Typically, as a high-school coach, if you take your team of rowdy teenagers to dinner in a public restaurant, and the evening is forgettable, it was a success! As much as you want them to represent your program well, that often means, “Don’t be rude to the staff, don’t be too loud and disturb the other patrons, and don’t make a mess.”

So, a few years back, as I was headed to a team dinner at Olive Garden with 18 boys, my initial hope was it would be forgettable—especially after our eight-hour drive from Tennessee to Florida. It wasn’t until 5 days later that I would discover what was a forgettable dinner for me was very memorable for others.

Typically, people only take to social media to complain, but that night, one woman was so impressed by our team’s behavior, she took a picture of our bus and sent it to her friend, who was eight hours away in Tennessee. Her friend received the text, then posted the message to social media and tagged some mothers from our school, and from there, it blew up; it was shared across the community.

 

Obviously, this was a moment of pride for me as a coach, but this moment of pride didn’t just happen. It required some intentionality.

Empower Athletes to Create A Positive Experience

Before the team and I got off the bus that evening, we had a discussion. I asked them two questions.

1. What would make a great team dinner? At first, I was met with puzzled looks and agitation. “Just let us off the bus!” However, after a bit of discussion, the team agreed it would be a successful dinner if we:
a. Connected as a team;
b. Represented the program well; and
c. Had fun.

2. How do we create that experience? Once again, I was met with irritated looks and grumbling. “Can’t we just eat?!” However, the players quickly came up with three key standards we could follow to create that experience:
a. No phones;
b. Use manners and say please and thank you; and
c. Laugh together but keep our voices down.

Now, it would have been easier for everyone—myself included—if I had just given them a quick speech on “behaving themselves”, and we rushed off the bus to inhale 50 baskets of breadsticks.

Instead, I guided the discussion, but I didn’t lecture. I didn’t need to threaten them with consequences, because they had agreed upon the experience they wanted, and how to create that experience. When someone got too loud, they reminded that person of our standards. They didn’t mind handing over their phones as they got off the bus, because they understood they were there to connect with their teammates—not their phones.

Opportunities We Ignore

Often, we gather as a team without giving very much thought into “why”. I see coaches who don’t give much thought to the opportunities these gatherings present, and then they get irritated when athletes are rude, loud, and on their phones.

We have to be intentional! On our eight-hour drive down to Florida that weekend, I wanted to maximize every moment with this group of young men. I wanted us to use those moments together to grow closer and build character.

If we want to build connections and develop character, we have to encourage positive behavior in our athletes. I let the players define the team experience they wanted, and then identify aligning behaviors, and our dinner became an experience to connect and develop character.

Small moments like this can impact our players. Now, few of them will ever remember that dinner at Olive Garden, but the experience they created led to a positive deposit in their character.

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