Sports Information Director and Head Field Hockey Coach Bobbi Moran writes about what she has learned as a coach by handing over the whistle to her players and watching them take the lead.
Handing over the reigns of a team is challenging for me. Perhaps it is part of being a coach that I like to have control, but I have come to realize over the years that I can only teach so much through instruction. Eventually I have to take a giant step back and see if everything I am talking about is making sense to my athletes. So I have developed a technique that flips the tables and puts the kids in the driver's seat for a bit: I hand over the whistle to my athletes.
This approach is especially helpful during a practice session when some of my players are getting frustrated and I am having trouble getting my point across. Changing the lens can help me see things more clearly and helps my athletes refocus as well. Sometimes it is a great opportunity for me to gain perspective on what my players are seeing while they are on the field. I hear from them more directly on who is moving where and when, who needs to get open, who is always open, and what we could do to create more opportunities. I love the experience.
When I give my athletes the whistle, I usually stand beside them, listen, and watch. More often than not, I learn as well.
Many times players are afraid to tell their teammates what to do and when, but we have a team philosophy about accountability. Being on our team means learning to hold yourself and your teammates accountable. To this end the girls also understand what I like to call "T & D," better known as "Tone & Delivery." This means that any player on the team is allowed to make a comment to a teammate or a coach as long as it is done so with the proper tone and in a respectful manner. I think it is imperative that my right wing be able to ask to have the ball passed ahead of her so that she can run onto it, while the left wing wants the ball sent to her right heel so that she does not have to use a reverse stick to receive it. Each player has the right to ask for what she needs and should expect her teammate to deliver, and if the teammate does not deliver, the player is within her right to instruct a teammate on exactly what she expects as long as it is conveyed with respect.
I have learned over the years that, at some point during a game, my voice will get drowned out, and what I really want my players to do is communicate with one another, problem-solve, and think for themselves instead of looking to me to make the call.
Wearing the whistle is a chance for the student athlete who is not as vocal to have a voice, gain confidence, and be in control. This can be a daunting situation when the whistle first goes around someone's neck, but after a while, with a bit of coaxing on my part, the players begin to relish the opportunity and start to ask for the whistle. It is such a treat for me to watch a young person's confidence grow as they simultaneously learn to ask for what they want.
At my field hockey camp on campus last week, I gave the athletes the whistle as they subbed off the field. Each girl had a chance to stand on the sideline of the game and wear the whistle while coaching her teammates during scrimmages. This meant she had to be fully engaged in what was happening on the field. She had to give instructions, own her calls, and consider who was going to move where, when, and how while being responsible for her calls and able to defend her decisions. Only the girl wearing the whistle could instruct; the others had to wait their turn. This was excruciating for the shy kids who were insecure, so I waited for the last couple of sessions of camp to start the activity. The results were amazing. I watched the girls really own their game.
When I put the whistle around one young lady's neck and she looked at me with terror in her eyes, I whispered to her, "Fake it til you make it. That's my mantra." She looked at me like I was pulling her leg. I said, "Really, sometimes you just have to talk like you know what you are saying and everyone will believe you. Give it a try."
She smiled reluctantly and took the whistle. I walked alongside her and asked her what she thought the team should do. She told me, and I told her to tell the team. At first her voice was no more than a whisper, so I encouraged her to speak up. She said a couple of things and recoiled. But the girls listened and had success, and I watched her stand a little taller. "Great call!" I told her, "Well done!" She smiled and then made another call, then another, until finally her turn was done. She took the whistle off from around her neck and beamed. I was incredibly proud of her, and I know she felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
I received an email from the girl's mom at the end of camp. She told me that her daughter had been terrified about coming to camp because she was unsure of herself, but that over the course of the week her confidence grew. When she came home at the end of camp, her mom was thrilled to see her excited about playing and talking about how she had coached the girls all by herself on the field. The young lady's mom was so happy to see her daughter's budding self-confidence, and I was thrilled to hear that she was still seeing herself as a leader.
When I was just starting out, I thought that coaching was all about being in control. These days I realize that, if I do my job correctly, when the game starts, the power lies in the hands of my players and how they relate to one another. If I have done my job correctly, then I have prepared them for this moment as well as I can, and the rest is out of my hands. What a great feeling that is: to know that they are ready, willing, and able to handle whatever comes their way.