I’ve been a Special Olympics North Dakota coach for 32 years. In that time, I’ve had the opportunity to coach athletes in snowshoe, cross-country skiing, bowling, basketball, volleyball, powerlifting, swimming, soccer (football) and athletics.
I feel the best way to create a positive team environment is to find that common thread that everyone connects with - that one thing that everyone has an opinion or feeling about. For example, I coached a team where the athletes were very interested in superheroes. Early on in our season, we played a fun game using the athletes’ names to come up with some pretty cool superhero aliases and super powers. For example, Invisible Ninja’s super powers included the ability to steal the ball from the opponent without them even knowing she was there. Captain Freeze's power was he was as cold as ice when it came to shooting free throws and Professor Storm stirred everything up out on the court. Throughout the season, whether in practices or games, there were opportunities to use these analogies to spur on better performances, have some laughs, handle stressful situations and bond around our “secret identities.”
One thing we talk about at the beginning of each sports season is that fitness is more than just being able to run up and down the basketball court or play in a volleyball match. It’s about being able to do activities “after” you’ve played that game or run that race. I like to stress that being fit means you can give 100% on the competition field and still have enough energy to enjoy yourself afterwards. A great example is my snowshoe athletes who competed all day at the Special Olympics North Dakota Winter Games at the snow oval racetrack. In the evening, they had the opportunity to go tubing. They chose to go back outside and partake in a couple of hours of tubing up and down the tubing hills. This experience was possible due to the level of fitness each athlete had obtained.
Helping athletes handle stress is another big part of coaching. To me, stress comes in two different forms. There is the everyday stressor which includes things like work, home, finances and COVID-19. I tell my athletes that exercising in any form (walking, running, riding a bike, swimming, etc.) is a good way to relieve a lot of those anxious feelings.
The second stressor I see with a lot of athletes is performance stress. That feeling of “If I don’t win a medal, I am not good enough.” For some, it is even as drastic as “If I don’t win a gold medal, I am a failure.” I have seen these type of self-expectations actually cause some athletes to shut down and be afraid to attempt to compete. I even had one athlete say to me “If I don’t race, I won’t lose.” I think it is a coach’s responsibility to challenge their athlete to do the very best that they can without implying that success only comes with winning a medal. That is hard because medals mean everything to many athletes. A coach needs to establish a culture where success is celebrated by things other than just the award at the end of a performance. If you as a coach have a good foundation with your athletes, you can help them build an attitude of success based on all the parts (practices, travel, meetings, meals and games) of being on a team. That way in the end, whether they win a medal, have a personal best performance or they give it their ultimate best effort, they will feel a sense of accomplishment and be happy with the outcome of their season.
There are so many great things about sport that translate off the field of play. A positive self-image can do amazing things for every aspect of a person’s life. In the world of sport, a blend of learning skills and getting encouragement can build the confidence of every athlete. As a coach, knowing how to teach to the ability level of your athletes and then positively reinforcing their skills not only builds their belief in themselves but it also helps promote the main ingredient for success, which is the outward portrayal of confidence.
Being a part of a group or team with a common goal has helped many athletes who I have coached build successful friendships on and off the field of play. These relationships include teammates and rival team players, fans and officials. To see this in action, just observe the instant recognition and hearty greetings exchanged at district, state and national events by the athletes who have meet up with friends from other cities and states.