In the wake of another school tragedy, my heart breaks for those involved, and my awareness of what could happen in my own school is heightened. I find myself on the outside looking in, but realize I could be on the inside, at any moment, on any given day. This makes me ask the question, what can I do so this doesn’t happen at my school or for that matter at your school. I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I would like to suggest how we, as coaches, can do our part to help our students, schools, families, and communities avoid another tragedy and in some cases heal and be strengthened after a tragedy.
The Power of the Coach
As coaches, we hold a great power that many don’t have, not the teachers, not the administrators, and many times not even the parents of the athletes we stand in front of each day. We have the power to shape the minds and attitudes of our athletes. We can plant a seed, start a conversation, and use our voice to speak to our athletes and effect change as no one else can. Reverend Billy Graham's quote rings true in my mind as I write this, "A coach will impact more people in one year than the average person will in a lifetime." I believe this to be true.
If you aren’t sure your voice matters please take a second to think about where else someone holds a captive audience of different backgrounds with similar interests, goals, and aspirations on a regular basis. It’s not in the classroom. It’s not on social media. It’s not in the stands of a sporting event. All of these places have some, but none of them have all of the things a coach has when he or she steps in front of their athletes. Your voice can and should shape the conversation, encouraging a change for action, no matter how small the action may be.
Our Voice, Platform Must Be Used
Recognize that your voice carries weight, your platform has merit and your athletes will listen and respond. When a coach makes a suggestion or emphasizes a point athletes take it to heart and think about it more than when a teacher, parent, or administrator says the same thing. I don't want to diminish the importance of teachers, parents, or administrator - I am two of the three - but a coach can hold the attention of an athlete in a different, more focused way much of the time.
As coaches, we decided to apply and take our position and the platform that came with it. We knew our voices would be heard and actions examined at all times. Our athletes didn’t decide to have a platform, it was given to them. We live in a day and age where the sports culture has power, a lot of power. Each time I see an article that questions why we care about what a professional athlete has to say I think to myself it’s because we, as a society, have given them this voice and power by placing them on such high pedestals.
It’s not just professional athletes who can be heard though. College, high school, and middle school athletes all have a voice as well. The platform is given to them on a smaller scale, but the platform still exists. Look in the stands and you’ll see people who have come to watch them play. Fellow students, parents and community members share and comment on social media posts about the wins and losses, news reporters write about, take pictures of, and create videos for their audiences to see. People pay attention to athletes no matter how big or small the school.
Our athletes need to know that they have the power to help shape the attitudes of their classmates, teammates, school and community, just as we, as coaches, have the power to help shape the minds and attitudes of our athletes. My challenge to all coaches is to show your athletes how to be a positive influence with the platform and voice they’ve been given.
Ways to Empower Your Athletes To Be Influencers
First, teach your athletes that the number one thing people want in life is to belong. Students who don’t feel like they belong to something isolate themselves. Isolation can lead to believing life has no value. This is a lie that should not and cannot be believed.
- Explain to your athletes that they belong to something bigger by being a part of a team.
- Help them recognize that not everyone belongs to something bigger and when they include others they can change this.
- Teach your players that all people have value. Coaches do this with their team already. They get buy-in from the best player to the last man on the bench. All team members have value. Teach your players that all people have value as well.
- Demonstrate and talk to them about saying, “Hi and thank you.” Teach them to introduce themselves, hold a door for someone, help another student, give a younger kid a high five. All these things, no matter how small, allow others to identify with the team and feel a sense of belonging.
- Ask them to step back and look around to see where they can help someone feel more comfortable. We coach our athletes to be a positive part of the team so the team has the best chance of success. Coach your athletes that this is true in life. The more they help others the more success they will find in life.
Second, begin to talk to your athletes about the influence they have on others. Tell your players that by being an athlete they are looked up to by others. The team doesn’t have to be undefeated and the player doesn’t have to be a starter on the team to have influence. The fact that they are on the team gives them a greater influence than most other students.
Third, give your athletes ways to be influential. As coaches, we work hard to put our teams in situations to find success within our sport. Make sure you are putting your athletes in situations to find success off the court as well. The activities your team is a part of off the court is where an athlete's influence will be seen and felt the most.
- Start conversations in team meetings about things bigger than your sport. Then ask for opinions and help point out where a person’s influence was or could have been used.
- Ask them to find someone who is standing or sitting alone and introduce themselves.
- Encourage them to be a part of things outside of their sport.
- Ask them to speak up and invite someone to be a part of their group in class, in the lunchroom, or at an event.
- Challenge them to use their voice when they see someone being mistreated or if something is wrong.
- Talk to them about posting and sharing positive messages on social media and to stay away from negative messages that can be hurtful.
- Have your team be a part of a school fundraiser for victims or an awareness project at the school.
- Get your athletes involved in the youth sports programs so they can use their voices to teach the game and interact with the younger kids.
- Create a culture where your team holds each other accountable and where the team has a voice that is recognized. They will be more likely to have a voice outside of the team because of this.
- Model and teach your players that words can lift up and tear down another person. The moment they lift a person up they will have just gained a fan and a friend. The moment they tear down, joke, or tease someone they’ve closed a door that is hard to reopen and they’ve created someone who is against them.
Fourth, praise and recognize your athletes when they use their influence in a positive way. Everyone loves to hear their name spoken in a positive way. Affirm your athletes and let them feel the satisfaction of hearing their name for the positive things they are doing off the court. Coaches often point out who played well in a game, who scored the most points, or who made a key play. Do this with the things your athletes do off the court as well. Whether you do this privately or publicly depends on the athlete, just be sure to speak their name and recognize them.
Will This Solve the Problem?
I can't say another tragedy won't happen, but I can say with more coaches and athletes positively influencing and connecting with others in their school the less likely a tragedy is to happen.
Coaches have the power to unleash a small army of positive influencers who can make positive noise right away, without having to wait for the next meeting, legislative action, or unfortunate event to happen in order for change to occur in every school and community across the nation. There will need to be more discussion on school safety, gun policies, parenting, and mental health, but for now, we can effect change by using our voice and platform to empower our athletes to make a positive difference right where they are.