you, you need to come clean as CEO. This starts by being accountable for the performance of the company.

“You are laying off people because the company failed to hit its plan,” said Horowitz. “Company performance failed. This distinction is critical, because the message to the company and the laid-off individuals should not be “This is great, we are cleaning up performance.” The message must be “The company failed and in order to move forward, we will have to lose some excellent people.” 

A layoff breaks trust, especially with the people who survive the layoff. They interacted and had relationships with people who you’re going to have to let go. They care about how you treat them. As CEO, this is a really important time to be visible in the company. Don’t hide and let the emotions of a layoff get the best of you. Be present and show people that you care. Help laid off employees pack up their things and carry stuff to their car. They need to know that their efforts were appreciated. 

At the end of the day, a lay off is not an open dialogue the way feedback is. Stand strong behind your decision and use words like “I decided” instead of words like “I think” or “I might.” Their future in your company is non-negotiable. This is especially important when you have to fire managers, executives, or other people of power within your organization. You owe them clarity on what happened and how you plan to help them move on. 

You can’t let them keep their job, but you can absolutely let them keep their respect.  

Peacetime vs. Wartime CEOs

“There may be nothing scarier in business than facing an existential threat. So scary that many in the organization will do anything to avoid it. . . If you have the better product, why not knuckle up and go to war?” – Pg. 89-90

As a business, you are likely in one of two times: peacetime or wartime. Peacetime, as Horowitz explains, is “(T)imes when a company has a large advantage over the competition in its core market, and its market is growing.” The primary focus for companies in peacetime is expanding the market and reinforcing the company’s strengths. There is more flexibility for creative thinking within the core mission of the company. An example of this is when Google required its employees to spend 20 percent of their work on new personal projects during its dominance in the search market.

On the contrary, wartime is the exact opposite. “In wartime, a company is fending off an imminent existential threat,” said Horowitz. “Such a threat can come from a wide range of sources, including competition, dramatic macroeconomic change, market change, supply change, and so forth.” While a lot of management books focus on peacetime CEOs, few cover the ugly realities of  navigating a business through wartime. During this time, there is no room for individual creativity – there is one bullet and it must hit the target. Survival is dependent on strict adherence and alignment to the mission. An example of this was when Steve Jobs returned to Apple when it was weeks away from bankruptcy. There was no room for individual creativity like Google – everyone had to follow the plan Jobs designed. 

Operating in peacetime and wartime requires a significant contrast in leadership strategies. They are as follows below:

Peacetime CEO Wartime CEO
Focuses on big picture, empowering employees to make detailed decisions “Cares about a speck of dust on a gnat’s ass if it interferes with the prime directive”
Spends time defining culture War defines culture
Knows how to manage big advantage Paranoid 
Manages language, tone Rarely speaks in normal tone, without swearing
Works to minimize conflict Heightens contradictions
Expand market Win market
Sets big, hairy, audacious goals “Too busy fighting the enemy to read management books written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand”
Focuses on employee satisfaction and career development Focuses on making sure employees don’t get shot in battle 
Can exit any business they are not #1 or #2 in Has no business that is #1 or #2 

 When you’re building a business, there are no silver bullets. Everyday you need to assess where you are, where you want to go, and how you can bridge that gap. Peacetime CEOs have the flexibility to expand the market and build on what they currently have. Wartime CEOs have no room for bullshit – they have to go through the front door and “deal with the big, ugly guy blocking it.” 

Some can manage peacetime better and others can manage wartime better. Very few are able to manage both. In either case, things are bound to eventually go wrong. These moments will reveal your identity as a leader and a company.

“There comes a time in every company’s life where it must fight for its life,” said Horowitz. “If you find yourself running when you should be fighting, you need to ask yourself, “If our company isn’t good enough to win, then do we need to exist at all?””

Follow the Leader

“Perhaps the most important attribute required to be a successful CEO is leadership.” – Pg. 219

While there is no prototype for the perfect leader, Horowitz shares three things all great leaders have in common: The ability to articulate the vision, the right kind of ambition, and achieving the vision. 

Articulating the Vision

  • Can you create a story that encapsulates the core reason for your existence?
  • Is the vision interesting and compelling enough for people to buy into it?
  • Can you articulate the vision and keep people around when everything is falling apart?

All great leaders are great storytellers. The best way to determine the strength of your narrative is if people really believe in you when everything has gone to hell. The story you create is going to get the right people on board and keep them on board through good times and bad. If people don’t know or believe in the vision, they won’t follow you down the same path. 

The Right Kind of Ambition

  • You need great people to work for you
  • You can’t get great people to work for you if they don’t know you have their best interests in mind and in heart
  • “Truly great leaders create an environment where the employees feel that the CEO cares more about the employees than she cares about herself.” 
  • If you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk

You don’t need to be a ruthless, gutless dictator to manage a successful company. If you want to attract great people, you need to show your employees that you care about them. People want to know that their work and well being is important to you. If they trust that you have their best interests in mind and in heart, they will run through a brick wall for you. 

Achieving the Vision

  • Do people believe you have the competence to get the job done?
  • “Will I follow her into the jungle with no map forward or back and trust that she will get me out of there?”
  • Don’t let confidence ruin your competence 

Buying in to your vision ultimately comes down to whether people believe in you as a leader. You have to know your stuff if you’re going to achieve your vision as a leader. If you don’t, people aren’t going to trust you. If you do, don’t think you’re confident enough to get by with what you have. “Indeed, the enemy of competence is sometimes confidence,” said Horowitz. “A CEO should never be so confident that she stops improving her skills.” 

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

“Hard things are hard because there are no easy answers or recipes. They are hard because your emotions are at odds with your logic. They are hard because you don’t know the answer and you cannot ask for help without showing weakness.” – Pg. 274

If you want to succeed as a leader, you need to understand that hard things suck and they are never going to stop. You can complain about why they suck or you can embrace the suck. If you accept that things aren’t going to go your way, you give yourself the ability to deal with them as a normal part of the process. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or a baseball coach – the same rules apply.

Joe Maddon sporting one of his favorite quotes: “Embrace the Suck”

At the same time, no one has ever done it the same way before. You bring a unique skill set to the table that no one can tell you how to use. The sooner you embrace this, the quicker you can take advantage of it. 

“When I work with entrepreneurs today, this is the main thing I try to convey,” said Horowitz. “Embrace your weirdness, your background, your instinct. If the keys are not in there, they do not exist. I can relate to what they’re going through, but I cannot tell them what to do. I can only help them find it within themselves.” 

How playing has impacted my coaching career

Playing and coaching baseball are two different things. There is overlap in how the game is learned and processed, but being a good coach is totally different than being a good player. As a player, you only have to understand one language and style – your own. As a coach, you can’t just rely on what helped you as a player. You need to understand the language and style of each and every single kid on your team. Your experiences as a player can help you get a head start on this, but there is much more work to be done if you want to help as many kids as you can. 

While the style I learned as a player will not help all the kids I coach, I’ve learned that my experiences as a player have built the foundation for who I am as a coach today. They gave me different perspectives and taught me how to see things through a different lense. It gave me the ability to spend time and learn from men with wisdom from years of skin in the game.   I started to figure out what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I needed to learn more about. While I was only getting started, my journey as a player fueled my love for coaching and helping other people. My playing career won’t determine whether I have success or not as a coach, but it was a crucial starting point in my career as a teacher.

Below are some of the most important things I’ve learned as a player that will help me as a coach.   

  • Never stop learning 

I was very fortunate to grow up with family members, people, and coaches who were obsessed with learning. As a result, their passion for growth ended up rubbing off on me. Since baseball was something I loved and wanted to get better at, it became the motivation for my learning early on. I picked up books, read articles, watched videos, and asked questions when I couldn’t figure something out. It wasn’t perfect early on, but it didn’t need to be because you can’t figure out what you like until you find something you don’t like. This early obsession helped build the foundation for my coaching philosophy today, but more importantly it taught me how my teaching will always change and evolve. New information is going to come out and is going to change the way we think and train our athletes. There’s no shame in looking back five years ago and seeing how differently you would do things today. If anything it shows a tremendous amount of growth. You can’t have these kinds of realizations if you don’t have a mindset of a life-long learner. If you don’t make a commitment to learning and challenging what you know on a daily basis, this game will pass you by. Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden said it best: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” 

Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden (image source)
  • There is no one way to do it

Snowflakes and fingerprints are akin to ball players: Not a single one is the same. Every player is going to develop their unique style through years of experimentation and practice. If you want to get the most out of your playing career, you need to understand what works best for you. Some things may work better earlier in your career and may not work as well later on. Other things may not work out initially but may turn out to be beneficial down the road. You may need to think about swinging down on the ball to hit line drives. Your teammate might need to think the opposite to get the same result. You may need to think about side arming the ball to sync your arm into the plane of rotation. Your teammate may need to think about getting on top of the ball and pulling it through. The more guys you’re around, the more you realize that there are a multitude of ways to do this thing. If you can carry this approach into your coaching career, you will find it’s much easier to maximize your influence over the ones who can’t. 

  • Daily discipline

One of the most important questions you can ask yourself on a daily basis is, “What is my plan to get better today?” From the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, you need to have a plan as a player for how you’re going to get one percent better every single day. This involves how you study, prepare, eat, sleep, train, and work to perfect your craft. The catch is everyone knows these things are important. I don’t think anyone will argue that sleeping eight hours a night, doing your homework, lifting weights, eating a balanced diet, or getting swings in the cage are bad things. In fact, many players know exactly what they should be doing to be successful. The problem is very few actually have the discipline to do them.  The discipline to do what is necessary every single day has been one of the most important things I’ve learned as a player. Every single day you need to show up, punch the card, and put in work. If you don’t wake up with a plan to attack the day and crush your goals, you will be eliminated. This process doesn’t get any easier as a coach. Instead of just being responsible for yourself, you are now accountable for a group of young men that all look up to you. If you don’t have the discipline to show up and put your best foot forward on a daily basis, your team will suffer the consequences. You can either suffer the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. Choose wisely. 

Choosing between the pain of discipline and the pain of regret, from Andy McKay (@AndyMcKayHG)
  • Don’t be afraid to go against the grain  

“It is impossible for a pitcher to be confident in competition if he is concerned with others’ evaluation of him.”  – Harvey Dorfman, from The Mental ABC’s of Pitching

One of the worst things you can do as a player is just try to “fit in.” Having the courage to stand up for what you believe in and take the road less traveled is a requirement if you want to separate yourself from the pack. Not everyone is going to have the same goals and ambitions as you. Some guys are going to be more prone to trying new things and others are going to be rigid in their ways. You may like to use weighted baseballs but the rest of your teammates may think they’re a waste of time. It’s totally okay if you do things that everyone doesn’t agree with – the only opinion that should matter is yours. The most successful people don’t look for what everyone else is doing – they look for what they’re not doing. Jerry Seinfield illustrated this best when he said, “Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.” If you want to differentiate yourself from the crowd, you need to have the courage to act on your own ideas and make your own path. Your career is too short to care about what other people think. 

  • The game doesn’t owe you a thing

For everything you put into this game, you are not guaranteed anything in return. Players and coaches are constantly being influenced by things that are out of our control. Even though we don’t like to admit it, this game is largely dictated by luck and chance. Sometimes we hit the jackpot and find the right place at the right time with the right people. Other times we hit the three balls right on the screws and all we have to show for it is an 0-3 day. The sooner we get to grips with this the better. If you think your hard work entitles you to success, you’re going to have a miserable career. You’ve got to be willing to put skin in the game and accept that you have very little control of the outcomes if you want to last. The game will reward those who put in time and persist, but it will not reward you on your watch. Baseball has gone on long before you and it will go on without you – it does not owe you a thing. If anything, you owe the game everything. Never forget where you stand. 

The game will reward those who put in time and persist, but it will not reward you on your watch.

  • Believe in yourself 

At some point in your playing career, you are going to get to a level where you absolutely get your ass kicked. The obstacles you face will be greater than you’ve ever seen before. People who you counted on will let you down and your heart will be broken. Things that you cannot control will negatively impact you. It is during these moments when your confidence and belief in your abilities will fluctuate more than ever. When your back is against the wall, the one person that is always going to have your back is yourself. Before anyone else believes in you, you need to have the courage to believe in yourself. Coaching is no different. If you don’t believe in your ability to teach and lead, you’ll never get the young men in your program aligned and on board with your vision. It’s no coincidence that the best athletes and the best programs have a great sense of belief. You’ll always be at the constraint of the confidence you have in yourself. Don’t sell yourself short. 

  • Humility 

There are two types of people in this world: Those who are humble and those who are about to be. If you’ve ever played baseball before, you should understand this better than anyone. One day you’re 4-4 and feeling great and just 24 hours later you could be 0-4 with three punch outs. One outing you throw seven shutout innings and feel invincible and then the next outing you can’t even make it out of the first. The second you think you have this thing figured out is the second you don’t. Learning how to handle failure is important, but handling success requires you to check your ego at the door. The best have the humility to remember the tough times and understand their work is not finished. If you are not humble about what you do, this game will humble you quickly. The season is going to be filled with peaks and valleys that take you to the most extreme emotions. The best way to handle these moments is to center yourself through humility. Never get too high and never get too low. 

  • It’s just a game
Augie Garrido, from Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach (image source)

At the end of the day, baseball is nothing more than a kid’s game. Your success as a player or as a coach does not make you a better human being. Your batting average or win loss record does not entitle you to anything. If our ego and self worth is wrapped up in the stat sheet, we won’t be able to see the beauty of this game, the experiences it gives us, and the people we meet along our journey. The game is so much bigger than us and it always will be. The odds of you winning the final game of your season is miniscule. As Tim Corbin says, we need to be playing the infinite game and that is the game of life. Baseball gives us a unique platform to teach this. 

Legendary baseball coach Augie Garrido spoke about this in his 2008 documentary Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach. After a game at Kansas State, Garrido said:

“This is important… not for the game… not for the fans… But because what it does for you as you mature and grow, you start to get mentally tougher so that anything you do in your entire life – you will be able to out-compete anyone around you. Ultimately, it comes down to what LIFE is really all about… Having the courage to make the decisions to act on your own thoughts and ideas and become who you want to become.”

Baseball is a beautiful vessel that helps us teach kids lessons that will last beyond their playing days. As a player, you learn how to grapple with adversity, face your fears with courage, become a part of something greater than yourself, sacrifice for the common good of the group, take ownership and responsibility for your actions, and learn from those who have paved the way for you. It is through this process, just like Garrido said, that we start to become who we are meant to be. If you fail to recognize that baseball is just a game that allows you to do this, you’ll miss out on the most important part. 

Don’t let your ego get attached to the wins and losses. Baseball isn’t who you are – it’s just what you do. 


Coach the Human Being First

“Our job is to make change, connect with people, interact with them in a way that leaves them better than we found them and more able to get where they’d like to go. Every time we waste that opportunity, every page or sentence that doesn’t do enough to advance the cause, is a waste.” – Marc Megna

As coaches we’re constantly searching for that next piece of information that is going to help our kids. We’re looking for drills, cues, and other physical tactics that will help take our coaching to the next level. We experiment with different methods, tools, and use our experiences to refine future training sessions. We spend so much time invested into the physical part of the game and how we can build better athletes – but are we equally invested into the human being in front of us?

For everything we do to help build a better athlete, we cannot forget that we are coaching a human being that has a personality, emotions, feelings, motivations, and drives. We all come from a variety of backgrounds and share unique experiences that mold our interpretations and perspectives. We’re constantly being shaped by our interactions with other people, the challenges we take on, how we perceive shortcomings and success, and what makes us feel fulfilled or unfulfilled. There is nothing more complex in this world than a human being. If we automatically assume we know how to deal with the human portion and jump straight to the athlete, we are terribly mistaken. 

For everything we invest into the physiology side of things, we need to at least equally invest in understanding how humans operate. Each kid we train is going to have a multitude of thoughts, opinions, and is going to perceive things slightly different than us. Some kids will have stronger personalities and others will be more introverted. Some are going to be visual learners while others may be kinesthetic or auditory learners. Trying to coach these types of individuals in a vacuum will not work. There’s a reason why legendary basketball coach John Wooden never treated all of his players the same. If we know that no two kids are ever the same, why would we treat them the same way? How do we know how to treat them differently if we never take the time to work on it?

Our effectiveness as a coach is at the constraint of our ability to understand and relate to the human beings we teach.

Our effectiveness as a coach is at the constraint of our ability to understand and relate to the human beings we teach. If we put the athlete before the human being, we are neglecting the very thing that makes that individual unique. If kids can’t see that we care about them outside of their sport, they’re not going to care much about what we tell them in their sport. You may think that knowing the kid’s name, where he came from, or what he likes to do takes away from your training time, but it’s actually maximizing your ability to influence them. Ken Ravizza – one of the early pioneers in bringing the mental game to baseball – said is best: “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

Blaming the shortcomings of our athletes on their inability to “buy-in” without reflecting on what we could have done better is known as fundamental attribution error. In essence, we shift blame to make ourselves feel better about a situation where our coaching did not help. However, Brett Bartholomew – strength coach and founder of Art of Coaching – explains that buy-in is simply trust plus commitment. If you haven’t given athletes a reason to trust you, they are not going to buy-in no matter how hard you coach them. This is why coaching the human being is so important. If you haven’t taken the time to understand your kids outside of their sport, they’ll have little reason to think you care about them. This erodes trust and will be a huge barrier if you want to have any kind of influence in their career. If they trust you and see that you care about them as a person, they’re going to be committed to you. This is where you can start doing some meaningful stuff as a coach.  

We work in a relationship-driven profession. What you get out of kids is going to largely depend on what you put into them. Just the way you take notes about a training session, it is worth setting aside some time and space where you can jot down things about an athlete that will get you to know them better as a person. You’re not going to have the best relationship with all of them, but making the time to invest in your kids will help all of your relationships improve. When you have great relationships with your kids, you have the ability to bring the most out of them. This is all you can ask for as a coach. 

Below are some tips to help you start doing this. 

  • Know the athlete’s first name

You might have laughed when you read this one, but think about it. How many times have we introduced ourselves to an athlete, asked for their name, and then 15 minutes later we totally forget it? If we’re lucky, they’re wearing their last name on their back and we can bail ourselves out by using “nice work (insert last name)” or “great stuff big guy.” It’s easy to pull out the cliches and hand out some fist bumps, but how often do we reflect and really try to remember someone’s entire name? More specifically, do we even know the first name of our athletes? 

This piece of advice comes straight from Dale Carnegie’s timeless read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie said:

“Most people don’t remember names, for the simple reason that they won’t take the time and energy necessary to concentrate and repeat and fix the names indelibly in their minds. . . We should be aware of the magic contained in a name and realize that this single item is wholly and completely owned by the person whom we are dealing. . . and nobody else.” 

Our name shares a unique connotation that is only recognizable to us. Think about how you’d respond to a request when you hear your name vs. hearing “hey sport/man/guy/etc.” If someone takes the time to remember and use your name when talking to you, it’s going to get your attention and you’re going to be more likely to do what they ask. If they can’t remember something you told them 10 minutes ago, you’re probably not going to think of them the same way. We learn a lot about a person in the first few interactions we have with them. If you want to show someone that you care, call them by their first name. You’d be amazed what a difference it makes. 

“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” – Dale Carnegie

Don’t use a bad memory, a busy schedule, or “I’m really bad with names” as an excuse for why you can’t concentrate and remember someone’s first name. Ask for it, repeat it, and use it as much as possible. Carnegie says it best: “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” 

  • Know their family 

An athlete’s family is the most influential group of people they will ever come into contact with throughout their life. These people are with the athlete all the time and help give them structure, support, encouragement, and an opportunity to live out their dream on the playing field. If you want to build trust early on, it is worth taking the time to build a relationship with their family. If you go out of your way and learn the names of their parents, their occupations, siblings, and their interests, the kid and his parents will notice. Just like names, doing these things requires no talent – only focus, concentration, and a little bit of work. 

I think coaches too commonly point fingers at parents and describe how difficult it is to deal with them. If you want to be effective as a coach, you can’t avoid conversations with parents because you don’t like to deal with them. If you aren’t able to talk to parents, genuinely listen to them, and explain the what, why, and how behind your training, they have no reason to trust you with their kid. Any parent out there is willing to die for their kid. They’re not involved in their careers because they want to sabotage them – they want the very best for them. If you don’t understand the importance of interacting with parents and understanding their wants, desires, and concerns, you’re not going to keep the kid around. 

Parents can be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Show them that they’re very important to you and they’ll do the same to you. It’s not always going to be perfect, but they will respect you if you make the effort to hear them out. Their kid will notice too. 

  • Know what their interests are outside of sports

You only see kids for a small portion of the day as coaches. There’s a lot that goes on outside the playing field that is very important to that athlete. This includes other sports, hobbies, school, music, and other ways they like to spend their free time. Some kids may love to play video games or pull out a favorite Netflix show after school. Others may like to crack a book or journal about the day. Some kids are huge sports fans and can rattle off the starting lineup for their favorite baseball team. Other kids may be more inclined to go out and play pick up sports instead of watching them. Finding something they really enjoy gives you the opportunity to get them to open up. The more they talk, the more comfortable they start to become around you. 

Knowing their extracurricular involvement can also give you some leverage when finding ways to come up with language that sticks. Instead of telling a kid what a good ready position looks like, tell him to guard someone in basketball. This is what Brett Bartholomew describes in his book Conscious Coaching as talking in color. Instead of just telling kids what to do, explain it to them using language that they would understand. Having a hitter who can’t pick up the ball with two eyes? Tell them to watch their favorite TV show on a big screen in center field. Can’t figure out how to fix a flailing glove side? Tell the kid to use his glove arm as his scope just like he’d use it in Fortnite. There is no right or wrong answer for the messages you create to help things stick. The more creative the better. 

Knowing kids outside of their sport gives you the ability to open communication lines that will help further your effectiveness as a coach. Don’t miss out on these opportunities.  

  • Find things that you can relate to

This one works with the last point of getting to know kids outside of their sport, but I thought it was worth explaining this one on its own for a few reasons. For one, being able to relate to a kid is much more powerful than just knowing something about a kid. Having a commonality in terms of interest or experience is a great way to start a conversation, break down a problem, and collaborate to find the best solution. This is a big reason why a lot of good coaches played the sport they coach growing up. They know first hand the highs and lows from playing, the challenges you’ll face, the solutions they tried, and things that other teammates have tried as well. Instead of just telling kids what to do, they can share their own experiences and make it a much more collaborative environment. 

Finding things to relate to is also going to help build trust. You make yourself more human by sharing with kids your love for video games, basketball, or reading. Kids want to be able to talk about things outside of their sport and share experiences with you. If you can open up these communication channels with kids, you give yourself the ability to reach them on a much deeper level. If you have a superficial understanding of the human being you’re dealing with, your influence will only go so far.  

  • Ask for their input

One of the most important things you can do as a coach is involve your athletes in their training process. One of the best ways you can do this is by asking a simple question: “What do you feel?” Instead of just talking the kid’s ear off, you’re inviting him to do the talking and offer feedback. By getting your athletes to open up and offer their thoughts, you give yourself the ability to understand where they’re coming from, what they’re focusing on, what’s clicking, and what doesn’t make sense. Asking how they feel doesn’t get you any of this and usually gets you the answer “good.”

As you get the athlete to talk more, you start to understand their language. You get a feel for the cues and words they use to create specific moves. Some guys may just see the ball and smash it. Other guys may need to think about being smooth or trying to stay on the ball longer. Telling a kid to keep his eye on the ball (as if they were trying to hit blindfolded) is not as valuable as having a kid tell you he’s trying to see it on to the bat longer. When you can speak their language, your connection and influence becomes much more effective. 

The answers you seek are the right questions away. Get kids to open up about their training, listen to them, and use their feedback to help improve your ability to collaborate and solve problems. Make them feel heard and get them involved in their training process. It’s their career – not yours. 

  • Keep track of important events

All of our kids have important and exciting things going on off the field. Ask about them, keep track of them, and follow up about them. This could be anything from a birthday, band concert, family vacation, basketball game, a big test, or a college visit. If it’s important to them, it should be important to you. Be a part of their life and show them that you’re excited about the things that are important to them. It’ll mean more to them than it will ever mean to you. 

  • Show vulnerability

We’re not perfect as coaches. We have faults, shortcomings, and we fear the same things our kids do. We’ve all faced obstacles, adversity, and been in situations where we’ve doubted our ability to teach and lead. At the same time, we’re a mentor to kids who all have “stuff” going on in their lives. This could be anything from issues at home, problems in school, breaking up with their significant other, lacking confidence in their abilities, or trying to juggle a job with training, school, and playing their sport. Kids aren’t looking for a perfect leader – they’re looking for someone that can be on the same level with them. They want to relate to someone who’s felt pain and who’s been in the same situations that they have. They don’t need a leader with a bulletproof vest – they need a leader who’s willing to take off the armor and be vulnerable

“Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.” – Brené Brown

Brené Brown, researcher and bestselling author, talked about the importance of being vulnerable in her book Daring Greatly. She said, “You can’t get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability. . . Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.” Brown defines vulnerability as, “The emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Moments where we may feel vulnerable as a coach include bringing up parts of our past that we’re not proud of, admitting we were wrong about something, benching your star player because he violated team rules, relieving a good friend on your staff, or telling a player he can no longer be a part of our program. All of these moments challenge us to make a lonely decision. Facing these situations head on requires courage that we can only access by being vulnerable.

Showing vulnerability is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of strength. It is a difficult thing to stand out in the crowd and make decisions that put you in the open. If you want to lead and be a mentor to young men and women, you can’t hide from these moments. “Embrace the suck” and be present when everything is going wrong. If we’re going to see our kids on some of their worst days, we need to be visible on ours. Being a great coach doesn’t require perfection, but it does demand authenticity. You can’t maximize your influence if kids can’t see who you really are. Brown said it best: “We need to trust to be vulnerable, and we need to be vulnerable to trust.” 

Theodore Roosevelt described the need to be vulnerable in “The Man in the Arena.” It reads:

“The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt, image source

Don’t run away from moments that challenge us. Be present, be transparent, and be vulnerable – your kids need it. 

  • Keep it real 

Kids don’t need wishy washy motivational speeches, sandwiched criticism, or for you to tell them it’s alright when it’s really not. They need you to be real with them. They need a mentor who’s not afraid to say the things they need to hear. Shielding kids from the truth because you’re afraid it will hurt them is not helping them. Brené Brown says it best: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.

In the Art of Coaching podcast Episode 38, Michael Boyle – owner of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning – brought up the sad reality that we live in a consumer based culture where people will lie to get in your pockets. We have coaches and programs up the ass that are destined to add 10 mph to your fastball or get you into the Division I school of your dreams. We have plenty of people who are more than willing to share their greatest success stories and paint them through social media channels that only show you the good stuff. As a result, we’re blinded to the moments that aren’t so glamorous. 

The large majority of the athletes we train are never going to make it professionally. We’re going to work with some athletes who regress with us. If you’re not able to recollect a time where you made an athlete worse, you’re lying to yourself. Kids don’t need a coach who can guarantee them something that they simply can’t promise. They need someone who’s going to keep it real with them. We can’t make promises we can’t afford to keep. We can’t let a kid think he’s Division I material when he can’t hit 82 on a good day. We can’t lie to kids because it will make them feel better. We’re only hurting them in the long run.

If there’s anything we can guarantee kids throughout this process, we can guarantee them honesty with themselves. If they show up every day, work their ass off, and exhaust every resource possible to become the best version of themselves on a daily basis, you have the privilege of looking yourself in the mirror without remorse. In essence, you’ve achieved John Wooden’s definition of success: “Success is a peace of mind which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”  

John Wooden’s definition of success, image source

Be the mentor that your kids need and tell them what they need to hear. If you keep it real with them, they’ll always respect you for it – even if they don’t like it now.