By John Garrish
It takes a deliberate, intentional strategy to continually impact and guide young people in today’s world. The amount and extent of influence on our young boys and girls occurring outside of home, school, or practice is greater than it’s ever been. Perhaps it’s contrary to common thought to say that making a positive presence felt as regularly as the often-negative influences does not necessarily mean proliferating “face-to-face” interaction. Instead, remote relationship-building relies on maximizing genuine interactions instead of forcing them.
If you search for “social media” on Google Images, you’ll likely find avatars representing the likes of Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Understandably, not every coach will be comfortable utilizing and interacting on each of these platforms. If I may dramatize and compare: An effective principal in an English-speaking community wouldn’t ask the school’s French teacher to teach using only Mandarin and expect classroom success. Without supporting and equipping the teacher with the tools necessary to learn Mandarin and, further, use that Mandarin to teach French classes, she’s failed the teacher and her students.
This reminds me of a parable Gary Schofield often shares in which a coach from the States receives a call from a high-level German soccer team gauging his interest in working with the players. The coach accepts and then reflects on what he should do first to prepare for the position. The coach shouldn’t scroll through the roster or coaching staff to familiarize himself with their faces; he shouldn’t even concern himself yet with the training required for high-level soccer players. The first thing that he should do is learn to speak German!
Getting Started with Social Media
A coach looking to capitalize on the times and use what I would argue is the most underrated resource at a performance coach’s disposal should first learn the “language” of social media. If you wanted to learn Russian, you wouldn’t just pick up a Verkhoshansky book and figure it out. One of my old teachers called that reverse osmosis. I still haven’t figured out what that meant but I know it doesn’t work.
In actuality, to learn Russian you’d first learn letters, then how to say “hi” and “bye” or “please” and “thank you” before you got to the serious stuff. Similarly, social media usage should follow suit; to immediately embrace these platforms in their entirety would miss the greatest features and applications of the resource. Consequently, not knowing how to appropriately use a certain platform could lead to misuse, confusion, and mishaps comparable to using a language you don’t yet understand.
Chances are that you’re already using a form of social media, whether in training or communication. Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are just a few examples of the seemingly endless social media platforms out there. Steven Wildman and Jonathan Obar defined social media as computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, career interests, and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks. By this definition, performance coaches have been on social media sites for decades.
Coaches started sharing training videos, performance updates, career-related concerns, and subjective questions for each other back in 2003 on the Charlie Francis forums. In the time the site’s been active, we’ve seen media-sharing services such as YouTube, Google+, and Dartfish become staples of a strength and conditioning coach’s daily continuing education. Every week, staffs across the country meet for professional development, outsourcing off-campus experts via teleconferencing technologies such as Facetime, Skype, and Google Hangouts.
All of the common examples I’ve mentioned are tremendous methods for exchanging content, sharing ideas, and developing intra- and inter-professional networks in a space where coaches are comfortable. However, if we want to best capitalize on the positives of social media, coaches should find their space where athletes are comfortable and present. I respectfully disagree with the coaches that dismiss social media, saying “it’s not for me.” Twitter, for instance, was created largely as a platform for sharing what “is for you” and presents an opportunity to do so.To best capitalize on social media’s influence, coaches should use the platforms that athletes use. Click To Tweet
I propose three primary categories of social media sharing and interaction: community (campus) interaction, professional (network) interaction, and personal (friends and family) interaction. These categories are all defined by their intended audience; however, unless the user chooses to add an additional step, posts are shared to all of these “audiences”—and often beyond them. To some, this is a concern; there are no closed doors in social networking.
Social media is the constant microscope that the responsible mentor sees as a “show me” opportunity, while the selfish attention-seeker sees it as a “look at me” opportunity. If we’re hesitant to enter the next generation’s “space” in part because we know that it’s where they dwell, we should also understand that they have a better pulse for these outlets and the intentional sincerity of its users. They’ll figure you out. As a good teacher knows, students will see right through you and easily identify what’s meaningful to you. Social media is no different.
Students, Parents, and On-Campus Interaction
There’s an unfortunate misconception on our campus that the “No Left Turn” sign just outside of the school’s gate is unmonitored by police and therefore unlikely to be ticketed. Though sometimes true, there’s obviously a reason our campus security and police department have placed the sign there. Whether it be for traffic regulation or student safety, it’s an order we should follow.
As educators, it’s our responsibility to teach our students to do the right thing and uphold their integrity even in the “smallest” moments. (Disclaimer: There’s no such thing as a “small” moment.) If, as their coach, I demand they honor the sign but then the students watch as I leave campus and make that left turn, it would reflect very poorly on my integrity and leadership. However, if each and every time a student sees me leaving campus I follow the sign and turn right, that student is more likely to follow my example because they see it really matters to me. This is an example of American psychologist Albert Bandura’s theory of observational learning and modeling.
I found this definition of the concept from Steve Wheeler, associate professor of psychology at Plymouth Institute of Education, to be especially relevant:
In essence, he (Bandura) believed that learning could not be fully explained simply through reinforcement, but that the presence of others was also an influence. He noticed that the consequences of an observed behavior often determined whether or not children adopted the behavior themselves.
“Presence of others” resonates most. Social media, like any other social environment, will without a doubt have its share of members present and an immeasurable amount of “observed behavior.” We can either hope that those present, along with their observable behavior, are positive influences or we can step in and take this experience on with our students. Like the off-campus right-hand turn, a student’s observation of a responsible coach’s social media usage will not only tell them more about the coach, it’ll provide a model of appropriate behavior to follow.A coach using social media responsibly provides a model of appropriate behavior for students. Click To Tweet
As adults in a position of authority, I believe the least responsible thing that we can do is limit or revoke a student’s social media privileges because of the “negatives” that might come from it. Those “negatives” are just the lowest hanging fruit. Words, both spoken and written, have been starting wars and ruining lives for centuries. The perpetual stage, immortal footprint, and boundless audience are what separate the voice of the digital age from that of any other era. The unceasing imprint of our words, immortalized through retweets and screenshots, leaves no room for error if and when we decide to use our “voice.”
Digital networking isn’t just the interaction of the future, it’s the hub of interaction for the present. Pre-adolescent kids say “the darndest things” because they’ve yet to learn what’s appropriate and necessary. If we want to teach an elementary-aged child what is and isn’t appropriate, we wouldn’t just tape their mouths shut to avoid the negative—we’d teach them how to communicate, which words to use, what should be said, and, of course, what shouldn’t. Furthermore, we’d teach them appropriate word usage through our own diction as Bandura’s theory suggests is more influential.
Learning to use language productively is a must-have in a young person’s development and educational experience because we understand that effective verbal communication is a prerequisite for just about every career. This may be an unpopular opinion, but effective social media interaction is set to be every bit as necessary as its audible counterpart in an individual’s career prospectus.
Foreign language teachers and teachers of English as a second language spend years developing their curriculum; years, frankly, that performance coaches don’t have to teach this digital “language.” At the beginning and end of the day, we have programs to write and young men and women to lead. Any formalized teaching beyond simply modeling behavior is an added benefit for the students and is encouraged, but not a necessity. It takes a village, so to speak, to raise (teach) a child. Coaches, teachers, and mentors stress proper social media usage on a daily basis simply by exemplifying proper social media usage.
Perhaps the best thing about social media for the responsible model is that all interactions are made visible. You can make a lasting impression on a young person via social media without ever making direct contact with them. If you’re a coach that commits to professional development, your young athletes will see and value your commitment to making yourself, and them, better. If you show your love for your significant other and family, it can provide an example of what a loving and healthy relationship looks like. Lastly, social media provides an opportunity (for better or worse) for coaches to share what they do in their free time.
As mentioned above, young people can see right through a façade and, sadly, too often find adults uninterested in them when the workday ends. It can’t be expressed strongly enough that the point is not to simply increase direct contact. A coach who visits other facilities, attends conferences, and maintains a socio-professional profile proves without direct contact that they care about their job and, more importantly, their students. As with anything, all things must be done in moderation. There comes a point where our over-willingness to share yields diminishing returns and dilutes the impact of our posts.
Professional Interaction with Other Coaches and Staff
For the sake of this article, when referring to “professional” interaction, I mean the profession as a community rather than professionalism as an action. Every post, comment, like, repost, retweet, message, picture, and video should reflect a constant, non-negotiable state of professionalism. Anything less and the coach should consider stepping away from social media entirely.
We’re lucky to call a profession home where people commit not just to themselves and their own, but to the profession as a whole. It’s the responsibility of the individual to give back to the profession and the responsibility of the profession to look out for the individual. In a conversation I had with Coach Brett Bartholomew, he suggested that not only is our social media presence about much more than ourselves, but that the greatest way for us to serve the profession, specifically through social media, is to “fill a gap” of need. With so much bad information out there, the onus is on strength and conditioning coaches to overcome that bad information with good information of their own: “fighting a winning battle” for the profession, as Brett B would say.
Various ways of giving back to the field include sharing content, promoting others, and participating in dialogue and debate. Social media provides an opportunity to both commend and criticize if/when the time and colleague calls for it. In moderation, you can rarely go wrong in commending another coach. With criticism, however, we should proceed with caution.
There’s a big difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism is intended to uplift another professional and their athletes by providing insight and feedback that relates to a previous post. Destructive criticism is intended to discredit another professional and their post by referring directly or indirectly to a “better” way of doing things.
Now, if a coach shares a great deal of content, they should understand that they’re setting themselves up for comments and messages from coaches that don’t agree. When positive, this is a good thing and should be welcomed; if you’re not posting to create dialogue and help make your athletes and the profession better, why are you posting? However, when destructive or uninvited criticism does ensue, showing restraint and resisting the urge to reciprocate with destructive dialogue is then the responsibility of the original poster.
Personal Interaction with Athletes
Personal interaction refers to any activity regarding our personal lives outside of the workplace. This type of interaction typically involves friends and family members sharing personal hobbies and interests. Please note that personal life and private life are two very different things. My rule of thumb is if I wouldn’t use this moment as a teaching point during a post-lift chat with my students, I shouldn’t share it to social media.
Sharing positive moments in our own lives does nothing to trivialize our status as a leader and mentor for our students if we use the opportunity appropriately. I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with enjoying an alcoholic beverage with your friends in your alone time, but remember that alone time no longer exists when we’ve shared something online. If you were drinking with a buddy at a tailgate and an athlete and their family walked up to say hello, would you continue drinking or would you put the drink to the side for the duration of the conversation? Would you start a conversation with a student on campus by saying: “So, I was drinking a beer with my buddy”?
Probably not. However, there’s nothing at all wrong with starting a story with: “So, I was at dinner with my family.” Similarly, there’s no shame in sharing a picture of you and your spouse at your favorite restaurant. In fact, if there’s one thing that I’d encourage, it’s that. Young men and women need to see an example of what it means to be a productive member of a family and society in a space that’s saturated with unfortunate counterinfluences.
Connecting in Modern Times
Like the hallways of old, social media has become the hub of our students’ social environment. The expert mentor maintains a measured distance from the athlete’s social scene while still perpetuating his impact outside of the weight room. Through the unique dynamic of social networking, coaches should lead by example from within, in accordance with Bandura’s theory of observational learning, not from beyond or through evasion or deprivation strategies.Social media is one of the greatest tools at a performance coach’s disposal. Click To Tweet
Social media presents a tremendous opportunity to build and expand the brand of your program on campus and beyond through interaction with students, parents, and administration. Additionally, it becomes the universal, and international, canvas for us to present our own personal brand. Networking profiles have become today’s living, breathing résumés, with an everyday opportunity to express who you are and what matters to you.
If you fail to use social media and its wide-ranging platforms for personal growth, performance enhancement, digital networking, continued education, and professional development, you miss out on one of the greatest tools at a performance coach’s disposal.