Second Year Syndrome

Contributed by Molly Grisham - Founding Partner of Success for Teams and owner at A Person of Influence, LLC

If you aren't familiar with the term Second Year Syndrome, let me introduce you to a phrase that is very present in my world when working with college athletic teams. While there are many reasons a coach may bring me in to work with their team, one reason is Second Year Syndrome. I describe this issue as the rock bottom a team often faces in their second year with a new coaching staff. They find themselves dealing a massive divide between players and coaches. I can't count how many times I have worked with teams who are suffering from this issue. 

Second Year Syndrome typically develops when;
1: A coaching staff is hired close to the start of their first season and
2: They are replacing a coaching staff that was fired.
The combination of these two factors is prime for a difficult and possibly a second year that is beyond repair. 

When a coach is hired close to the start of their season they do not have the time they need to develop the relationships necessary to accurately assess the team culture. As a result, in the rush to get going they often don't realize the real issues/needs they have inherited. The people who have the most intimate knowledge about the team (the previous coaches) are now gone and the new staff is often relying on the Athletic Administration to provide insight. Unfortunately, Administration is often strongly influenced by the voices of unhappy players and parents who are quick to share their opinions on what needs to change. When this is the basis for the information passed on, the new coaching staff is set up for Second Year Syndrome from day one. It's a path for failure because the direction the new coaches are given is based on the wants/needs of young student-athletes who lack the training or expertise to guide a coaching staff. As a result, a new staff may find themselves digging in and leading a team in the wrong direction for a year. By the time they realize it is the wrong direction the shift that is needed in year two is met with strong resistance by a team. 

There are certainly situations when a coaching staff is hired close to the start of the season and is replacing a staff that was fired but the Administration gives the staff the space to form their own opinions about the direction the team needs to go. I have still seen Second Year Syndrome even when the Administration does not strongly influence the direction of a team. In this scenario, the driving force behind Second Year Syndrome is often that a new staff didn't over-articulate the new culture and new direction of the team. They made the assumption that the players "got it" in the first team meeting and then the coaches were off and running. The problem isn't visible during the first year because the players and coaches were still sharing in the excitement of everything that is new - new warmups, new roles on the team, new coaching style, new uniforms, and new opportunities. These all create a fog of excitement that can make reality difficult to see. Once the fog lifts, often after the first season, players and coaches may realize that they are not in the same place and in fact may feel miles apart. The feeling of separation can cause all parties involved to question the legitimacy of their relationships. 

Regardless of what causes Second Year Syndrome, it is important to know that it is a very real and very painful situation for a team (coaches included) to go through. I would also add, it is almost impossible for a coach to "fix" the problem without outside help. Because Second Year Syndrome damages relationships teams often need a neutral person to provide perspective and guidance.

So what should you do if you are a coach, you've taken a job close to the start of a season and you realize that the conditions are prime for Second Year Syndrome? 

  • First, while others may want to provide insight and direction for your program remember who you are and what you are about. Trust that you know how to build the culture you want to create.
  • Second, during the first season over-articulate the new vision and new culture for the program. I often hear coaches who are dealing with Second Year Syndrome say, "I don't know how we got to this point. It's like our players and coaches are miles apart." Ultimately, everyone wants to be at the top of the mountain but it's difficult to do when the players are trying to climb one side and the coaches are trying to climb the other side of the mountain. This gap can be reduced when the new staff spends the first couple of years over-articulating the culture, in fact, doing so redundantly, to make sure everyone who is within proximity of the team understands the plan. 
  • Third, if while sharing the new values and new direction of the team you discover that you have student-atheltes who simply won't get on board you must part ways with those student-atheltes. This may be a long process and while the buy-in from players is partly on the coach to communicate the vision it's also a choice the student-atheltes need to make. In choosing to remain on the old path they are saying no to being a part of the team. Share with your Administration from day one that you will give student-athletes one year to make the decision to join the team. 
  • Fourth, be consistent in the message you share with your Administration about the path you want to lead the team down. When Administration hears complaints, and they will, they will be in a better position to respond to those complaints in a way that reinforces the new direction you want to lead the team. 

As you read this you may have realized that I was describing your program. If that is the case, I want to encourage to ask for help. Most programs that don't get help by or in year two find themselves being micromanaged by Administration in year three because the decision has already been made that year three will be the final season. The reality is if year three is bad you won't get a year four, and if you are a woman the odds that you will ever coach again are stacked against you. I have been a part of programs that were willing to do the hard work to reunite the players and coaches on the same path but they were VERY intentional about the process and needed a neutral person to lead them. Sadly, I have also witnessed coaches who thought they could put their heads down and run faster to get to though Second Year Syndrome. Unfortunately, if the players and coaches are on two different paths running faster will just lead both groups further apart.