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.

Failing Your Way to Success

In case you missed it, Nick Foles (Philadelphia Eagles QB and Super Bowl LII MVP) gave some insight into the role failure has played in his success during the post game interview. At Success for Teams we have great appreciation for the role failure plays in an individual's ultimate success. Foles words are an invitation, almost, for us to embrace the humbling reality of NOT achieving what we initially set out to accomplish because of what that failure does to bring us closer to greatness.

Studies have consistently shown that as human beings our greatest fears are failure, death, and public speaking.

Recently I came across a quote by Marie Curie that read, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”

The Mount Ida design college in Massachusetts featured an exhibition in 2015 called Permission to Fail. "The curator asked a group of 50 prestigious designers and illustrators to send in their mess-ups, rough drafts and preliminary sketches so that they could be put on display.” The point is to teach students that the process is messy and that the "great ones" are repeatedly imperfect before creating a masterpiece.

If we can understand the valuable role that failure plays in our success, could we then embrace it instead of fear it? Can establishing a radically different relationship with our own failure truly open up a new world of success for ourselves and our student-athletes?

We think it can.

How do you build failure into your practice plan? As strange as it sounds, we wish you much failure in the weeks ahead and look forward to sharing in your inevitable success.

Let Them Lead

By Molly Grisham, Leadership Development Consultant

A few months ago a well-respected college coach reached out to me about working with her team. She said they were coming off a good season but she was concerned about who her team leaders were going to be next year. The graduating seniors had been the core team leaders for several years and she wasn’t sure who was going to step up because they had relied on that class for so long.

After talking we came up with an action plan for the spring season. The plan would expose her team to a new way of thinking about leadership and it would give them opportunities to put their leadership skills into practice. She recently called me and the excitement was bursting through the phone! She said something like, “you’ve helped us to think differently about leadership. We now see leadership as influence and we understand that everyone on our team has influence. In light of that, I think we are going to shift from traditional Team Captains to a Leadership Council!” I agreed with her decision. This is the right move at the right time for her team. They had all bought into this concept, so why not allow a large number of players to have a voice at the table?

She also shared the plan to have the team select a leader from each of the four classes to serve on the Leadership Council. In the past, I have heard other teams share concerns over young players having a voice on a Leadership Council because the team feels like the young players don’t yet know the culture of the team. Here is why I think it is a great move to allow your new freshman to have a voice in your program:

  1. They know more than you think: Your new players may not have much experience with your team culture but they examined it in great detail when making their college decision. They listened to you as you were selling your team culture in the recruiting process. Odds are, they have researched, (AKA stalked) your current players online and because of that, they know more than you think they know. You recruited these players because you thought they would enhance your team culture, so why do they need to be silent for a year to learn the culture? If you’ve done your job as a recruiter then you are bringing in players who will move your culture forward. Asking them to be silent for a year only delays that process.
  2. They provide fresh eyes: I would venture to guess that within one week of arriving on campus your new players will be able to call your team out on some really important cultural issues. For example, if you claim that family is one of your core values, your new freshmen will know very quickly if that is accurate or not. They will either experience family or they won’t. When we exclude them from the conversation we miss the opportunity to have fresh eyes on our team culture and we create a culture that is void of accountability.
  3. They are recent leaders: While your freshmen might be new to your program they certainly aren’t new to leadership. Most of them spent the last year leading and in some sports they may have spent all summer in a high-level league where they were asked to lead the way. Depending on your team culture your seniors might not have practiced their leadership skills since high school and those skills have now atrophied. Your new recruits are in tune with their own leadership skills because they have put them into practice recently. Asking recent leaders to press pause on using their leadership skills only hurts your team in the long-run because their leadership skills will deteriorate.
  4. Don’t be a hypocrite: If you value leadership then you took into consideration which recruits had the ability to be leaders on your team. While many recruits may not want to be “the” leader their freshman year, it would be hypocritical of you to silence them for a year when you claimed that you valued the leadership ability they would bring to the team. By going back on your word you destroy the trust that is needed between a coach and a student-athlete.

You wouldn’t recruit a five-star player and then ask her to sit the bench for a year just because she is a freshman.

If their skills are the best on the team, then let them play.

If their leadership skills are the best on the team, then let them lead.

If you need help in developing your team as leaders please reach out. We have some great programs and options for you.