Building with Trust

Updated: Jun 9

When I started sport coaching, I had no idea that it would transform me as much as the kids I was able to coach.


In September I was asked to help coach my tween's community basketball team. This might seem plausible to those of you who haven't met me, so let me set the stage. I'm five foot-four and I've played one season of basketball in elementary school.


Simply put, I have no game.

Serendipitously, I was matched with a young coach, "Coach B." who was not only gifted in coaching kids, he was a natural mentor to me. He treated me as an equal who had a few things to learn rather than she-who-has-no-game. I was committed to being the best co-coach I could, so I listened to him and watched, a lot. I also got a yellow whistle. It definitely helped.


Coach B. modeled what sport coaching looks like when it's fun, collaborative, and led. Yep, kids need leadership, and they need it in a way that encourages them to try new things and test the clear boundaries the coaches set. When they aren't sure, or things go sideways they need to be able to come back to their coach knowing they will receive coaching - ways to improve, stretch themselves, and grow.


It's like parenting, with more projectiles.


As practices passed, my competency increased, so that we could collaborate, assessing kids' areas of strength, and evaluate where we needed to focus skill-building balanced with fun. I was finding my space on the court with Coach B. and our players. A few weeks into co-coaching this team, my daughter's school coach asked if I'd be willing to help with a senior basketball team. I felt fine saying yes, by that point, as a coach, I had a little game.


Little did I know, things were going to take a hard left. At our first practice, I walked into the school gym, yellow whistle at the ready (better safe than sorry - whistle-wise) excited to meet my coach and the players. I was warmly greeted by two teachers who opened the equipment room for me, handed me the roster, and promptly sat down to eat lunch on the bench. I looked at them...they looked at me...taking a cue from the look on my face, they explained that they were the sponsors of the time, not the team, which by process of elimination of the adults in the room, left me, The Coach. There I was, yellow whistle dangling from my neck, nervous sweat about to bloom, looking at a gym full of grade sevens ready to play basketball. Tweens. So many of them. Including my own child. They looked at me...I looked at them... I had a split-decision to make.

Option One: Explain that there had been a big mistake, send them out to recess, and slink back to the safety of my office, or,

Option Two: Lean in to my small repertoire of basketball skills Coach B. had gifted me and see if I could make this work.


I looked at those kids and at that moment, they changed from being the players, to becoming my players. I leaned in. Hard.


I piovoted quickly to what I knew about building corporate teams. Trust. We had to start with trust.


Before a basketball was dribbled, we sat together at center court. I invited them to let go of everything that had come before our practice or might come after, to focus on their breath, and one strength they bring to our team. They knew, collectively, that each person there, including themselves, had something to offer their team.


Before a basketball was shot, we started at the whiteboard, I walked them through how we were going to build this team together, like a layer cake.

Whiteboard drawing of a layer cake, trust, skills, playing, winning

We worked our way up from the first layer:

  1. trust, once they trusted me, themselves, and each other, we could move to layer two,

  2. skills, once they had some foundational skills, we could move to layer three,

  3. playing the actual game, strategies, plays, and communication that might lead to the candle on the top, a non-essential but nice part of any cake,

  4. winning, it's possible to get to this layer without layers 1-3. We've all seen that team before, but,

  5. their coach, is the plate that supports the whole team, not the candle, not the first layer, but the bedrock where their team can rest solidly and safely.

I drew that cake every practice, asking the players to self-assess which layer they were at personally, and as a team, that day. We could then decide which layer needed attention in order to get to that candle.


We all need someone on the court, or in our corner, who we can trust.


After that first practice, that first cake, I went back to community ball, straight to Coach B. and led with, "So, guess what!?" We laughed at the insanity of it all, and without missing a beat, he offered to be a resource for me. He offered. He didn't tell me what to do, he didn't assume I couldn't sort it out. We hold our clients capable in executive coaching, and Coach B. held me capable of finding my own way to coach my team.

At our last practice before the school tournament, one of my players asked if I'd be coaching anything else at school. I explained I wasn't sure if they needed anyone, and asked why they were asking. They answered frankly, without sentimentality, "you're the best coach I've ever had." If you've ever known a 12-year-old, you know how monumental those six words are to be formed, go through the adolescent brain system, make it to the other side, and be offered, generously, to an adult. I was able to keep it together and not burst into tears as I told them how much I loved coaching them and the team. They left for class, none the wiser that coaching that team, and receiving their feedback, was one of the best experiences I'd ever had.


By building my school team from the bottom up, with trust, the players knew how to support each other. They knew we weren't going to move forward onto skills unless there was trust and kindness on the court. They gained skills and succeeded together, with the support of us all. If they wanted to get that candle, they were going to have to lean in, and they leaned in, hard.


Some of us, like Coach B. build trust and empower others intuitively. Some of us are overt about it, whiteboard-layer-cake-style. Regardless of the approach, when we start with trust in ourselves and in the capability of others, transformation is possible, connection is possible, growth is possible.


Where will you build with trust first?

An edited version of this post was published on April 20, 2022 in Fulcrum's BALANCE POINTS Newsletter. Subscribe to BALANCE POINTS today!

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