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Effective Coaching with Teams: When Less is More

February 16, 2011
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by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP

I grew up in South Bend, IN. home of Notre Dame, Studebaker cars, and one of the best soccer coaches I have ever known, Jim Tallman.  As a graduate of Clay High School it might seem blasphemous to speak so kindly about the former head coach at John Adams High School; they were one of our most hated rivals.  But there was something you just had to respect about the man who had built a mid-sized public school into a soccer powerhouse.  There was no arguing his coaching effectiveness and his teams always came to play.  (Full disclosure:  Jim Tallman was also my middle school teacher and soccer coach so admittedly I am a bit biased.  In fact, I still remember his 4 golden rules which he drilled into us: 1) Do what you’re supposed to do, 2) Do it when you’re supposed to do it, 3) Do it to the best of your ability, 3) Do it that way all the time.  We’ll get back to those later.)

Even though I had played for Tallman in middle school I was always interested in how he ran his program at Adams.  What were his tricks?  How did he consistently have great teams?  Yes, he had great players but in a public high school where school zoning ordinances decide the hand you are dealt, he always seemed to be sitting on a straight flush.  He couldn’t recruit like a private school; he had to work with what he was given.  There had to be something special about him or his methods.

Fortunately, after high school I became very close friends with many of my former Adams’ rivals.  So, I dug a little to find out the magic of Jim Tallman.  Of course they had many stories, but nothing extraordinary.  Until, one of them said, “Oh, since he taught at that other school he sometimes showed up late to practices.”  What?  This legend, this architect of great soccer teams showed up late?

After thinking about this I actually became angry.  How did this team beat us?  I mean their coach was occasionally late to practice.  Certainly they weren’t getting anything accomplished.  And then it hit me: The magic of Jim Tallman.  While most teams would have used their coach’s tardiness as an excuse to fool around or show up late themselves, Tallman’s teams took the road less traveled.  They started practice on their own, they held each other accountable, and pushed each other to limits that they might not have otherwise reached.  In his absence, Tallman built the foundation for his teams’ success.

Maybe it was by accident, but I have to believe that Tallman intentionally showed up late to those practices.  He was testing his team.  He wanted to see how they would respond.  What culture would develop?  By putting them in that situation he forced leaders to emerge and players to hold themselves and each other accountable.  The result: a team (better yet, a program) with a culture of winning.  What Tallman did was quite remarkable.  While most coaches try to micromanage every aspect of their program and force players to become leaders, be accountable, and work hard, he allowed those things to happen on their own.

What he did reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink…but you can put salt in his feed.”  Quite simply, this means that while we can’t make people do things – we can certainly put them in a position where they are more likely to do what we want.  The horse that eats salty feed becomes thirsty and therefore, is much more likely to drink.  Tallman put salt in the feed.  He forced the players to take ownership of their practices and, ultimately, their success.  Of course, this could have backfired but my guess is he knew exactly what he was doing.  He knew the strong personalities on his team would take over and others would fall in line.  In the end, he had a program where winning was expected and, more importantly, the hard work it took to win was demanded.

Then it hit me:  He had built a team that 1) Did what they were supposed to do, 2) Did it when they were supposed to do it, 3) Did it to the best of their ability, and 4) Did it that way all the time!!!

In his absence his team had developed a culture of winning.  A culture where everyone on the team demanded the best from themselves and others at all times.  A culture where everyone was fully committed to doing the little things necessary to be successful; not sometimes but all the time.  A culture where players accepted their roles and all pulled in the same direction.  A culture that ultimately led Tallman to the Indiana Soccer Hall of Fame.  Most coaches try to force their teams into doing this.  The smart ones, like Jim Tallman, allow it to happen on its own.

One of the greatest challenges you may face as a coach is letting go.  Do you have the ability to sit back and just let things happen?  Can you do less?  If you can, like Jim Tallman, you might be surprised by the results.  You might finally have players who do what they are supposed to do, do it when they are supposed to do it, do it to the best of their ability, and do it that way all the time.

Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sport Psychology graduate program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA.  He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004.  Gentner served as an Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College.  During his four years at IC he helped coordinate the undergraduate and graduate programs in Sport Psychology.  In 2009 he began his current position at GSU where in addition to coordinating the graduate program he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Sport Psychology and Coaching Education.  He has published his research in several journals and has given presentations on Sport Psychology at worldwide and regional Sport Psychology, Coaching, and Athletic Training Conferences.  Currently he is completing a book on Sport Psychology Consulting techniques.  He is an Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant and since 2000 he has worked with individual athletes, teams, and coaches ranging from youth sport to professional levels.  For further inquiries or information about Dr. Gentner’s services or the graduate program at Georgia Southern he can be reached at ngentner@georgiasouthern.edu or 912-478-7900.

4 Responses to Effective Coaching with Teams: When Less is More

  1. Mark Canarecci on February 17, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Very well done, sir!

  2. Kyle Maciulski on February 17, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I am lucky enough to have had the privilege of playing for coach Tallman. His coaching has stuck with me throughout my adult life. When times get tough I can hear his voice saying “life is overcoming adversity” or “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” Tallman made it a point to lecture the team often, he would gather us in the locker room for an hour sometimes and drill into our heads what the meaning of integrity is. Integrity, by the way, is doing what your supposed to do, not what you want to do. More than any other person, teachers, mentors, friends, and bosses, coach Tallman has inspired me throughout my life. Great article.

  3. Mark Thompson on February 17, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    Noah
    As a Jim Tallman disciple, I commplement you on your analysis and composition. Jim Tallman is the single biggest influence in my life. Thanks! This was a great read!

    Mark

  4. Steve Collier on June 30, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Noah,

    Great article on “Coach”! I played on Coach Tallman’s first high school team as a sophomore in 1983 and three great years under his wing. He turned so many boys into great young men and created lifelong friendships for many of the teammates. I realized how great he was when I was coaching a high school hockey team. I can remember sitting on the bench thinking to myself, we would run through a brick wall for Coach Tallman and this team I am coaching could give a “rat’s ass” about me. I always wonder how did he get a group of boys to care so much for each other and want to win so much for their coach. I still see Coach a couple times a year; in fact, I will see him today at his soccer camp. My youngest is one of the campers. He is always warm and friendly and you can tell he cherishes those days of coaching Adams High School. You mention his late to practice, practice. Well, I’m not sure if it was his plan at first. He had other commitments and he lived/worked out of the Adam’s district. I was captain for two years and like you said, we ran the first part of practice and we did take it very seriously. Well except for the one time . . . James Pyles found a little baseball bat on the practice field and he tried to get Kevin Hughes to pitch him a ball by kicking it to him. You know, Tallman introduced us to soccer tennis, soccer volleyball, soccer kickball, etc. Well Kevin couldn’t give him a good pitch (He was a goalie) so our young stud, Kurt Roemer, came in and gave him a perfect pitch to hit. James swung the bat hit the ball and the bat bounced off the ball back into his head and knocked him down hard. After we all laughed, we noticed James was hurt and he had a huge knot on his head. As we got him to his feet, we noticed Tallman walking to the field. I had to tell Coach what had happened and he just gave me the “look” and told me to get him to the emergency room. He never once scolded me about it because I think he knew I knew what I let happened was stupid and he knew I would never let that happen again on my watch. He was right! James was okay and played the next game with a big donut taped to his head. What a sight to see and what a great visual for me. As I get older, I realize how unselfish Coach and his wife, Anne, were, and still are, today. Tallman coached a high school team that his sons did not go to and his wife shared her husband with all of us for so many years. Without Anne’s blessings, the Tallman legacy would never have been formed. So many stories I could share and I know others have just as many. This is one of the reasons why team sports are so great for kids. I just hope my kids are fortunate to have a Coach Tallman in their life someday.

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