5 Essential Lessons Coaches Learned in 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone. Fear, civic unrest, and professional uncertainty have made this a year to remember. On top of it all, one of the most tried-and-true ways to de-stress – sports – have been significantly interrupted.

It has been a trying time for athletes, coaches, and parents. It seems that the metaphorical goal post keeps shifting… at first masks were not advised, then they were. Infection rates went down in the summer only to rise again. Regulations have evolved with increased understanding of COVID-19 and so have guidelines for participation in athletics.

As unsettling as it may seem, we should all come out of this situation in a better place. If we were paying attention, we should have learned 5 essential lessons this year.

Lesson One: Adaptability

If you did anything this year – practice, training sessions, or Zoom meetings – you had to adapt. There was no template for this, no script to follow. “Status quo” went out the window. There were new regulations everywhere and if you accomplished anything, you must have adapted. That’s a good thing. Growth, evolution, and adaptation are nearly synonymous.

Not only are coaches regularly called upon to adapt on the fly (halftime adjustments, roster swaps, errant weather), but many of our structures should have been shaken up long ago. We regularly hear stories of coaches becoming entrenched in their ways. Strategies that worked in the 80s heralded as “the way,” or the archaic “back in my day” sentiments were challenged in new and necessary ways.

Do we really need to spend 7 days in the office? Is 6:30am practice the best way to train an adolescent?

Coaches, we have to adapt, evolve, and grow – hopefully this year gave us an opportunity to practice those skills.

Intentional and Accidental directions. Opposite traffic sign.

Lesson Two: Intentionality

Coaches have had to be more intentional than ever before. We have had to become more thoughtful, more mindful of every decision. Where sports are allowed, each step of a team gathering had to be considered. Practice plans have been amended, training programs cropped, and expectations changed to meet the evolving standards. There is no more winging it; there is no more crafting on the fly. We have to adapt and improvise, of course, but we do so around firm anchors which are determined by three important questions:

What are our intended outcomes/goals?

– We have to clearly identify the skill sets, techniques, and physical training outcomes we want our athletes to obtain.

How will we best accomplish these goals?

– We have to clearly identify the drills, necessary equipment, amount of space it will take to achieve our outcome goals.

What adjustments have to be made to abide by COVID guidelines?

– We have to be meticulous in our consideration of spacing, air quality (masks, outdoor/indoor ventilation), limiting shared equipment, and regular cleaning routines.

Being forced into a new level of intentionality is something we hope all coaches have benefitted from.

Lesson Three: Humility

As coaches, we were thoughtful about adhering to the COVID-19 guidelines. Adaptability and intentionality were necessary factors in that process – if coaches have been working thoughtfully through the pandemic, there is a good chance they will come out well-prepared on the other side.

Still, we have heard countless stories of athletes carpooling to and from these well-considered practices. While they are on the field they are masked up and spaced out, but when they leave them grab Jimmy John’s and eat together in someone’s basement. While we can advise against that sort of behavior, we cannot ultimately control it.

That lack of control brings to light the third lesson learned: in addition to adaptability and intentionality, we need humility.

We can control how we prepare and we can control how we respond, but there is plenty that is outside of our control. If we accept that and move mindfully forward, then the future – though it may be difficult to imagine – will most certainly be bright.

Lesson Four: Grit

In our professional development workshops, coaches often look for advice on how to build a grittier team. They want their athletes to demonstrate toughness and give more effort. Intense pursuit of that abstract notion, try harder, can lead many coaches to burn out, especially during quarantine…

Importantly, Angela Duckworth (professor at U. Penn and author of the book Grit) has taken an abstract concept and provided us with a usable definition: Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007).

Coaches have been working hard to re-identify the interests of their group (after all, motivation has changed in the at-home setting). It is important to ask athletes what they want and what they like – oftentimes they must investigate beyond the sport – and listen to their feedback with genuine interest. If a coach regularly imposes their own ideals on a team, then that team is less likely to display grit. Though it is not impossible, it is harder to display grit in pursuit of someone else’s interests.

After all, to motivate someone to do anything, you first have to align with their motives.

Communicating with athletes to identify their wants and needs, their struggles and motives, is essential to building grit – and it is hopefully a strategy coaches have been adding to their toolkits.

Lesson Five: Gratitude

Look around. You’re here. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives this year. Hundreds of thousands more are out of work. 2020 has been hard.

But you’re here. If only through by way of comparative perspective, simply being here is good, and recognizing that opportunity is a meaningful step. Gratitude is not about gaining, succeeding, and reveling in what one has – it is about cultivating an appreciation for whatever one has. Often times, we find that what we have is enough. And when it’s not enough, it’s a starting point (and better than many alternatives).

The venerable Walt Whitman, while recognizing value amid chaos and turmoil, advised us to remember “That you are here – that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

If you’ve made it here to 2021, be grateful.

And if you learned each of these 5 important lessons, you also have the chance to be great.


CLICK HERE to schedule a goal-setting workshop for yourself or your team!