Through out my education in sport psychology, one of the biggest lessons I brought from the classroom to the field is the importance of setting the tone. It takes time and practice for athletes to learn how to transition into game mode or practice mode. I’ve noticed on the younger teams it sometimes takes players 30-45 minutes to truly make that transition. It’s usually done slowly throughout their warm up process. I’ve learned that facilitating this transition can help to snap them into practice mode immediately at the beginning of practice. Doing this helps to improve their focus and performance.
I start my practice the same way every single time. My players arrive. They know that when the clock says it’s time, they need to lay-out ALL of their equipment. They lay out their gloves, helmets, bats, and water bottles in a fun design that they have chosen. Once everything is set out they come straight to me for a pre-practice huddle. I want to make a note here; my athlete’s didn’t naturally start doing this routine on their own, this is something I taught them to do. I want to emphasize the word taught. This was an expectation that I clearly laid out for them in the beginning of the season. We spoke about it, and we PRACTICED it. Yes, we practiced laying out our equipment at the start of practice and quickly huddling up afterwards. A routine like this needs to be taught, not simply expected.
Once we are in our huddle I ask them how their week has been. They usually tell me about how boring school is, or how much homework they have. Sometimes they mention drama between their friends, and other times I get a simple unanimous “good”. I do this because I think it’s important for my athletes to know I care about their lives outside of softball. I care about who they are as a whole, not just how they perform on the playing field.
I then go over my expectations for the practice. These expectations are basically the same every time. “When I’m out here with you, I am giving you 100% of my effort for 2 hours. This is my time that I’m giving to you. I expect the same from you. I expect 100% effort while you are out here on our field. I don’t care if you miss a ball, or swing and miss at a pitch. What I care about is how you react after that. I expect you to keep your head up and hustle after the ball you missed. I expect you to bounce back and try just as hard for the next pitch coming at you. If I think that you aren’t giving me 100% effort I am going to send you on a run to the fence. This doesn’t mean you are in trouble and it doesn’t mean that I’m mad. I’m giving you the time to re-focus your energy while you reflect on your performance. We also need to stay in shape throughout our season so a nice jog to the fence is good for you. It’s going to happen to all of you at some point, it’s no big deal so just come back and play hard. Hustle is a habit; don’t ever walk on the field. Let’s have some fun and work hard today. Get a team cheer and let’s go.”
By this time in the season the girls are reiterating this speech for me. I simply ask, what am I looking for today? They spew out all the major points of my usual speech: effort, hustle, attitude, run if you don’t, have fun, improve, and you’re not in trouble.
After practice is over I like to huddle up again and discuss how they thought the practice went. We talk about what they did well and what they need to improve on. I ask them for things they want to work on next time. We also chat about life lessons. This life lessons chat is something I sometimes do in our pre-practice huddle as well. I ask my athlete’s if they have learned any life lessons they want to share with the team so we can learn too. Some of the lessons that come out of these talks are silly, and some are meaningful. I’ve shared my experiences in choosing a major in college, romantic relationship realizations, learning to drive, and awkward moments I’ve experienced trying to find my way in this world as an adult. One of my players this week shared a funny lesson; she realized the twitter symbol was a bird, and that’s why they call it tweeting. It creates a comfortable atmosphere for my athletes to share silly things and more meaningful things. They also get to see that I’m more than a coach; I’m a person with other roles and multiple aspects to my personality.
Setting the tone for your athletes is crucial. It gives them behavior guidelines and performance expectations for the practice. Assuming they know what you expect will leave you cleaning up the mess throughout practice. Start practice out on the right foot and you’ll have a better chance of having the practice you expected.