The “Yes, But” Athlete

I was part of an improvisation and sketch comedy troupe in high school. Our troupe was comprised of eight students. Each member ran with a different social circle. We were a group of misfits who were able to come together and create a hilarious show we were proud of every year.  Our shows included sketches we wrote either individually or as a group, and we peppered improv games in between out sketches. The experience was exhilarating. Every performance was well received because every member of our troupe understood the importance of the foundational dynamic called, “yes, and” thinking.

“Yes, and” thinking builds trust and cooperation among the actors on stage. It heightens a scene’s energy.  Good improv comedy is grounded in the affirmation and expansion of the material offered in the scene, not from its denial.

Here is an example of how “yes, and” thinking works on stage:

Actor 1: That’s a pretty big tractor you got there in your drive way, Paul
Actor 2: Don’t you know it. Bought this off old man Smith down the way. Too bad the transmission is shot.
Actor 1: I’m a fantastic wrench and happy to help you fix it, let’s take a peek under the hood here.

Now before you comment, “That wasn’t funny, Lauren”, You are right. It was not funny. My purpose in sharing this example is to showcase the two actors working in concert to progress a scene forward. This is an example of “yes, and” thinking.

Here is that same scene set up, but this time actor 2 will fail at “yes, and” thinking:

Actor 1: That’s a pretty big tractor you have here in your driveway, Paul
Actor 2: That’s not a tractor, that’s a corvette, and I would never park that car in my driveway, this is my garage.

If your initial reaction to the second actor’s statement is, “what a dick” your response is on point. The second actor is a dick. He just denied the scenario set up by his partner. The energy of the scene is deflated. The two actors become disconnected. If you have ever seen a denial like this in a live show you will remember how extremely awkward it is. It is also distressing for the actor who has been abandoned by their partner. Denying a scene stops forward progress and judges what the first actor proposed in the scene.

The dynamics of “yes, and” thinking can be applied to athletics. In reflecting on my years in sport, the most successful teams and individuals have displayed a proclivity for “yes, and” thinking. I have also been witness to those who are toxic to themselves and team environments because they are individuals I characterize as “yes, but” athletes.

The “Yes, and” Athletes

YA athletes are highly coachable. They are receptive to coaching feedback. YA athletes actively listen. When YA athlete are given instructions, their response sound like: “yes, coach”, “got it”, “sounds good”, or “I’ll get it done”. These are affirmations of hearingvaluing, and executing the coach’s direction. YA responses also exhibit and build trust between the coach and the athlete. This behavior is analogous to the actor affirming a scene set before him. No questioning. No doubting. All trust. All forward progress.

YA athletes are willing to commit themselves fully and non-judgmentally to their training. Their responsibility as an athlete is to be coachable and have confidence in the coaching. Because the coach-athlete relationship is intersubjective, growth of the YA athlete is more effective because together the coach and athlete create a new possibility for who the athlete can be and what the athlete can achieve.

If a coach tells a swimmer “this 100, breathe every stroke” a YA athlete will say “yes, coach” and then breathe every stroke. The stroke may feel strange, imbalanced, or uncomfortable. The athlete may even disagree with the coaching, but the disagreement is irrelevant for the time being. To clarify, just because a YA athlete executes training with this mentality does not mean she will always agree with the coach. On the contrary, YA athletes can question and disagree with a coach – the YA athlete simply manages their disagreement and brings it to the coach when it does not interrupt training. The time and place for discussing strategies, coaching choices, and an upwelling of an athlete’s feelings is not necessarily appropriate in the midst of a training session.

Characteristics of “Yes, And” Athletes

  • Listens actively and carefully to directives from the coach
  • Is open to feedback, even if feedback may be emotionally loaded
  • Is present in the moment and focused on task at hand
  • Able to manage unpleasant emotions, physical discomfort, and anxiety
  • Able to relinquish power to their coach and receive coaching without feeling judged
  • Recognizes there is a time for collaboration – it just may not be in the heat of a training session
  • If the athlete tends to be highly emotional– the athlete is able to check those emotions if the athlete disagrees with the coach and can remain focused on the work that needs to be done in the present
  • If more of a logical athlete –they are able to let go of data and technical nuances and allow themselves to be directed

The “Yes, But” Athlete

To be blunt, the “yes, but” (YB) athlete can be a pain in the ass to coach. Pardon the flip comment, but they can be. They can be disruptive. They are rarely coachable. They can be extremely toxic to a team environment and toxic to themselves. A YB athlete gives the impression that they are coachable. It is the impression that is so destructive.

Let’s go back to an example I used before.  A coach says, “this next 100, breathe every stroke.”  The YB athlete responds with “yes, but shouldn’t I practice breathing every other stroke? This is going to make my stroke even more imbalanced!”

Do you sense the rub here? The athlete said “yes” to his or her coach. That’s an affirmation. The affirmation gives the impression of collaboration. However, when the athlete follows the “yes” with a “but”, the energy of the moment is stifled and the flow of the session is interrupted. There is no forward progress. In an instant, trust is undermined. The veiled judgement of the coach creates distance between coach and athlete.

By saying “but” the athlete is negating the coaching while also challenging the coach’s authority, knowledge, and skill. The affirmation of YES is simply a stalling tactic for the athlete to challenge the coach. When a YB athlete engages in YB thinking three things happen:

  1. The athlete disrespects the role and expertise of the coach which in turn destabilizes the coach-athlete relationship
  2. The athlete has implied that the coaching provided is incorrect or inappropriate
  3. The athlete has assumed they know better than the coach and the athlete assumes the role of both athlete and coach.

 Characteristics of Yes, But Athletes

  • Responds defensively to coaching feedback
  • Focused on lofty, long range goals without paying necessary attention to immediate short term objectives in training
  • Easily distracted and emotionally volatile
  • Unable to manage emotions, discomfort, and anxiety
  • Unable to relinquish power to coach
  • Judges or questions coach in either veiled or explicit ways
  • If more of an emotional athlete – feels attacked or personally wronged when confronted with challenging coaching feedback
  • If more of a logical athlete – relies too much on their need for technical feedback and complete understanding of how something works before they buy in to giving the coaching suggestion a try

 What To Do If You Are a YB Athlete

The first step is to stop saying “yes, but.”  The next time you are given coaching simply respond “yes, coach.” Stop challenging your coach at inappropriate times. Even if you think you’re 100% correct – do your job in the moment which is to be an athlete. Own your role as an athlete. Be the best athlete you can be in the moment. Listen. Be the recipient of the coaching you are paying for. Do the physical and mental work that is being asked of you with discipline and grace.

Coaching YB Athletes

Coaching YB athletes can be exhausting. YB athletes might be either overly emotional or overly logical and allow their heads to get in the way of the bottom line – consistently executing solid work.  It is the job of a coach to know their athletes and learn how to best set expectations around behavior during training sessions. “Yes, but” athletes consume a coach’s time and energy, whereas “yes, and” athletes increase the collective energy of the coach-athlete or team unit. It is your responsibility as a coach to give the YB athlete an opportunity and environment to change. It is also your responsibility to consider YB athlete’s attitudes and behaviors impact on team dynamics.  YB athlete’s are not hopeless, but they do require a significant investment on the part of the coach.

In my years coaching, I have been fortunate to work with only a handful of YB athletes.  I’ve only had one case where a YB athlete transformed into a YA athlete. We worked together to achieve a new level of trust. This took time and patience on both of our parts. I ended up giving this athlete two options when responding to the coaching I provided. She could respond with “yes, coach, I can give this a go” or “yes, coach, and after my session, can we discuss XYZ?”. What eventually happened is the athlete would execute the training as coached. We would discuss her concerns once each session was complete. This took a lot of time up front, but after about two weeks of meeting each other in this new way, the frequency of her questions diminished and eventually stopped. The athlete gained more confidence in herself. She started to experience what it meant to be responsible for executing workouts and letting me, the coach, be worried about the progression of her training program.

Take a moment to consider what kind of athlete you are or what kind of athletes make up your team. How can you take responsibility for your actions as an athlete or as a coach to ensure a positive and cohesive environment on your team or in the coach-athlete relationship.

One final note: it is always important that athletes understand how to set and hold boundaries with a coach. In no way am I suggesting that a coach can or should be allowed to abuse her power over her athletes. This is especially true when coaching youth athletes. There is a difference between coaching with integrity, strength, and conviction and being a coach who is manipulative and volatile.

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