When the best thing a coach can do is step away

Have you ever been in this situation? Your team is not playing to the best of their ability, they’re not focused, they’re losing games, and nothing you do or say seems to be getting through to them.

Pleasant Grove (Utah) High School boys soccer coach Chris Ecalono has. His response? Just leave. And it seems like it worked.

On the eve of their next game, Coach Ecalono addressed his team at the beginning of practice, and told them that he was going to leave the captains in charge of practice. It was up to all of them to figure out how they were going pull themselves together as a team and put out their best effort the next day.

Then he and his assistants walked out.

“It was a shock when they said they were going to walk out and let the captains run practice,” senior Ryan Fonseca told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I was like, ‘What? Are you guys crazy?’ ”

But the strategy was helpful. According to the paper, the next day, the team went on “relentless attack” against their opponents, and won the game 4-1, although the opposing team had possession of the ball for more of the clock.

Understandably, some coaches might hesitate to try such a strategy for liability reasons, and or a simple lack of trust. But sometimes, teens can benefit from a sudden increase in independence and responsibility — with support and boundaries, of course. The coach in this case didn’t walk off in anger; rather, he planned the action, and discussed his reasons with the team in advance. Ultimately, he was saying that he believed in them and trusted them, and they were left to step up to the challenge.

What do you think? Have you ever been in a similar situation? Have you found other ways to motivate a unfocused team that isn’t taking responsibility?

Image: The Pleasant Grove boys’ soccer team. Facebook photo, via Prep Rally Yahoo Sports blog.

5 comments for “When the best thing a coach can do is step away

  1. Anthony Carter
    May 3, 2012 at 5:35 am

    Great strategy. Now, did the coaches meet them about halfway and let them play with more intensity offensively?

  2. May 3, 2012 at 7:25 am

    I have been in this very circumstance. I was coaching a team of 10 year old girls. They were new to travel soccer. Getting beaten badly in all our tournament games and really feeling demoralized. I didn’t think it was sportsmanlike of the other teams to run up the score, but I had no control of their coaching.

    At the end of the season we were entered in another tournament. I called the girls to a team meeting and I offered, “if the other team runs up the score in the first half, I am willing to shake the coach’s hand and congratulate him on the win, wish them good play in the rest of their games, and walk off the field.” But I told them, this was their decision. Then I left the room to let them argue it out. I asked the team captains to let me know what the team decided.

    20 minutes later they were still in deliberations. I didn’t eavesdrop, but I snuck in to an adjoining room to collect a book. I couldn’t help overhearing them. The team leaders were keeping order. They were getting input from each girl. They were democracy (and empowerment) in action.

    The captains came and told me, they wanted to keep playing no matter the score. I smiled inside to think they had just sealed the win – no matter the score. They would not be defeated because they had chosen to stay and play. We did play, actually to a 2-2 tie the next day. We were ahead 2-1 but couldn’t hold it in the heat.

    But it was a winning experience for these girls and something I will never forget.

  3. annette
    May 4, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Part of coaching is being capable of giving leadership to the team. I see my goal as a coach to develop a skill to make decisions and mistakes in a controlled learning environment. Walking away is empowering because it takes the coach out of the decision making role. I might not always agree with decisions but sometimes they get a better result then my own choice would of.
    Communication games is how I handle situations that are not giving me a result I want. Empowering others to be listened to because often they may have the correct solution.

  4. Lester Hirata
    May 25, 2012 at 8:17 am

    Picture this – a team of 13 and 14 year old baseball players (8th grade) with 5 losing seasons together in their past, and 1 winning season just behind them. Just the previous year, my father had taken over coaching us, and we went from last place to first place in the blink of an eye. Then it came crashing down (or so we thought) when my father was forced to change shifts at work to a swing shift, meaning he was no longer around to run practices twice a week, only to attend the games on Saturdays – and only part time at that, having to work weekends as well.

    So my father did what he thought best – he wrote a letter to the team, and gave each player a copy. In the letter he reminded us of our accomplishments, our promise, and our capabilities. He provided praise for us – not only for our success the previous year, but more so for the team that we had become, the unity that we had developed, and the fighting spirit that unified us. And he gave us the choice – find another coach, or coach ourselves until he was able to provide a better solution.

    We chose to coach ourselves, he supported us completely in the decision, and he ensured the other parents did so as well – dropping us off twice weekly for practice, and remaining silent observers while we ran our own practices. We did this for half the season, until unfortunately we began breaking down a bit – by that time my father had found an assistant coach that could follow his coaching wishes, and we were instantly righted.

    Although we did not finish with a perfect season as we had the previous year, we still finished in 1st place for the second year in a row. This was the last year that we all played together – and, I’d bet, the one experience we all shared where we grew tremendously in a short period of time. We were all made stronger and more confident through this experience, and we all have our coach to thank for being a great coach, mentor, supporter… and, for me, father!

    • May 25, 2012 at 10:10 am

      Lester, what a great gift your father gave you and your teammates when he trusted you enough to carry on what he had started. Good for him and all of you. Congratulations on your successful season but mostly for the testimony it is to your team and your coach. You have much to be proud of. Thanks for sharing the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *