2008-John-Osullivan1Performance is a behaviour, NOT an outcome.

By John O’Sullivan, “Changing the Game Project”. 

We get so focused on scoreboards and standings that we lose sight of the foundational element of coaching: shaping behaviour. When we get the behaviour right, when we get our athletes to take ownership of the standards for each and every little thing they do, the magic happens.

  • Athletes rise to the standard.
  • They hold each other accountable.
  • They define what are acceptable levels of focus, effort, and execution.
  • They train more effectively.
  • Great results follow.

When you get the behaviour right, the scoreboard starts to take care of itself. Athletes control the controllables, make more effective plays, and those small plays add up to big wins.

Coaches, first and foremost, we are shapers of behaviour. When we get the behaviour to the required and agreed upon standard, results start taking care of themselves. This is my advice to Coach B: focus on behaviour first.

This seems simple, but in reality, most coaches do it backward. They focus first on the outcome and hope that the behaviour will follow. They install new defences and trick offensive plays, they teach tactics and technique, they up the fitness expectations, and then come game time, they roam the sidelines yelling “But we went over this in practice!”

They have no idea if learning took place. Just because we taught it, doesn’t mean they learned it. The coaches have no idea if the athletes were listening. And often, when the game gets tight and the pressure ramps up, their teams crumble under the stress of focusing on the scoreboard. They revert to the old norm. Players fight the opponent. They yell at officials. They argue with each other. They stop controlling the controllables, and eventually they lose regardless of talent.

Great coaches and elite athletes understand that performance is a behaviour, not an outcome. It is doing the little things correctly, moment to moment, day after day. But how do we do this in our teams?

First, you must clearly define your core values, your standards, the list of “this is how we do things here.” In conjunction with your athletes you take the time and define the standards of effort, focus, execution, respect, humility, selflessness, and more. You allow your athletes to define who they want to be and how they want to do it. You get them to sign their names and commit to being the type of teammate described by those values.

Next, before every practice, you must get your athletes to own the level of performance – the behaviours – for the day. Mark Bennett recommends that his coaches have the athletes define what acceptable, unacceptable, and exceptional looks like for the chosen activity. This includes not only values based things such as effort and communication, but tactical and technical elements such as spacing, movement, speed of play, and whatever else you are trying to teach. The athletes define and own what is good enough, what is great, and most importantly, what is not good enough and warrants a stoppage of play and a reset.

Bennett challenges them by asking “how long can we sustain acceptable and exceptional,” thus giving the athletes a goal to shoot for. The activity starts and continues as long as the behaviour level is acceptable or exceptional, and stops when the level becomes unacceptable. Usually, your players will overestimate how long is sustainable, but over time, with consistent reinforcement, their behaviour – and thus their performance – starts to change. Most importantly, the athletes own this process. They define the standards, they define acceptable behaviours, and when it all clicks, they identify unacceptable, call each other out on it, and hit the reset button and do it right.

Within your culture, you may have individuals that still do not buy into the behavior, even as the team as a whole progresses. This is the situation with the coach I wrote about above. In this case individual intervention is warranted. Sit the athlete down and follow these three steps:

Have the athlete define the team values, and identify which one he or she is not adhering to. Many coaches do this in front of the team for the benefit of 1 or 2 kids. Do it individually so that the specific kids know you are speaking to them, and their teammates don’t think they are being called out for the actions of a few.

Help the athlete see their behaviour through other people’s’ eyes. “How do you think it makes your teammates feel when they are giving maximum effort and you are going through the motions?” “How do you think it makes your coaches feel when we rely on you as a leader and you disrespect your teammates?” Most kids never think of this.

Help your athlete change by asking “Is that who you want to be?” If the answer is no (which it is 99% of the time) ask them “how can I help you change?” When you see their new behaviours, catch them being good. If you want the good behaviour to continue, you have to acknowledge and reward it.

Finally, shaping behaviour is not a sometime thing; it is an all-time thing. As Bennett says “Changing behaviour takes time, and the quickest way to change behaviour and make progress is to do it every time you step on the field, not just once in a while.” It is confusing for kids when failure to meet the standards is ignored by coaches time after time and then when coach is having a bad day, he loses it and yells at everyone for the same behaviour that was OK the previous week. If it is not OK, we must say so. If we let it go today, we are saying that it is not really a standard. You condone what you do not confront. You must intentionally cultivate the right behaviours and you must intentionally confront the wrong ones.

Coaches, our team’s performance is a behaviour, not an outcome.


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