USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jason Smith is a former NCAA DIII athlete and college coach at all three division levels. Jason is just one of many former college and professional athletes, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
What would you say Michael Jordan’s most valuable asset was? His prodigious offense? His unquenchable competitiveness? His domination on defense? Jordan himself said: “My best skill was that I was coachable. I was a sponge and aggressive to learn.”
Raw talent may often get an athlete noticed, but it will only take them so far. It’s what the athlete chooses to do with that talent that will determine their success. Being coachable will go a long way toward any athlete’s development.
Coachable is about attitude, not athletic skill
What does it mean to be coachable? Former All-American Lindsey Wilson, co-founder of Positive Performance, has defined the term as “Being grateful that someone cares enough about you to push you to improve beyond where you would get on your own; being vulnerable enough to know you’re not perfect; being open to honest feedback and working actively to change bad habits.”
“I couldn’t say it better,” agrees NCSA recruiting coach and former head college baseball coach Andy Drake. “The biggest thing a lot of athletes don’t realize is that how you carry yourself shows coaches how coachable you may be. When I went to a game to watch athletes as a college coach, I was looking to see how coachable does this kid look. If your body language is terrible, if your coach is talking to you and you’re not paying attention, if your teammates are not doing well and you’re throwing your hands up, if you’re sitting on the bench when everyone else is up and listening to the coach, that’s what I was looking for.”
In other words, being coachable is more about attitudes and not athletic skills. It is one thing for an athlete’s abilities to plateau at a certain point; it is another when an athlete’s development is stymied by the athlete’s unwillingness to listen and learn.
Characteristics of the coachable athlete
It’s not easy to hear criticism, no matter how constructive or well-intentioned. The truth, as they say, can hurt. But Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers had this to say about athletes and criticism: “Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want to be told the truth.”
That willingness to receive honest feedback is perhaps the primary characteristic of the coachable athlete. “The coachable athlete,” Drake emphasizes, is willing to be told in what areas they will need to improve. When the coach says, ’You need to get better at this,’ they say, ‘What do I need to do?’”
The flip side of coachable
It is fairly easy to spot the less coachable athletes. With every pout, eye roll or protest and excuse, they are communicating to their coach that as far as they are concerned, the coach is wrong, the athlete is right, and nothing is their fault. “You tell an athlete, ‘We want you, but you’re going to need to get better at this and this and this when you get here,” Drake says. “Maybe the kid will say, ‘This is how I’ve been taught.’ Whether it’s roundabout or directly, they’re communicating, ‘I’m going to have trouble doing what you ask me to do because this is how I’ve always done it.’ If you’re not willing to do the things we ask you to do, we might not just have a spot for you.”
Drake identifies another red flag. “You have to be careful how you talk about the people you work with,” he cautions. “I’ve had interactions with kids where they throw a teammate under the bus, or during a visit, the family trashes the high school coach. Remember, you’re talking to someone who is also a coach. If they’re this willing to trash the coach they’re with now, this is something we don’t need to have in our program.”
How parents can help their athletes be coachable
If you think it’s hard for an athlete to hear criticism, it can be equally rough on parents, who are often their child’s biggest boosters. “Some parents automatically get defensive (if a coach offers criticism),” Drake says. “Ultimately, a parent has to be willing to trust the coach and realize that the coach has their athlete’s best interests in mind. I’m currently coaching a team of 10-year-olds. I heard one dad ask his son what the coach had to say, and then said, ‘Okay, let’s work on that.’ He’s backing us up.” The primary thing athletes (and parents) need to keep in mind is to not to take a coach’s criticism personally. “If I tell you you’re not hitting well, it doesn’t mean I think you’re a terrible human being,” Drake reassures. “It’s for the benefit of the athlete and the team.”
Don’t say you’re coachable; show it
Actions will always speak louder than words. Drake reports that he receives emails from student athletes saying that they are coachable. “They will include in their NCSA profile that they listen to their coaches. That’s a good thing, but that should be a given, right? My response to that is: “You can’t just tell me you’re coachable; you have to show me.”