I had many coaches throughout my athletic career. I learned the value of hard work, strength, humility, unity, resilience, mental and physical discipline, grace, sportsmanship, and competition to name a few. Only one emphasized the weight behind being an unselfish player and this was seemingly the lesson that changed the entire structure of our team for the better. Unfortunately, it was senior year and we were kicking ourselves for not embracing this sooner. We could have been unstoppable.
If you were to put your teammates into “classes,” one of the book ends of that spectrum would be the best player. The best player on the team is the typically the one with the highest stats. They get the MVP at the end of the season, their name makes the paper, and they get the looks from colleges because they have the most goals, and assists. They are typically the natural athlete. The one you have to teach a play or concept to one time and it’s mastered. You center your entire game strategy around this player. If you lost them, the team would fall apart.
Coaches are thrilled to find these players, so thrilled that they often consume most of our resources and attention. Naturally this player is TYPICALLY, not always, selfish BUT it’s not their fault. They are conditioned by coaches and peers to act like this because everyone depends on them and makes them the center of attention. These players are often the ones, by observation, that either drop out of their sport because they’ve spent too many years carrying the weight on their shoulders which takes the joy out of the game or they go on to be the obnoxious, inflated NFL superstar that blows their signing bonus in one day.
Are these players important to have on your team? YES, but we are doing a huge disservice to our teams by trying to make everyone else like them. Ever catch yourself pointing out one player more than the others? The one player that’s used in every example or analogy you can think of?
Can lessons be learned from that player being AMAZING at everything? Of course.
Athletes and Coaches, this is where we are getting it wrong. We are not shining light on arguably the most important players on the team.
Here’s the secret:
Good players play to make themselves look good. Great players play to make their teammates look good.
Hear me out, think about your team and let’s break this down.
You have a player…or 5 that start every game. At the end of the day when you review game stats they did nothing or at least on paper they did nothing.
Then you think,” Why is this kid still starting?”
“Maybe I should take them out?”… “But what did they do wrong?” ….
Nothing. You cant think of any reason to take this player out of the starting line up. You need them, but WHY? You go back through film and watch just them and this is what you see.
Game is tied. We lost possession. CRAP! The other team is sprinting down the field with the ball. We are in a man down situation. The opponent winds up to pass to a player cutting to goal and you see they are wide open. The ball leaves her stick and you have this gut wrenching feeling. She’s going to catch it and score. The ball leaves her stick, here it is…. Oh , God please……Oh, DANG Hannah way to get a stick on it. Your defender, Rachel, picks up the ball and you regain possession.
Ground ball goes to Rachel. *high five*
Jess has the ball at the top of the court. Sarah runs across court to set a pick for Kate. Kate cuts to goal, receives a bounce pass from Jess and gets an easy lay up.
Goal goes to Kate. Assist goes to Jess. Sweet!
Stephen holds the line for 10 seconds so your Quarterback, Mike, can make a 35 yd pass to Jordan down field.
Jordan gets credit and Mike has an amazing arm. Both get raving reviews in the paper.
Riley and Maddie are on the same team sprinting neck and neck with the opponent towards a ground ball. Riley has the lead and could easily pick up the ball but instead slows down enough to box out their opponent and let’s Maddie sweep through for a clean pick up.
Maddie gets the point for the stat book.
Up by 1 with 2 minutes on the clock. We have the ball but the other team is playing hard pressure defense all around the field. Sarah is stuck with the ball. Every time she tries to pass, it’s not a good look. She’s exhausted, and running in circles because her teammates have forgotten how to set picks and get open for each other, conveniently, in this moment in time. Finally, with 4 seconds left she’s able to get a pass off to Bri who scores another goal to seal the deal.
Bri gets the point. Yes!!
Do you see a pattern?
What did Hannah, Sarah, Stephen and Riley do that was so special?
They are the play makers. They make stuff happen behind the scenes and they don’t care about the credit. They play to make their teammates look good. They are the secret MVP’s. The stealthy Ninjas that always come out of of the shadows right when you need them.
We as coaches need to be teaching our players to be more like them.
Hannah interrupts what would have been a game changing moment. Sarah creates an opportunity for her teammate and maintained possession of the ball and almost died, at least it felt that way, taking 2 minutes off the clock. Stephen puts his blood and sweat on the line to make sure his QB is protected. Riley seals off an opponent to make it easier for her teammate to get the ball.
They all played to make their teammates look good.
When my coach taught me the importance of being an unselfish player, I learned to coach in an unselfish light. In my career, I have been able to take raw talent and turn it into communal success. I have taken broken teams and mended them. Teams that hated each other. Teams that had no life. Teams that were on a plateau. Teams that were lost. Teams that were chaos. Teams that were apathetic. They were all changed for the better with this one lesson.
They learned it’s not about being the best player on paper. It’s about helping your teammates out in every circumstance. They now had a reason to work off ball. They found value in just knowing that they simply created an opportunity or a wave of momentum. I went from having a one man offense to a 7 man offense… with a few defenders and a goalie considered to be offense threats as well. I went from having a 8 man defense to a full field defense. My whole team became a threat as a consequence of this attitude change.
Coaches- I challenge you to take this lesson to heart and apply it to your teams.
Players- I also challenge you to embrace this concept because consequently playing to make your teammates look good ends up making you look good too.
Be an unselfish player.
Teach your players to have an unselfish mentality.
Watch your team change for the better.
I have many players that come to mind when I think of my “play makers” but these two will always hold a special place in my heart. Riley and Sarah are real athletes and deserve to be highlighted. By understanding unselfish play they’ve made themselves champions. They have State Championships and Region Championships under their belts and both are now college athletes with successful careers. They have it all. Skill, a coachable mindset, humility, resilience, an innate competitive spirit, and most importantly the ability to be an unselfish player. I’m so proud of them!