Yeager helping coaches find the 'Why?'

Jan Garrison

With new book, training sessions


September 15, 2021

Why do people become sport coaches? Sometimes, the coaches themselves may have trouble answering that question. Especially during these busy days.

Since retiring from Culver Academies, former leadership instructor John Yeager has been working with high schools, colleges, and businesses on different aspects of leadership. With the publishing of “The Coaching Zone: Next Level Leadership in Sports,” he is helping coaches find the answer to that question with a combination of the book and in-person training. He will be conducting two such training sessions at Culver this fall and winter.

Between the juggling act of preparing a team for the next game and/or season, managing individual player’s (and their parents) expectations, and putting out those small day-to-day fires that come with the job, many coaches have either forgotten or don’t have the time “to think deeply” about the answer to that question.

But answering the “Why?” is an important first step for coaches seeking to create the positive environment for themselves, their players, and their teams to build on. It is one of the three main principles in the book.

Yeager spent five years working on the book and had set it aside at one point. But he revived the project after talking with Brooklyn Wheeler Raney ’03, who visited Culver in mid-February of 2020 to run her “One Trusted Adult” sessions for the Culver faculty and staff.

That visit, just before everything shut down because of COVID-19, gave Yeager the jumpstart he needed. Then he used his down time during the pandemic lockdown to finish it. The book hit store shelves in April of this year and was an Amazon best seller for a period of time.

Assisting with the book was Jon Cunha, who is a licensed mental health counselor and former track and field coach. He now specializes in recovery training programs for athletes, coaches and organizations to strengthen mental fitness and help injured athletes recover.

In the book, Yeager talks about coaches taking the time “to think deeply” about why they wanted to be coaches in the beginning and why they are coaching today. Building this self-awareness of their strengths, blind spots, and behavioral styles, lets coaches manage their personal well-being so they can respond to athletes in the moment and over time.

This can develop a sense of gratitude within and eventually translates over to the second principle of “Leading and Empowering Athletes.” This principle covers knowing how to connect effectively with athletes, how to direct them to further improvement, when is time to take the lead, and when is the time to let go.

Yeager's book was an Amazon best seller when it came out in April.

All the while building Psychological Capital (PsyCap) in both the coach and his or her players. PsyCap is based on four human outcomes as addressed by the research team of Fred Luthans, Carolyn Youssef-Morgan, and Bruce Avolio, Yeager explained. The acronym they coined was HERO, which stands for hope, confidence (efficacy), resilience and optimism. These four qualities strongly influence the coach’s and team’s attitude and performance.

This leads to the third principle of “The Team Dance,” which involves systems thinking, responding effectively to the rhythms and patterns of the team. This includes dealing with the expectations of the individual player while maintaining a healthy team culture of shared values and responsibility. It allows for the players to build their own collaboration skills and hold each other accountable.

Part of this, Yeager said, is building the team structure so everyone feels empowered and performs accordingly. Using a business strategy, the tops (coaches) empower the middles (team captains) and bottom (players) to provide needed feedback to help make adjustments as needed. Without this feedback loop, the players may rebel and the team captains will feel trapped in the middle.

Throughout the book, Yeager cites business articles on management styles. He said it is a reversal of the old standard when business leaders would have great athletes come and speak to the employees about performance. He is using business articles and studies on performance to structure “The Coaching Zone.”

He also emphasizes storytelling as an effective means for coaches to both find their “Why” and to help make connections with their players. Every coach has a story either as a player or team leader that has influenced them, he said, and coaches need to share those to build trust within their teams. He uses both his own stories, stories from past and present Culver coaches, and other high school and college coaches to illustrate these points.

He also credits the book’s editor Kathryn Britton with making the book easy to follow. Britton does not have any sports coaching experience, Yeager explained, so she emphasized organizing the concepts so it could easily be followed by people outside the profession.

The result is a book written to help coaches but that can be used by anyone to improve their leadership skills.

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