Creating Hunters – Coaching a Culture and Mindset
By: Lauren Green
Brooklyn Nets, Asst. Strength & Conditioning Coach
As I rolled over in my twin sized cot, with my feet hanging over the end and my dog lying underneath, I opened my eyes to see a figure moving around me in the dark. It was my best friend and his brother, awake and getting dressed. “What time is it?” I asked them. His response was simple and straight forward, “Time to go get our food so we can eat tonight. Are You coming? Or do you not plan on eating tonight?!” I had two options: continue to sleep and risk not eating, or get up and find a way to keep up. As a human and one that particularly loves to eat, the choice was simple. This was my first encounter with the responsibility of harvesting my own food, and an experience I will never forget.
For some people around the world, this is still a very common activity. Living off of the land is how humans did it for thousands of years and how we got here today. But like many others, I was (and still am) a victim of our modern society. Our hunting consists of foraging through our pants pockets for our car keys so that we can track down a butchered steak at the local super market or a garden salad at a restaurant. We have come a long ways from the survival needs and daily habits of our ancestors. We aren’t so fortunate to know the joy and fulfillment of reaping the products of our labor as they did.
You might be saying to yourself, “Lauren, I don’t get it. I thought this was about training not nutrition?” Well it is. It was not until years later that I was able to truly see what happened that day. The day I learned that in our modern society everyone wants to eat, but few are willing to hunt.
Most of you have probably heard of the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” And I am sure we all get the gist of it, independence and autonomy. We can’t always rely on others to do things for us. This is the basis of the proverb, but there is much more depth to it. For example, are you teaching the man about what type of fish are in which bodies of water? Does he know which types of bait to use for which fish? What time of day is best? Do you prepare all fish the same? How much success will he actually have catching the fish, or is he just casting lines out hoping to get a nibble? Is fishing the only means of nourishment, or can fishing actually open up other resources for nourishment?
You see, fishing represents understanding and perspective. The perspective of process oriented thinking. Hunting represents the understanding that to get what you want you must plan, prepare, practice, gain experience, execute, fail and learn from your experiences. When I think of my first day of hunting, I didn’t learn that I need to go look for an animal, harvest it, prepare it and consume it. I already knew that. I understood the general process. What I didn’t know was how those things were actually accomplished, and the amount of planning, preparation, and focus that went into executing the hunt successfully. As in hunting, life is not about following steps 1 through 3 and automatically receiving a desired result. Training and development are variable. Things differ from player to player, and child to child. It is about exposing that athlete to appropriate experiences in a progressive fashion that will allow them to grow their understanding of themselves and the environment. As a hunter, how can you use your tools and skills to give yourself the best opportunity for success? And in reflection, how can you improve your skills and tools to better suit the environment?
As a performance coach to youth, amateur, and professional athletes, I have always held on to the definition of learning as a change in behavior do to past experiences. In my opinion, behavior has a lose meaning in this definition. Your body learns to adapt to the stresses put upon it in training. Your perceptions of work quantity and quality changes as you gain more experiences. Your understanding of success changes depending on your perception of your experiences. It is our job as coaches to give youth athlete’s experiences, not tell them what they should do. I never look at a practice plan or training program as a prescription list of drills and exercises. We are giving our athletes an environment in which they can explore, experience and learn. This is where athletes learn how to fish, learn how to hunt, and become autonomous.
One of the hottest buzz words I’ve heard floating around professional sports these days is culture. Many coaches, teams and organizations are using this term and putting money and effort into “changing their culture”. I often wonder how well people understand the concept of culture and how it is developed. Key word here is DEVELOPED, not changed. One can’t replace a culture. Changing something infers that there is an end to one thing and the beginning of another. Life does not work that way. Humans don’t work that way.
According to Merriam-Webster, one of the definitions of culture is:
“The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations”
This explanation of culture gives us so much understanding of how culture works. It is fairly easy to see the ‘WHAT’ of culture: Knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors. But the ‘HOW’ is what should stand out the most. That culture (in its entirety) is dependent on the capacity for learning of the successors. Whether you are developing culture in new group or reassessing your current state within a group, culture development is always dependent on the learning capacity of the successors or subordinates. If you are not transmitting the knowledge to the successors or focusing on their ability to understand the knowledge, you can’t expect the patterns of belief and behavior to change. This is especially evident within youth and sports.
Children lack the experiences in life to understand the depth of actions and consequences. For the sake of survival, parents do things for their children they would be unable to do on their own. They lack the knowledge and skills to execute a necessary task, so we step in and do it for them. As hunters, we go harvest the food, and bring it to the table for our children to gain nourishment. But the act of providing food or their awareness of me hunting does not develop the culture in which my children will carry that on. I must transmit my knowledge to them for them to believe in its effectiveness and display appropriate behavior. They need to understand the general process of the hunt, and then see it. Eventually they become involved in it and experience some of the hardships and challenges associated with the culture. This is where they expand their ability to learn and gain usable knowledge. This is where their ability to critically think and understand concepts with depth. At this point we are shaping their mindset to reflect the beliefs and behaviors of our desired culture.
Like everything in life, mindset starts at the top. That means it starts with you the coach, the mentor, and the developer of culture. You hold the power to literally design the environment which in essence is going to drive their experiences. You are also the one who can have a great influence of their perception of success and failure. Now I don’t want us to think of success and failure as winning and losing, but more attainment of a desired result from a process. This concept is often confused by many coaches, especially those who coach youth athletes. We need to be very clear on what we are setting as expectations and goals, because this is what shapes our athletes experiences and perception of success. Our perception and our athletes perception in this regard, is known as our mindset. Mindset plays a driving force in learning, which we now know is a necessity in developing culture.
For example, let’s say you are training to improve jumping and landing mechanics with an athlete. Here are two commonly used drills for training these athletic qualities:
- Depth drop to box jump from a box
- Depth drop to countermovement jump to a desired height (using a vertech for example)
We have two different drills with the same origin, but with different desired results. Both are asking the athlete to land and quickly rebound with an opposing jump. Both drills have objective measures of success. But neither specifies quality. Both give the athlete a Results Driven Mindset instead of a Process Driven Mindset. The first example, the athlete can compensate a poor jump height with excessive hip flexion on the landing to accomplish the goal of reaching the top of the box. This will just reinforce poor compensatory patterns that will have adverse effects later on. The second drill can give the athlete false interpretations of failure if they are unable to reach the specified height. Or it can also give them false interpretations of success if they use undesirable compensatory patterns to achieve that jump height.
As I stated, the purpose of the doing any drill was to achieve a training adaptation. In this case we were looking for a specific movement pattern improvement. Accomplishing the result of jumping a certain height or on to a box, does not give any indication that the athlete successfully achieved the training goal. In this we see how the athlete’s mindset, or perception of success, was driven by the environment they were placed in. Again, the environment is in our control. How can I change that as a coach? Give the athlete goals and expectations that are directly connected to the desired training adaptation. We are not training the athletes to jump on boxes, the purpose was to learn and practice safe and efficient landing and jumping positions. We can do the same drill without the external markers, grading the athlete on their ability to reach relative markers based on your desired adaptation. Use video to support you evaluation. Did the athlete avoid knee valgus, maintain posture, and create an appropriate angle of propulsion? Our job as coaches is to make sure they are aware of their success achieving those goals, not the absolute goals of height.
We as coaches initiate and reinforce mindset to our athletes. They will always reflect our mindset and judge their success based on the expectations we set for them. I often see performance coaches using absolute numbers to display performance outcomes. This has some relevance as many things in sports are intermingled with absolute values. The rim in basketball is 10ft tall, and always will be. So if a basketball player improves his/her vertical leap a few inches, it is a good thing right? But what if we only trained them with results based measures and mindsets, and they learned detrimental compensatory techniques to achieve those numbers? Now they are at higher risk of injury. Why don’t we see the coaches promoting the athlete who maintained their jump performance and drastically improved their jumping mechanics? Because we are working in a result based mindset versus a process based one.
One of the most impactful things I have learned in professional sports is that the best athletes in every sport are the best compensators. They are the best at finding a way to get the results despite the process being flawed or inefficient. This is the gift that allows them to have success within a given sport. This can also be their greatest flaw. Just imagine if we as coaches can harness their gifts and help them gain a process driven mindset that will maximize and protect their gifts, or even enhance them.
From firsthand experience, the first thing the performance coach does at a collegiate or professional club is look for deficiencies and precursors of injuries. First and foremost, we look for ways we can improve their weaknesses and fill the gaps to mitigate injury. Then we focus on performance enhancement. Youth coaches should focus on developing autonomous and aware well-developed athletes. This will lead to less time spent correcting and more time spent enhancing their talents.
In my opinion sports are our modern society’s replacement for survival skills we would have learned in the wild. Running, jumping, climbing, crawling, throwing, leaping, bounding… these are all things we learned how to do as developing humans in the wild. Cavemen did not need a performance coach to teach them these things. Those skills were fundamental parts of hunting and overall survival. But the fact of the matter is, we are not cavemen and those learning processes are no longer brought about the same way. Now we have sports that allow us to continue expressing and challenging our natural abilities in such a way that our modern lives don’t afford us.
As coaches of youth athletes we must give the right mindset to our athletes. Youth sports are not preparing your child, or evaluating their potential, for elite sports. Sports are for enhancing your child’s mental and physical development to prepare them to be the best humans and citizens they can be. Give your youth athletes a process driven mindset and develop the next generation of hunters.
About the Author:
Lauren Green is currently the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Brooklyn Nets of the NBA. Along with working with the NBA team, Lauren also serves as the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Nets’ D-League team, the Long Island Nets. Lauren serves an instrumental role in the Nets Player development system, aiding the NBA team in the implementation of their Strength, Injury Mitigation, and Sports Science programs. Dually, Lauren designs and implements a similar program for the D-League team that prepares the players to transition and progress into the NBA team program.
Prior to working for the Nets, Lauren was with the Los Angeles Dodgers of the MLB. Working in the Dodgers’ minor league system for 3 years, Lauren served as a minor league affiliate Strength and Conditioning Coach, and was named California League Strength Coach of the year in 2015. After the 2015 season, He was given the title of Latin American Coordinator of Strength and Conditioning. In this role Lauren was responsible for designing and implementing developmental programs that would prepare the Dodgers’ international, mostly from the Caribbean and Central/South America, teenage signees for the rigors of the American minor league system and culture of professional baseball. From strength training, arm care, speed and agility training to nutritional and cultural acclimation guidance, Lauren was given the responsibility of caring for and nurturing the organizations youngest and most impressionable players.
After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Physical Education from St. Cloud State University and a Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Concordia University in Chicago, Lauren developed a research-based approach to long term athletic development within his training philosophy and programs. Lauren is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), and Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach (RSCC) through the NSCA. He is also a certified Performance Enhancement Specialist through NASM and certified Olympic lifting coach (USAW1) through USA weight lifting.
Prior to his career in professional sports, Lauren trained thousands of youth athletes in the private sector. From the ages of 8-18, Lauren implemented training programs to enhance the development of sport-specific skills as well as overall athleticism. Lauren displays a passion for the development process and its ability to influence the future by establishing a great foundation of training and understanding. Despite working in the elite professional levels as of late, Lauren is regarded as a development specialist.