Building Buy-In

Tiina Booth talks about how to get a team to buy in.

UMass requires all club players to perform community service. Captain Ben Sadok helps Ultiworld's Player of the Year Leila Tunnell pick potatoes at Brookfield Farm in Amherst. Bonding=buy-in.
UMass requires all club players to perform community service. Captain Ben Sadok helps Ultiworld’s Player of the Year Leila Tunnell pick potatoes at Brookfield Farm in Amherst. Bonding = buy-in.

I am reminded on a daily basis that coaching college is different than coaching high school. I am often asked which I prefer more; my answer is always college. I do not miss the paperwork that chokes or the parents that write three email screens worth of discontent. That doesn’t mean that everything is easy with a college team. In fact, the challenges can be frustrating and I do not know instinctually how to handle certain situations, which never happened with my high school teams. I coached high school for so long, at a school where I also taught, that the answers for any problems were always scripted. There is no such luxury with a college team.

Building buy-in on a college team is difficult for a coach and I would imagine almost impossible for a peer-coached team. I am coming up on my third year with UMass men and have learned about what has worked and not worked in fostering a sense of commitment and responsibility with our players. It is a work in progress.

The Importance of Buy-In

Being part of a team where no one is held to reasonable standards is not fun. Low numbers at practice, people bailing the Friday night before a tournament, and players refusing to pay up for jerseys create a mediocre experience for everyone. Even if you do not want to have a “serious” team at your school, there has to be a certain level of commitment in order for it to function in any capacity.

If your players have not discussed what kind of team you want to be, then it is time for a meeting. I wrote about this more in detail two years ago. Defining your team and its purpose will help build buy-in and put everyone on the same page, in theory. The team’s purpose may change as the year goes on and, if it does, you must meet again.

A team needs buy-in because it makes everything easier and more enjoyable for everyone. The leadership can focus on things more important than attendance. Practices are energetic and tournaments are exciting. The team that has complete buy-in has a limitless ceiling in terms of its potential. This does not guarantee championships but it guarantees a lot of fun along the way.

Collaboration with Captains

This summer I met an experienced college coach of an NCAA lacrosse team and we spent some time comparing notes about building teams. I was surprised to hear that her challenges were the same as mine. Every team every year was different. Sometimes she had great natural leaders. Often she had to do more leadership training than she expected. Some seasons were a breeze and some were a challenge from beginning to end. She was in collaboration with her captains and did not want to impose a team culture that she knew would not work, yet she could not let a toxic environment develop. I remember learning this exact lesson after about 5 years into teaching and coaching and, like all good lessons, I had to learn it again.

Captains set the tone of the team and need to exhibit overt buy-in, particularly when they do not feel it. They need to be the first followers. Being a captain can be a burden and the best leaders understand and embrace all their responsibilities. They cannot be the ones who shrug off practices or apply different rules for themselves or friends. Their job is to make everyone better, including themselves. As a coach, your responsibility is to make sure that happens. How you do that changes from day to day and captain to captain. Remember that these players are young adults who are trying to figure out much more than how to be part of a college club team. High school players may be irritated at still being under their parents’ control but college players are fully engaged in being on their own, with all the good and bad that this independence brings.

My best advice is a clichéd one. Keep the lines of communication open between you and your captains, as well as your players. Not every one has to sit down for a heart-to-heart. Any kind of communication will work and let you know where your attention needs to be. Some players need more feedback; some players need to be left alone. Oh. Did I mention that this changes daily? I do not know how parents do it.

My Ten Best Suggestions

You have a good sense of where your team wants to go, you have a reasonable relationship with your team’s leadership and now you need to ensure that everyone is bought in and remains committed.

1. Define exactly what buy-in looks like. Sometimes you don’t see what you want because the team doesn’t know what is expected. Throwing on your own, starting a lifting program, increasing your ultimate I.Q., working on your agility. All of these could be important but make sure exactly what you expect and when. Players are not mind readers and some will look for ways to easily opt out if you are not clear.

2. Pick your battles. Not every “transgression” needs to be addressed. You cannot micromanage the lives of 20 players so don’t try. (Heck. I can barely micromanage my own life.) I try hard not to address a player when I am angry; I sometimes still fail. My personal litmus test is if I am still bothered in the morning by something, then I need to deal with it. Notice I said “it” and not the player. Sometime the issue is 100% my own and a player pushed a button and the only work that needs to be done is internal.

3. Be aware of the rhythms of the season. One of the reasons I like coaching college is that I am blissfully unaware of their academic commitments. In high school, I was sometimes visited by The Agitated Social Studies Teacher right before we left for the weekend, demanding that a player stay home and finish a late project. Although I don’t know exactly what my college players have to do, I understand when they may not be able to make practice because of their studies. I also fully understand that they use the work excuse because they cannot handle all aspects of their lives. By the time we get to the spring season, I will certainly be less understanding, but for now it is fine.

4. Focus on the majority who are taking care of business. In a classroom of 25 students, there are probably only 2 or 3 that will suck up all of your emotional energy. As a new teacher and coach, I often spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince the prodigal teenager to return to the fold. I ignored those who were doing what they were supposed to. I now believe that it is important to reward those who are managing their lives well and this will help them feel like they are part of the team. I still care about the person who is struggling and I will still work behind the scenes to help them out. But I will run a practice with a low turnout, hold a meeting without fretting about who is missing it, and not get mired in a situation that is more complex than I am able to handle.

5. Ask for feedback. Pick a time to get honest feedback from your players and captains. Note: this is NOT after you have won a tournament (we are awesome!) or lost a heartbreaker (subbing was a problem, as is the coach). However you want to do it, ask for constructive feedback during a calm time and ask follow-up questions. A player who feels sincerely listened to will be much more willing to buy in.

6. With this said, do not take a player’s unhappiness with the team as unhappiness with the job you are doing. For those players who lack self-awareness and are frustrated, the first person they may look at is you. This is normal and can be painful, but the best thing you can do is depersonalize it at first. They may be offering reasonable criticism that you deserve, but they also may be deflecting other stuff onto you. Pick a time when you both can listen to each other. Again. Parents who foster genuine communication with their children. You are my heroes.

7. Have fun. At practice. On campus. At tournaments. Team events build buy-in.

8. Keep putting the responsibility back on the players’ shoulders. You are not just coaching a college team who wants to do well in the spring. You are developing the future leaders of our sport and you owe it to them to give them the space to succeed and fail as captains and players. You still provide guidance, of course. And if they see you doing the work they should be doing, they may again take the easy way out. This includes setting up the field, carrying team crap, and doing general manager duties. It is their team so let them understand how it all works from beginning to end.

9. Measuring buy-in is very difficult and sometimes you have to settle for fake buy-in. That is completely fine. If a person is actively helping the team out from the sideline, it doesn‘t matter whether they authentically want to. Perhaps that is all they can muster at this point and they need to be admired for faking it until they make it. We all have to fake it sometime, even the most dedicated captains and coaches.

10. Finally, relax. There is nothing you can do this fall that will wreck your upcoming season. Everyone, from new player to experienced coach, will have time to fix their mistakes and rebuild the team by the time that spring starts. Worry less, enjoy your team more and your team will come together in the spring.

  1. Tiina Booth
    Tiina Booth

    Tiina Booth is the director of the National Ultimate Training Camp and a co-coach of the University of Massachusetts men. She founded the Amherst Invitational in 1992 and co-founded Junior Nationals in 1998. In 2006, she published a book about ultimate with Michael Baccarini, entitled Essential Ultimate. She has coached teams to numerous national and international titles. Her ongoing passion is sports psychology, and she offers clinics to coaches of ultimate and other sports. Tiina will be inducted into the Ultimate Hall of Fame at USAU Club Nationals in October of 2018.

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