12 Inspiring Coaching Lessons from Oprah’s Classroom

Oprah Winfrey Harpo

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After 25 years and some 4,600+ shows, the Oprah Winfrey Show ended last week. Oprah became a cultural icon that with one fell swoop could make you laugh, cry and think; she inspired all of us to become better people and elevate us to higher callings.

Just as my family taped the final episode of MASH, I recorded the final episode of Oprah. As I sat and listened to her, she referred to her show as one big classroom; I share that vision and it’s why I called this site, Soccer Classroom. We all learn from one another and we all teach one another. It gives credence to the “Learning Head Fake” that Randy Pausch so famously and aptly made us think about in his Last Lecture.

As I listened to Oprah’s last performance, I was struck by the lessons she was sharing. These are universal truths for life…and, of course, for coaching soccer. Duh! I thought I would interpret the lessons Oprah imparted with the world and apply them to soccer. After all, as coaches, we are the “Head Fake” to propel our players to greater things in life. Thanks, Oprah, for the amazing lessons learned and the inspiring lessons taught.

1. Show Up
In a show of Cal Ripken-like triumph, Oprah did not miss a day in 25 years. And, Cal gets all the credit for being an Iron Man. He’s got nothing on Oprah. And, the reason we must show up: Our players are counting on us. I know there are days “I just don’t have it”, but once I get there, I find the energy from my players to conduct a great session. We are a team and we elevate each other because there is no way we can always be at our best. This is one of the best aspects of team – show up, be held accountable and have a great session you were originally dreading. You’ll be surprised at the results of simply showing up, day after day.

2. Everyone Has a Calling
As coaches, we have to find the calling of every player. So many coaches simply want to coach “the team” without regard to individual player needs. While coaching only the team is way easier than treating each player as an individual and finding out what makes them tick, you are shortchanging the opportunity. Finding each player’s calling results in dynamic interactions and higher levels of relationships and results. We must help players find their calling. And, once we do, we must support those efforts in helping them to carry it forward.

3. The Platform is a Privilege
The platform to show up each soccer event and the opportunity to teach is a privilege. You are allowed into a player’s life to make a difference. Your power comes from the platform, but you have to be authentic to maintain that power. And, you have to decide how you will use that power. Your actions in life speak for you. It is certain that you receive in direct proportion to what you give – so give it everything you have. And, you hold in your hands the opportunity to change lives. It’s all because you have the platform…and it’s a privilege.

4. Learn by Watching Others
As coaches, we don’t have to have all the answers to life’s questions – on or off the field. We learn by watching others. Learn from mentors in life. As my brother once shared with me, “Learn from my mistakes. I made them for you.”
In my pre-season meeting, I always implore my parents to understand their actions from the sidelines make a difference. I ask them, “Consider your action and ask, what are you teaching your players?” In order to create the best opportunities possible, we have to learn from each other by watching and sharing with one another. How are you getting better? Who are you watching?

5. You Alone are Responsible
Life’s moment of liberation comes when you accept responsibility to live your life as your own. We, and we alone, are responsible for our actions and success. The importance of your energy when you take the field is unmistakable on your players: body language, tone and preparedness all count. Are you taking the responsibility seriously to create the best opportunities possible for your team? Are you making sure that your players aren’t making excuses, but rather accepting the responsibility to work hard to excel? You must instill the mindset from a sheepish “Sorry” to the positive replacement of “Next time!” The empowering mindset precedes success.

6. Newton’s Third Law
This is an immutable law in physics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If you are angry, you can be certain your players will be angry. If you are positive and prepared, your players will embrace and return that energy back to you in full force. Live your life and your actions by the Golden Rule. Before you step onto the field, leave all your worries and concerns on the sidelines. Tip: Take 20 seconds before you leave your car to mentally prepare a buzz saw of wonderful energy for your team. Your players are noticing.

7. You are Not Alone
The shared experience of a team enhances our journey and builds us together to higher levels. It is imperative that we pay attention to team dynamics. Get it right and the camaraderie and confidence builds; get it wrong and it is a downward spiral into individuality and dissention. In true Maslow style, the highest levels of state go from: dependent (as a child) to independent (as an adolescent and young adult) to hopefully achieving interdependence. We all count upon one another and need one another – especially as a successful team. There is no such thing as a self-made man and there certainly is no self-made coach.

8. Disaster Rises from Unworthiness
Validation is a fundamental human need – to feel worthy in the world. The common thread of human disaster comes from the feeling of being unworthy. Though soccer, we have the platform to teach those life lessons and instill the gift of confidence in our players. As Oprah pointed out, everyone and every player wants to know they are seen, heard and matter.

How are you making sure your players are seen, heard and matter?

9. Success Rises from Shared Visions
In order to have a shared vision, you must first understand your own coaching philosophy. Do you have one? We certainly can’t know where we’re going if we don’t have a plan to share. After all, the time you need a map is before you enter the forest. Now, once you have that vision, we need to live it: your actions are a reflection of your life and the fuel to inspiring and achieving those shared visions. Shared visions come by embodying the values necessary to overcome the obstacles that will certainly be placed in front of you. And, in the process, be kind and generous and gracious to give credit to those players, coaches and administrators around you.

10. Know there is Something Greater than You
I have a favorite saying. It goes, “I am not the center of the Universe; I am a small spec of it.” For me, it’s a mental state that reminds me that the world does not revolve around me and my little sphere. Soccer and my world are simply a part of the universe and it forces me to connect the dots for my players. Unfortunately, and we’ve all run into the jerks on the opposing touchline, there are some coaches who believe they are the God’s of their own sphere. They’re willing to bend and break the rules to achieve some end result and forget their place as part of the greater whole. This is why I really like coaching lesson 6; this always comes back to bite you.

11. Create a Safe Harbor
As coaches, we never fully understand each family and life situation and the mental state our players arrive in to the field. Creating a Safe Harbor through sports can be one of the greatest head fakes the platform can provide to us. I personally grew up in a broken home and I found solace in sports and a wonderful community. My awesome coaches provided me the opportunity to flourish and allow the difficulties of the day disappear. By creating safe harbors and mindful that there is something greater we’re trying to achieve, while still holding player accountable, we can understand that a rising tide lifts all boats.

12. The Final Test: Displaying Gratitude for the Work
Gratitude and humility elevates all people. We all must share the yellow brick road of blessings and use the experience of the work for good. I have always believed in the “cross the street test.” To me, it’s the final test as a coach. When you see your players downtown, they can do one of two things. They can cross the street to come greet you; or they can cross the street to get out of the way. No matter which it is, we know if we’ve reached that player. Nonetheless, we have to have display gratitude to have done the work and used the platform for the best of its highest purpose. In fact, you never cease being a coach, a coach in the game of life.

I will personally miss Oprah Winfrey and the daily lessons she taught all of us. She is an amazing woman whose life’s work embodied her value system, inspired confidence and elevated souls. I hope I can do that same as a soccer coach.

What do you think are the best lessons from Oprah?


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