By George Block
Every coach who wants to build a winning culture knows that getting life lessons right is the foundation for getting the next thing in practice right. In sports – and in business, science, politics, you name it – culture eats strategy for lunch. Some of the best coaching tools for building team culture and teaching life lessons are the 12 Steps of Recovery.
The life lessons coaches teach go far beyond these steps, but the wisdom in these steps are wonderful tools that every young person should have in their life’s tool box. They may also be especially applicable to adolescence. A coach’s interpretation might look like this.
Step 1: I admitted that I am powerless and my life has become unmanageable. This is the situation when many adolescents come in to your office or ask to talk after practice. They feel out of control. They are overwhelmed by the multiple demands and pressures put on them.
Simply admitting that is both painful and powerful for a young person. They are so busy fighting for power and independence that admitting they are powerless and out of control names the problem and frees them to look at it dispassionately.
Step 2: I came to believe that a Power greater than me could restore me to sanity. Every coach plays Copernicus at some point. Copernicus challenged the theory that the universe revolved around the earth and showed that the earth (and her sister planets) revolved around the sun.
One of the definitions of adolescence is that their entire world revolves around them. It falls upon coaches to disabuse them of this notion. We point out that the universe does not in fact revolve around them.
Step 3: I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God, as I understood Him. Teens can be incredibly willful – much like 2-year olds. It is a part of their drive to control what can’t be controlled. The 12 Steps ask its adherents to turn their lives over to God, but before a young person can do that, they may have to experience giving up control in small parts of their lives.
Surrender is a scary and powerful experience. It is the foundational risk of falling in love. It is also the foundational risk of real mastery in any discipline – sports, music, the arts, the martial arts, dance, the sciences, spirituality. We must surrender ourselves to a trusted master. We must give that master control over that part of our lives. Once a child learns the daring free-fall of surrender to mastery, the adult can experience the much greater surrenders of real love and spirituality.
Step 4: I made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself. There is a saying among swimming coaches that the swimmer swims the way they live. When their young lives are a mess, their training and competitions are a mess. When their lives are well ordered, so is their training and competition.
The great Olympic coach, Mark Schubert, once told me that he never coached an Olympic Gold Medalist who didn’t have a great training partner. Even the ultimate individual sport requires a great teammate and you can’t have a great teammate without being one.
Step 5: I admitted to God, myself and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. These were some of the most powerful, draining and often surprising days in my coaching career. An athlete would come in to my office, shut the door and “unburden” him or herself.
I was never ready for this “confessional” role, but I realized the strength and courage that athlete was demonstrating and the incredible trust that was being placed in me. I was that other human being.
Often kids think that they have to be perfect in order to be good. As coaches, our role is to explain the power of “Oops, I’m sorry,” because none of us is perfect or even close. The best we can hope for is to become excellent apologizers.
Steps 6 & 7: I was ready to have God remove these defects of character and I humbly asked Him to remove these shortcomings. Humility is one of the greatest gifts a young person can receive. It transforms that person in to a magnet for those around him or her and allows that young person to become a leader.
The flaws we see when we look deeply in to ourselves are just as important as the talents (gifts) that the young athlete is nurturing. Our gifts can make us great, but our flaws can keep us humble and there can be no greatness without humility.
Coaches teach young athletes that they have the tools they need to nurture their (God-given) garden, constantly pruning the weeds and fertilizing their gifts. Both have to be done constantly. Strengths and humility have to be cultivated side-by-side.
Steps 8 & 9: I made a list of all the people I had harmed and made direct amends to them all, if possible. Fortunately, at this age the damages done can also be undone relatively simply. One of the most common forms of adolescent damage is gossip – “badmouthing” my swimmers used to call it.
Gossip – locker room talk – is one of the most damaging things that can take place inside ANY organization: a business, a family, or a team. Gossip can kill a team.
Since the gossip was usually done in a group, the amends must be made in a group. All the teammates who heard the gossip must hear both the truth and the apology. I can’t remember a time when a teammate publicly apologized for “badmouthing” that another teammate didn’t join him or her in an additional, unsolicited, apology. Confession – and forgiveness – became contagious.
Teammates learned that it is a good thing to talk TO people, just never ABOUT them.
Step 10: I developed the discipline of continual personal inventory and when I was wrong, I quickly apologized. This was perhaps the most interesting and difficult step for most adolescents. Where they (and I) were most frequently “wrong” was when our teammates were trying to redirect us to the better path.
Learning to say “Thank you” when being redirected was difficult. Defensiveness and confrontation were often the first instincts. Our egos needed protection. We had to learn to say “I’m sorry,” before we could learn to say “Thank you.”
Step 11: I sought through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God, as I understood Him, praying only for understanding and the strength to act on that understanding. The faith traditions of the kids I coached mirrored San Antonio: nearly every Christian denomination, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists. What they all seemed to have in common was a belief in some creative power. They shared a sense of “createdness.”
This allowed them to see their athletic, academic and artistic talents as gifts that they had an obligation to nurture. They weren’t given great intellects just to sit in front of a TV. They weren’t given physical gifts to waste them with skipped practices or minimal efforts. They all sensed a sacred obligation to maximize their gifts. That was often a difficult burden. They frequently wished they hadn’t been so “blessed.”
Step 12: Having had this awakening as a result of these steps, I tried to carry this message to my teammates and to use these principles in everything I do. Leadership. Isn’t that what we are all trying to teach our kids? No team (or business, or nation) can be better than its leaders. Our teams live and die on locker room leadership. Step 12 is taking leadership and turning it in to culture.
As soon as your team leaders take their leadership outside the pool, field or court, in to their daily lives, your team culture is being built and strengthened. Every independent action that team members take, outside the athletic environment, builds culture.
The 12 Step process is the most demanding and successful addiction recovery process in history, but it could be so much more. It’s time to free the 12 Steps from the confines of addiction recovery and teach kids how to use these powerful principles in their daily lives.