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Beyond Individual Glory: The Art of Selflessness in Sports

How to get your team to play with cohesion and selflessness. Team sports require a selfless approach from all players to achieve success. However, not all players naturally possess this trait. In this blog, we'll explore some strategies that coaches and teammates can use to be more selfless on the field or court.

Purpose Over Person

1. Set clear expectations

The first step in getting an athlete to be more selfless is to set clear expectations. Coaches and teammates should emphasize that the success of the team is more important than individual accolades. By emphasizing team goals over individual goals, players will be more likely to adopt a selfless mindset. These expectations can be reinforced throughout practice, fundraising, games, and team building activities. Coaches must stay vigilant throughout the year when looking for opportunities to encourage selflessness. Everybody loves to touch the ball, everyone loves to score and we ALL relish at the opportunity to win the game for our team in the final seconds. But, we must allow those moments to come to us through the natural flow of the game while we work together to execute the game plan.

Here is an example of one of the tactics I use in football to encourage selfless play from wide receivers…the notorious “I” position in football:

During 7 on 7 or team drills, whenever a player caught a pass it was the duty of all 4 other eligible receivers to run to the receiver and give a high five or some verbal praise. In football, there’s usually 4 other eligible players who don’t get to touch the ball. Those 4 need to understand that every completion is a win for the offense. Our quarterback needs to analyze an entire defense in a matter of seconds and deliver an accurate pass each pass play. Every time we execute a pass play successfully, we need to celebrate it as a team. The other 4 players display selflessness by encouraging and “loving up” their teammates' success.

When coaches notice one of our 4 eligible players NOT congratulating the receiver after the catch, that player is pulled from the drill and required to celebrate all catches from the sideline. Usually a conversation takes place with the coach and that would go something like this: “I noticed you didn’t love up Tony on his catch, are you guys good?” It wouldn’t matter what the response was, they could have forgotten, they were too far away, they didn’t see it etc. The coaches response would always be “well, lets have you practice loving up our guys from the sideline for a few reps, and when I see you’re able to appreciate the efforts of others I will send you back in so you can do it from the field and maybe get some love of your own…sound good?”

This tactic worked so well, during games wide receivers can be seen sprinting to their teammates after every catch to help them up, give them a high five, pat them on the back and love each other up…it’s a beautiful sight for coaches, fans, administrators and future players of your program.

2. Lead by example

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Coaches and senior players should lead by example and demonstrate selfless behavior on and off the field. This could involve sacrificing personal glory for the benefit of the team, such as passing the ball to a teammate in a better position, or putting in extra effort during training to help the team improve.

One way coaches can lead by example is by always giving another coach or player credit. One of my assistant coaches showed me a new tackling drill that he found on YouTube and thought we should adopt this drill. He had a great understanding of the drill and was able to explain the purpose and function of the drill. I was happy to endorse the new drill and implement it into our practice plan. I am a firm believer of introducing athletes to new drills and concepts in the classroom or via walkthrough before trying it in practice for the first time. So, in our pre-practice meeting we planned to introduce this tackling drill to the team. Before I passed the floor over to the coach who was going to explain the drill I gave a quick intro of the coach and drill, and it went something like this: “Hey guys coach is going to introduce a new tackling drill, and we’re going to do it today, so make sure you lock in, pay attention and ask questions. Coach spends hundreds of hours looking for fun and innovative ways to help us win. He found this drill and spent a few more hours mastering the teaching of it and he convinced me that this drill is going to make us all better tacklers!”

When the head coach gives credit where credit is due, your players will do the same. Not only does loving up an assistant coach help with the coaching dynamics, but it’s a powerful example for players to see others be selfless.

When veteran leaders display selfless acts, coaches need to hype up those moments like the team just won the state championship. If I am ever over-enthusiastic about something, it’s when I see a selfless act by one of our players.

3. Foster a cooperative culture

In order to get players to be more selfless, it's important to create a cooperative culture. This could involve team-building exercises, group activities, and emphasizing the importance of team bonding. By fostering a sense of camaraderie and team spirit, players will be more likely to put the needs of the team ahead of their own personal goals.

One of my favorite team building exercises is dividing the team into small groups and giving one player from each group a task to complete…blindfolded. The rest of the group has to verbally communicate with the blindfolded teammate and aid in the task completion. The task is typically an easy one, write a word on a piece of paper, move an object from one place to another specific location. But, the activity is challenging due to the sensory deprivation. Groups need to work together and communicate clearly (see #5) and effectively. If you make this activity a competition, you’re really going to see team cooperation.

4. Provide positive feedback

Players tend to respond well to positive feedback. Coaches and teammates should recognize and praise selfless behavior whenever they see it. This could involve acknowledging a player who sacrifices personal glory for the good of the team, or congratulating a player who makes a critical pass to a teammate in a better position. By providing positive reinforcement, players will be more likely to continue displaying selfless behavior.

5. Communicate openly

Communication is key in any team sport. Coaches and teammates should communicate openly and honestly with each other. This could involve discussing team goals and strategies, as well as addressing any issues or concerns that arise. By communicating openly, players will feel more invested in the success of the team and be more likely to adopt a selfless mindset.

Giving players an opportunity to communicate about concerns, successes and share ideas opens up trust, and trust stimulates selfless play.

In conclusion, getting your players to be more selfless requires a combination of clear expectations, positive reinforcement, and a culture of cooperation. By emphasizing team goals over individual goals, leading by example, and fostering a sense of camaraderie, coaches and teammates can help players adopt a selfless mindset on and off the field. By working together towards a common goal, players can achieve success both individually and as a team.

For specific ideas on how to coach selflessness within your team, email me at to get tailored strategies for your team!

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