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  • Jack Fleming

Rumbling with Vulnerability

Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it's our greatest measure of courage.” - Brene Brown

Brene Brown is the worlds prolific expert on vulnerability, with an incredible Netflix special called Call to Courage that everybody should watch.

Coaching young males, being a male, being a coach - vulnerability is not usually at the top of the list of things talked about. We wear masks, fulfilling the bravado that everybody is all good but more than that, that somehow expressing how we think and feel (positive or negative) makes us weak.

When we write articles, usually the person who needs to hear it the most is the one writing. So when you read this, just know I suck at it, probably made every mistake there is to make when being a walled up, male coach. Making more along the way, hopefully there's some improvement.

Simon Turner from MVMT Sports challenged us all as coaches in a Zoom the other day, a poignant statement. Paraphrased.

"The measure of your impact as a coach, is not what you see on the court or field - but what is their impact in their school or community. If you're just thinking 'well they're fine with me' then you are fooling yourself." - Simon Turner

It really stuck, that our biased view of the impact we have on people isn't just on the basketball court. And furthermore, those whose behaviour doesn't reflect outside the court how they are inside - is only half the picture.

What People Really Want From Sports

When I asked the 10 young men I'm fortunate to coach this season, what they were most looking forward to about the season - here's what they said in summary:

  1. Being around the boys

  2. Playing together as a team

2 months later I asked - what have they enjoyed most about the season so far?

  1. The support around me.

  2. Getting to know my team mates.

  3. The vibe, bonding together and our chemistry.

World renowned sport researchers the Aspen Institute examined what parents' desired outcomes for their child playing sports are since the pandemic began. For parents competition was far behind the most important outcomes of mental health, physical health and fun.

Winning and competition matters, it's important. It's what every team is trying to do, but it's not #1 and it shouldn't come at the sacrifice of why people play sports.

What does that have to do with vulnerability?

Vulnerability is putting yourself out there to face risk, emotional exposure and uncertainty. It's about showing up and being seen, with no guarantee of the outcome.

While it might initially seem over the top, on the other side is the capacity - to fully experience joy, courage, love, bravery, empathy and authenticity. It's part of creating rich experiences and shared meaning within teams. It's the relationships you remember during the highest and lowest points with your team, that wouldn't have been the same without your team mates beside you.

Daniel Coyle's book The Culture Code even had vulnerability had part of its triad in the most successful teams.

In a time where everybody has been shadowed in their rooms for months on end, especially in young people there's emotional atrophy. If we truly care about the transformational impact of our athletes, we must build the skills of empathy, bravery, emotional regulation just like we would shooting, passing or dribbling. There couldn't be a more prevalent time when they need it.

Vulnerability is the path to empathy, the ultimate skill of a coach. Empathy is caught, not taught. The ability to stand in another's shoes and imagine their experience, is critical to the development of the teenage brain - emotional intelligence.

Simple Ways to Model Vulnerability and Teach Empathy

It's not getting up on stage and sharing the worst moment of your life, it's not attention seeking and it's not weakness. But here are some ideas on modelling vulnerability in our coaching:

1. Belonging to Yourself

  • How does how you were coached, or parented impact your own coaching behaviours?

  • What ways have you tried to be like your past coaches or your parents?

  • What ways have you tried to not be like your past coaches or your parents?

  • What's your growth edge, things you'd like to change about yourself to be the coach you want to become in the future?

2. Knocking on the Door of Sharing

  • Ask a question that encourages players to share how they think and feel.

  • Be prepared to also share first, or validate their potential discomfort.

  • Google forms is a great way to start, where players might be more comfortable typing it first than saying.

  • It can set up your next face to face conversation.

  • Examples might be 'What does the best version of you look like?' or 'What's difficult for you on this team?' and this one below comes from John O'Sullivan's book Every Moment Matters.

3. Showing Love

  • Acknowledging and shining a light on something that's already inside of them.

  • Affirmation is about being proud for somebody, not of them. It's something they can take ownership of.

“You have so much confidence in yourself, and within games like this, you turn it around like that. Wish I had your confidence.” - Steve Kerr to Steph Curry

Kerr is talking about his confidence, something inside of Steph and regardless of the outcome nobody can take that away. It really connects to Steph's identity, the video is below.

4. Expressing Joy

Joy can be the most vulnerable of all emotions, because we are so afraid that if we let ourselves feel joy somebody will rip it away from us. We dress rehearse tragedy, especially during uncertain times.

  • Practice with your players shining the light on others.

  • Do fun stuff, that makes people smile for no reason at all than for the sake of it.

(Check out the South Bay Lakers playing some ultimate frisbee below.)

  • Celebrate the small things in your program.

  • Don't take yourself too seriously!

"Speaking honestly and openly about who we are, what we're feeling and our experiences is the definition of courage. Ordinary courage is putting our vulnerability on the line. In today's world, that's pretty extraordinary." - Brene Brown

It doesn't get easier, for a coach or a player to express vulnerability, but hopefully we can push past the boundaries of old fallacies to help build resilience in young people. To help serve them the skills to be developed for why they play sports.

Want to Know More?

I will be doing a presentation on 'Vulnerability in Coaching' Feb 19th 9:30pm Antwerp Time or Feb 20th 7:30am Melbourne time, if you were interested in more practical ideas for your team. Contact Mike De Kraker or myself on Twitter in the coming days if you were interested.

If you have any thoughts, comments or feedback please share, retweet or shoot me an e-mail at! Thanks for reading.

Recommended Resources on Vulnerability & Empathy

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