What influences your coaching? – Part 1

As a coach you are continuously executing coaching actions, communicating verbally and non-verbally, making decisions and executing these decisions. Your coaching actions are influenced by your leadership style as discussed in the post Coaching vs Leading. If you want to improve your coaching you also need to improve the quality of leading and your leadership style. In order to do this you need self-awareness in order to see what it is you need to improve or change to become a better leader and coach. But what is it that you have to become self-aware about? Or in other words, what influences your coaching actions? This post is part 1, so don’t worry if you don’t find everything that you think influence your coaching actions, it may turn up in part 2. However, feel free to leave a comment with what you think influences your coaching actions.

Now, imagine that you are coaching a game and there’s a throw-in for the opposing team at their bench. You look over to your side and notice the opposition coach waving his arms and talking to all the players that are close to him before turning around and seemingly exchanging words with everyone on the bench in the seconds after the throw-in has been taken. While you are executing your coaching actions calmly with clear instructions through verbal and non-verbal communication the opposing coach continues with the bigger gestures and talking to ’everyone’. What is it that makes the two of you who are doing the same job and both executing coaching actions with the same objective of winning the game, behave so differently?

Maybe you have the trait of an introvert personality while the opposing coach is an extrovert. Where the extrovert may be continuously talking to ’everyone’, using bigger gestures and enjoying the spotlight these things are less natural for an introvert. Whatever you might think of the opposing coach who is waving his arms and always talking, if this coach is also an extrovert the fact is that this behavior will energize the coach and possibly influence his coaching actions in a positive way. However, if the coach is an introvert and only acting like an extrovert the opposite will be true with a decreasing energy level and most probably a negative effect on the quality of coaching actions.

The difference between you and the opposing coach could also be because of your cultural differences. During your childhood and upbringing you are influenced by the values and beliefs of the people around you. This cultural influence will help form you into the person and coach you are today. Perhaps the opposing coach is from a culture where the big gestures and emotional behavior have been learned and maybe even expected. On the other hand you may have been raised in a more reserved culture where the values and beliefs have formed you into a coach who behaves in a different way. Regardless of what your values and beliefs are, they will influence your coaching actions.

Thinking back to the throw-in when you noticed the opposing coach waving his arms, are you certain that it was a deliberate action? What if the coach is unaware of this big gesturing and is only doing it because it’s a habit his former coach had when he was a player? The opposing coach might only be carrying on the habits of his former coach without even knowing it. You on the other hand may have different habits that with or without you knowing it influences your coaching actions every day.

The different examples above of personality traits, values, beliefs and habits are all part of your personality. This means that your personality will influence how you execute your coaching actions. Your underlying traits, values, beliefs and habits will influence how you communicate to your players and staff both verbally and non-verbally. When making decisions you will be influenced by your personality even though you might not be aware of it. If you want to improve your leadership style and the influence on your coaching actions, start by becoming self-aware of your own personality.


Coaching vs Leading

What is Leading in Football and where does it come in to play in relation to coaching? Being a coach in football means that you are in the overarching role, or profession, of the football coach. It does not matter if you are working full-time, part-time or if you are coaching a team without receiving any compensation, you are per definition a football coach. Every football coach is leading players and some are also leading other coaches. Some coaches are leading more often and more people than other coaches and some are better leaders than others, but everyone is leading. Every football coach is coaching and their leading, or leadership style, will influence how they coach.

The leadership style of the coach is often strongly related to their underlying personality, the person who is in the role of the coach. Think back to when you where playing and how you perceived the leading and coaching of your coaches. Don’t worry if you find it easier to come up with more examples of poor leading and coaching than good. You might have experienced a coach that ordered you around on and off the pitch and always told you what to do. Maybe you have spent hour after hour running in the woods and in the gym to become ’fit’ instead of being on the pitch training football. If that is the case you have been coached based on the personality of the coach instead of the context and characteristics of the game.

Being coached based on the personality of the coach is a problem because the context should always be the starting point. In football you have to train players to make decisions since the influence of the coach when the game starts is relatively small. As a coach in football it’s impossible to make all the decisions for your players which is why football is a players sport and not a coach sport as for example baseball. Therefore football players must be trained like artists with freedom to make decisions and not like soldiers following orders. Coaching based on personality becomes even worse if coaches do not know themselves. If that is the case their coaching is influenced by their unknown personality that carries unknown consequences.

For coaches that are leading based on their personality instead of the context and characteristics of the game the solution is simple. The starting point of your coaching and leading should always be the characteristics of football since this is the context which you and your players are within. However, many coaches that are leading based on their personality lack self-awareness which means that they are not aware of how their coaching and leading is negatively influenced by their negative traits and habits. Naturally this problem is difficult for these coaches to discover and they may be in need of assistance to see themselves and their (negative) traits and habits.

To improve your quality of leading and your leadership style you need to attain a level of self-awareness that make you aware of your current traits and habits. When the quality of your leading improves, the how of your coaching will do the same and you will become a better coach.

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Track your development

When you are a coach you are constantly looking to improve yourself to become a better leader and coach. You want to execute better leading when interacting with your staff and players every day so that you can improve football together and increase the chance of winning games. Better leading means that your verbal and non-verbal communication, your decision making and your execution of these leading actions improve. When the quality of your communication with the surroundings go up you are executing better leading. The same is true for when your decisions is of a higher quality, the consequence will be that your leading improves and you are executing better leading actions. To improve as a leader you need to execute better leading actions which in turn means that you need to improve the quality of your communication, decision making and execution.

There are different ways of improving the quality of your communication, decision making and execution of leading. For example you attend coaching courses that hopefully give you more theoretical knowledge that you can apply when communicating with your players and making decisions both on and off the pitch. You spend several days together with other coaches and exchange ideas and experiences that can be of great use for your application of leading and coaching at your club. Maybe you spend time reading books and blogs on different topics with the aim of improving the quality of your communication and decision making. And most importantly you are probably out on the pitch, in the dressing room, at the office and practicing the execution of leading actions every day. All of these activities will contribute to you executing better leading, but are you improving the quality as much as possible or could you actually improve the quality even more?

In your personal development process of going to courses, reading books and practicing your leading every day, are you sure that you are maximizing the learning effect? Perhaps it could be a good idea to implement a quality control system that helps you track your development and make sure you maximize your learning. Think back to when you did your last coaching course, do you remember all the different topics that were discussed? What was that thing you said you learned from that book you read last year? Remember that situation after training last month that you said to yourself you had to learn from and not make the same mistake again? No? It’s not easy to remember and if you don’t well, then you probably haven’t really learned.

One way of implementing a quality control system that will help you track your development is to start journalling. Keeping a journal can be done in many different ways and you have to find a method that suits you. The most important thing is to do it with some regularity since that gives you the opportunity to revisit the events that you have encountered which in turn will increase the learning effect. Imagine that before you go to bed you think back and reflect upon the events that has happened during the day and write down the learning points in your journal. What did you learn today that will improve the quality of your verbal and non-verbal communication? What have you learned today that will improve your decision making tomorrow? How did your staff and players react to the execution of your leading actions today?

Whatever way you chose to journal, if it’s by structuring different learning points in categories or writing down a general summary of the day, you decide and chose the method that suits you best. What’s important is to revisit your old entries to make sure that you’ve actually learned. For example you could spend an hour or two every other month to go back and read your entries from the last period, visualize the situations and what you learned. Maybe you can take more time once every quarter to both re-read and visualize situations in addition to summarizing the period in overlying learning points. When the season ends you can spend a day of looking through your journal, reflecting on the situations and what you’ve learned from them. You then have a possibility to summarize the year in great detail and make sure that you can take the next step in you development as a leader and coach. Every time you bring the situations back to life through visualization your learning effect increases and as a bonus you track your development and see all the things that you have learned.

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Improving verbal communication

One of the major components of leading in football is communication. If you as a coach have a clear reference for your communication and take the game and the action that takes place within it as a starting point, the chance that everyone understands you increases. In the posts Being a role model and Leading by example the importance of what your body language, behavior and actions communicate to your players and staff was highlighted with some examples. The importance of verbal communication to players and staff where highlighted in the posts How do you communicate with your players and How do you communicate with your staff. In these posts some suggestions for practical application like  using a common (football) language and defining words and the terminology that is used are made. Doing this together with the players and staff regularly will increase the chance that everyone understands what you are talking about. However, even though you have done this there might still be room to improve your communication.

When you want to improve as a coach and execute better leading, one integral part is to increase the quality of your verbal communication with your surroundings. Imagine that you come to the office and are leading your staff through a short meeting. When you leave you do so with a feeling of certainty that everyone on your staff knows what to do next. Even better, when some of your staff leaves the meeting you overhear a comment that confirms that they really got it and feel motivated to work. One of the consequences of a higher quality in verbal communication is that your time spent in meetings will decrease. However, it can of course also improve your relationship with your staff, players and external stakeholders in an array of different ways. But how do you improve the quality of your verbal communication?

The first step is to increase your level of your self-awareness of verbal communication, meaning that you have to get an idea of the what and how of your current level of verbal communication. The What being the knowledge and content that you are communicating and the How being your application of your knowledge verbally. Maybe your theoretical knowledge of verbal communication and your content is very good and it’s your application that need improving. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, that you need to acquire the theoretical knowledge or improve the content that you are delivering verbally. But how do you know what it is you need to improve, or in different words, how do you increase your self-awareness of verbal communication?

There are several different ways to reach a higher level of self-awareness when it comes to your verbal communication. One is to reflect on what you say, how you say it and what the response of the person or persons your are communicating with is. You do this by taking notes of your verbal interactions during the day and take time to reflect and summarize your reflections into learning points and/or action points before going to bed. You can also ask the people that you are verbally interacting with to give you feedback in different ways. Maybe you have a mentor or someone you trust in the club or on your staff that you ask for immediate feedback after for example a team meeting or press conference. Another way of receiving feedback from the people you interact with is to use a questionnaire that can easily be distributed and answered anonymously online. Both of these methods have their advantages and will help you raise your self-awareness of your verbal communication. However, there is a third method that is probably the most effective one of them all.

You should, if practically possible, film your verbal interactions as often as possible to review yourself afterwards. Ideally you should also have two angles, one of yourself and one of the person(s) you are interacting with. That way it is possible for you to see the effect of your words on the receivers of your communication in realtime. Now, this ideal situation is of course very difficult for most to achieve, but something almost everyone can arrange is filming of a lecture, press conference, team meeting, staff meeting and even one on ones with staff and players. Maybe you are thinking that it’s a crazy  idea to film a ’personal conversation’ with a staff member or player. However, if you explain the reason for doing so, most staff and players would probably say yes given that the nature of the conversation is not perceived as a threatening or difficult for the participant.

Seeing yourself on video is as real as you can get it and something that will raise your level of self-awareness to another level. Use your newly found knowledge about yourself to identify what it is you need to improve and act on it.

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How do you know you’re doing a good job?

When you’re in the everyday of your coaching you are working hard and doing everything you can to help your players improve and your team to win games day in and day out. Sometimes it’s difficult to judge the quality of your efforts objectively and you know that if your team wins on Sunday ’everyone’ is happy anyway. You get pats on the back from fans and people surrounding the club that serves as a recognition of a job well done. That might feel good at the moment, but imagine that you know that the only reason you won on Sunday was luck. Your opponent weren’t able to score on their ten chances and you scored on the wrongly appointed penalty shot. Now, on your way home from the game you might ask yourself the question ’am I really doing a good job or am I just lucky?’. By the way, if you are asking yourself this question, congratulations, it means that you are reflecting upon your practice as a coach which in turn means that you probably are or have the chance to develop into, a good coach and leader.

You know that you keep a high standard for yourself when it comes to the coaching and leading of your team. Your standards are probably higher than the ones for everyone else around you, at least that might be your perception. However, in your daily work it may be difficult to know if you are really keeping yourself to your own high standards all the time. But that not the worst thing, there is actually one thing that is worse than not knowing how you are doing. It could be that the other coaches you are working with don’t regard your perceived high standards as high standards for them. That seams strange right? High standards are high standards right? Not necessarily.

The expectations from those you lead, and their standards, might differ from yours for different reasons. Maybe the club culture has installed a certain set of standards for coaching and leading that the coaches in your staff has become accustomed to and follow. It could also be that since the coaches you are leading have a different personal background they may interpret things in a different way. That can make what you think of as a high standard be something that they don’t understand or it may be so uncomfortably different for them that it doesn’t register on their scales of standards. Regardless of the reason for a perceived difference in standards, you need to know that there are differences and that your high standards may need a revision. Now the question becomes, how can you find out what the other coaches standards are and if you as a leader are doing a good job?

Ask them. Sit down with your coaches and ask them if you are performing up to their standards in different areas of your leading and coaching. Are their expectations of you as their leader in different areas being met? Don’t panic if there are differences in perception, think of it as a good thing that you get to know what they expect from you and how they perceive your actions in correlation to your high standards. A difference in perception is the perfect opportunity for a learning experience for both parties. For you as their leader you get to see yourself from the outside through their eyes and you get a chance to explain and educate your coaches on the what, why and how of your leading and coaching.

Instead of counting the pats on the back after the victory and take them as a measure of the quality of your job as a leaders, ask the people you lead if you are living up to their (and your) standards and expectations.

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Get to know your players

Imagine you are coaching a game and your team is losing 2-0 after two giveaways by your centre back. He is normally one of the best players on the team and this performance is very uncharacteristic. The centre back rarely makes any mistakes, but in this game he’s made several and two of them has ended up in your net. You cannot believe it, this rock of a player that you have depended upon for so many games and who always has been a leader on the pitch now looks like he’s tanking the game voluntary. A lot of different thoughts start going through your head while you are watching this debacle that is unveiling before your eyes.

After the game you sit down with your coaching staff and try to make sense of this mess of a game that has just happened. There are a lot of comments from the other coaches about how bad certain players where today and they come up with different explanations of what may have been the reason for this loss. After a while the focus from the coaches in the room turn to the centre back who made the mistakes that cost you the game. The consensus from the coaches is that if he didn’t make these mistakes, you would at least salvaged a point from this game. ”It looked like he didn’t care” says one coach, another says ”I think he’s been bribed, because he never makes those kinds of mistakes”, ”maybe he’s working against us to get us fired” is another comment in the room. All these comments in themselves make sense to you after watching the performance of your centre back, but you can’t quite believe it.

Assumptions like this are made after every game by disappointed supporters and all to often also by football coaches who are searching for explanations after a poor performance. However there is one big problem with these assumptions, and that is that your players are human beings and not robots. You do not know what the player was thinking when he played the game or how he was feeling and why. The only way to find out why certain things happen in training or in the game is to get to know you players. You have to communicate one-on-one with them and maybe not only about what happens on the pitch. As a leader you should also get to know how their family situation is, know about what they like doing outside of the football environment, what kind of culture they come from and if there is anything you can do to help them focus on football.

Now imagine that before the game that you lost 2-0 after the two horrible mistakes by your centre back he had just found out that his father was in the hospital in critical condition treated for a heart attack. Where do you think his thinking was in that game? And if you as the leader have not been able to create a culture where it is natural for the players to come to you when things happen outside of the pitch and inform you, who’s fault is it that these mistakes happened? If you have never shown interest in the players personal life or their general wellbeing, is it the centre backs fault that you lost the game or could you as a leader have prevented it?

Remember that your players are human beings that go through a lot of different things outside of football that can have consequences for how they perform in the game of football. Everyone of your players are different and you have to communicate with them accordingly. As the leader of these human beings, is it not your responsibility to get to know your players and build a relationship that let you know how to?

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Uncomfortable receiving feedback?

As a coach and as a leader you are constantly giving your players and staff members feedback for their work every day. That’s part of being a good leader, to always help guide the process by providing relevant feedback. You received some of your training in giving feedback when you did your coach education courses. There you hopefully received extensive training in how you are supposed to supply feedback to the players and it’s something that you’ve done so often in your career that you feel it’s relatively easy for you.

However, there are still a lot of coaches out there who struggle with providing good and specific feedback. But there are probably even more coaches who struggle with receiving feedback. Imagine that you are giving feedback to another coach and you see that the coach in question starts to turn slightly away from you, twist and shrink a little bit before regressing into a shell of protection and comfort. When the coach emerges from this shell, the response from your feedback is excuses or ’explanations’ that emancipates this coach from any responsibility connected to the area you are providing feedback. Or, even worse, the coach arises from the shell with authoritative behavior as cutting you off or using language to put you down and to show you who is the boss. Maybe you have also experienced being on the receiving end of feedback and feeling a strange uncomfortable and something that resembles a nervous feeling because you feel that the coach giving you feedback is ’questioning your ability’.

This uncomfortable situation you may experience when you receive feedback is not unique for football coaches but something that is the same for most human beings regardless of position. When you take big pride in the work you do and are happy to be in a certain position, you might feel challenged and almost threatened when another person says that you could do something differently. But why is that? As a player you didn’t feel threatened when the coach gave you feedback, so what is different now when you are coaching?

Maybe you are worried about what the other coaches think of you and that receiving feedback or making mistakes will ’look bad’ since you are supposed to know it all. Or maybe you think that the coach who is providing feedback is out ’to get you’ and trying to take your position. It could also be that your knowledge in the particular field of the feedback is low so it’s easier to make something up, like a good excuse, than to say ’thank you’ and take the feedback on board. However, it could also be that you have this uncomfortable, nervous feeling because you are insecure of yourself and you have a low feeling of self-esteem.

All of the issues above are perfectly normal, and if you do not recognize yourself, you probably recognize some of your fellow coaches who get kind of squeaky when you provide them with feedback. But whatever the reason is for you or them having this uncomfortable feeling when receiving feedback, you need to remember that people who are providing you with feedback are actually investing their time in you. Of course this investment can be conscious or unconscious from people, but it’s still an investment that contain valuable information for you and your development in coaching and leading. So instead of making up an excuse or blaming the referee, next time say thank you for the feedback. Then you reflect upon the feedback and decide if there is something in it that you can learn from or if it’s only nonsense. You choose.

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Protect your players

The only way to be successful as a coach is to have players that execute the plan you have devised to achieve your common goal. Whether that is winning the league or developing players for a higher level, your players are the conduit to reach your goal. You are the leader and therefore the one that players and staff look to for guidance when the going gets tough and the storm has arrived. Imagine for example that you loose the first three games of the season when everyone expected you to be fighting for the title and winning these games comfortably. The media and fans start to ask critical questions after the games and you are suddenly in a very uncomfortable situation.

When the outside world is criticizing your players you as a leader have two choices. Either you protect your players by taking responsibility and letting the blame fall on you, or you can deflect the criticism and hang your player out to dry. When you look through the media outlets after a team has lost it is all to common to see comments from coaches that are publicly criticizing their own players. These comments are made by coaches who, per definition are not leaders and who will struggle to get players performing to their potential.

Imagine you are working as a teacher at a high school where the grade average one year is the worst in the state. When your principal is interviewed by the media and asked the question of why the grade average is the lowest in the state, the principal answers: ”The students doesn’t work hard enough. They need to look themselves in the mirror and take responsibility”. The principal is blaming 15-18 year olds for failing classes and receiving poor grades instead of taking responsibility and look for ways to improve the school system. How crazy would that be? Everyone understands that children and young adults wants to succeed and improve if they are given the right environment to do so. But why is this not the case when talking about football players?

The reason for these coaches to blame their players publicly can be a number of different things. For example the coach can feel pressure from the press, the fans of the club or even the board because of the poor results. Or maybe the coach does not know how to be a leader because he or she went straight from a playing career to the position of head coach without receiving proper education. Regardless of the reason for blaming the players instead of taking responsibility, the action in itself can only be explained by the coaches trying to protect their position and to keep their jobs.

As you know, the statement of the principal in the example above is a statement that you can read in the press after every weekend when you look through interviews of coaches all over the world. These coaches are not leaders since they do not take responsibility and instead blame their players. If you as a coach want to be a leader you must protect your players and staff from the outside world no matter what in the same way that the principal must protect the students and the teachers of the high school regardless of the grade average.


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How do you communicate with your staff?

We have already established that there are a lot of miscommunication in the football world between coaches and players [link to post]. Too many coaches use words that are non-contextual and without meaning and then expect the players to understand what they are talking about. The only logical conclusion to fix this problem is for you as the coach to start saying what you really mean. Most of you will agree to this and have already started saying what you mean to your players on the pitch which is very good. But how do you communicate with your staff?

Imagine that you are in a staff meeting for hours and when you leave the room you ask yourself what everyone was talking about? How many times have that happened to you in your coaching career? Now, imagine that you are part of a coaching staff and your head coach talk to you in general non-contextual terms, saying for example ”be sharp in your coaching today” in the staff meeting before the training session. What does that mean? How will you be able to deliver a high-quality training session when you do not know what the head coach wants? This problem is only made worse by the difference in coach education between countries and the terminology that can differ even between coach educators in the same federation. The consequence is that when you have received your coaching license and arrive at the staff meeting you have the same amount of different interpretations of the same word as there are coaches in the room.

You probably recognize this situation and understand that something has to be done to reduce the miscommunication and increase the efficiency of your communication within your staff or club. But how do you change this culture of saying things that no one understands to a culture where everyone knows exactly what they are talking about? Depending on your role in the coaching staff there are different ways to proceed. If you are not the head coach it could be challenging to change the culture of a staff and a whole club on your own, so the first thing you do is to make your colleagues understand that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. After you have at least one more person who agrees with you and understand that there is a communication problem you request a staff meeting. In this meeting you demonstrate to the other coaches what the problem is and how it affects the performance of the coaches negatively, and in the end, the results of the team and the club.

If you are a head coach you should start every season by sitting down with your staff and discuss how you should communicate within your team of coaches and within your club. In this meeting you as the head coach set the rules or guidelines of your communication in the staff. These guidelines can be things as making sure everyone speaks action language, only use terminology that has already been explained and understood by everyone, and most importantly say what you really mean all the time. Make sure to repeat this process a number of times during the season to keep everyone  of your coaches on the same page. Being clear and concise in your language as a staff will make you more effective, limit the miscommunication that is all to common in the football world and drastically increase the performance of your coaching staff.

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Preseason goal setting

At the moment the preseason is well on it’s way in the US and in Scandinavia with players enduring the hardship of starting up again after a relaxing vacation time away from football. The players are facing a new season with high hopes of improving themselves and their team. When they come in to training camp their enthusiasm and motivation is top and they can’t wait to get the season going. These weeks or months are spent learning and improving the style of play, team building on and off the pitch and general work to be as ready as possible for the upcoming season.

At some point during the preseason it is usual for the club or coaching staff to call the players to a team-meeting where different themes are discussed. Themes can range from a common set of rules that the players on team has to follow, guidelines from the club to even parts of the training method or the style of play. These themes will be up for discussion among the players in this team-meeting. But there is one theme of this team-meeting that is a certainty to come up in most teams. And maybe this theme has been decided by the club on beforehand, however, it is common that the players get their say in this process, often guided by the coaches or the directors of the club. This theme is of course the goal setting discussion for the season.

In these goal setting discussions all around the football world there are players talking about season objectives such as ”staying up”, ”mid-table”, ”top 5” and only a select few teams that say ”win”. Football players that started playing football for the same reason that any human play games of different kinds, namely winning, say that they want to lose a number of games during the upcoming season. Young children playing football and adults playing a game of tag have one thing in common, and that’s the will to win. The point and meaning of any game, per definition, is to win. For some people the reason of a game could arguably be ’not to lose’. But it’s never, ever anyone who plays a game to lose. Yet, in these team-meeting going on in the football world, there are young players, old players, amateurs and professional players who sit in a room and discuss how many games they are going to lose this upcoming season. How crazy is that?

As a player I could never understand my team-mates or coaches who sat around the table and talked about finishing mid-table with a straight face. I wanted to win, every game, always, and I still do. Even though I also understood that we would probably not be able to win every game, the thought of not giving absolutely everything I had to win every game was one that I did not understand. As a football player and as a coach your goal is to win every game. Without winning the existence of a game is not possible. No one has ever invented a game to lose.

When you gather your players in this preseason for your team-meeting and the subject of goal setting comes up, you will end the discussion in 30 seconds by saying: WIN EVERY GAME. After these 30 seconds and the goal of the season has been established you can now spend your time on the question that really matters. The difficult question that holds the key to your success this season is not goal setting, what you really need to discuss is: HOW?

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