An Interview with Coach Kevin Black Before He Heads to Rio

coaching olympics success Aug 08, 2016

In my quest to connect the dots as to what drives people to step into their own greatness, I’ve happened upon an Olympian caliber coach in my own small town of River Falls, Wisconsin. 

As an athlete who went undefeated throughout his high school career, rocked his Division 1 (UW-Madison) college team, and made the All-American team for wrestling, it’s no wonder Kevin Black was chosen as one of the coaches for the Women’s Olympic Wrestling team in Rio this year.

I spent a couple of hours interviewing Coach Black and his lovely wife, Liz, in their home, while one of their 3 sons played in a pile of Legos. I approached the interview hoping to elicit Kevin’s secrets and strategies for success as an athlete, a coach, and a leader in his community. 

Reflecting upon the interview, I realized that the true secret to his success was apparent within the first 5 minutes of meeting him and it is this: 

Coach Kevin Black is one of the humblest and most genuinely kind-hearted people I’ve ever met. The sparkle in his eye and the twinkle in his smile are the familiar giveaways that he’s filled to the brim with a passion for life that simply cannot be contained and is as powerful as the force of gravity. I’m guessing that you’ll get a sense of what I mean.

Betsy: “What are some of your basic coaching principles that you use over and over with your athletes?”

Coach Black: “In general, I approach everything I do with my wrestlers as a metaphor for life. I see athletics as a vehicle to teach really important life skills about how to respond in the world, make mistakes, and grow. One of the resources I base a lot of my coaching ideas on is the book, Raising a Modern Day Knight by Robert Lewis. In that book, the author talks about 4 pillars which are:

  • Accept Responsibility—being accountable for our best and worst selves, if you don’t take care of your own responsibilities they become the responsibility of someone else—which essentially leads to selfishness.
  • Reject Passivity—in wrestling if you are passive, you will be penalized. The metaphor here is that we can’t stand around and wait to reach our goals. If we want to achieve, we need to take action and make things happen for ourselves.
  • Lead Courageously—I believe that if I’m in a position of influence with teenagers I have to help them understand what it means to be a leader--not just having a title—not just playing the part of team captain--but really being able to lead younger athletes. So often the message to young men is: Consume. Drive this vehicle. Drink this beverage. Attain this level of position. Then you’ll BE A MAN. But the world is looking for a different level of leadership that goes beyond surface attributes and that is the mentality I strive to instill in my athletes.
  • Expect a Greater Reward—having a purpose that is bigger than your goals is critically important. I’m a sports nuts. I watch a lot of sports and every time I see a player interviewed after winning an award or a championship and they say, ‘it hasn’t quite hit me yet or it hasn’t sunk in yet’-- I think, that’s because it won’t. You are who you are before and after you win that championship-the winning doesn’t change who you are as a person, at your core. Reaching goals can be a very dark time of never feeling satisfied, so you better have something bigger and stronger and more meaningful than attaining the win or you’ll end up feeling empty and a sense of loss on the other side.”

Betsy: “What are some of the basic principles that you have lived by that you associate with your own success as an athlete?”

Coach Black: “Faith in something bigger than me. If it’s all about you, you’ll always fall short. It’s got to be about your teammates too. Having this intangible thing called spirit that is related to my heart, my drive, my passion. Developing myself as a whole person and a total athlete—mind/body/soul. I read a ton about mindset, mental skills training, internal vs. external focus, and team cohesion.

Betsy: “What have you found to be some of the most successful strategies for motivating athletes?”

Coach Black: “A clearly defined purpose…the WHY! If there is a lack of motivation it is because there is a lack of purpose. So, for example, with the younger kids, sports should be fun and playful and somewhere where they want to go to feel good in their bodies and have a good time. As they get older, I have kids who go out for wrestling for the simple purpose that their mom or dad wanted them to or made them. When that’s the case, I say to that kid, ‘Now that you’re here for mom and dad, what can you get out of this experience? What can you learn for yourself? What can you do for this team?’

At the beginning of every practice I always address the WHY. Why are we here to practice today? What is the purpose? With high school kids, I continue to share our mission and vision and at every practice I try to touch on the idea that the vision is bigger than us. I also always conclude with some type of story or video of an exceptional person or athlete or a TED talk.”

Betsy: “What do you typically do when you see that one of your athletes is feeling stuck or unmotivated?”

Coach Black: “Breaking it down for kids who aren’t focused or driven is helpful. Often in middle school and high school many kids are just feeling aimless and all over the place. They aren’t sure of their purpose, what they are doing, or why their doing it.  I need to help them be able to identify their strengths, their weaknesses, and how to manage both.”

Betsy: “What do you believe the role of a coach should be?”

Coach Black: “I very, very intentionally make an attempt to not be a negative influence or use negativity as my primary coaching style. I am firm and truthful, but I do not subscribe to using public shaming or putting kids down as so many athletic coaches do. I subscribe to the idea that inside every little boy is a prince or a punk and whoever I talk to is going to come out. So I try to make sure I’m talking to the prince most of the time. So many people by default talk to and appeal to the punk. Those are the messages kids get over and over and then kids believe that’s who they are.

It’s the same with me. It’s my job at our house to take the garbage out every week. If I’ve had a busy week and I forget to do it and Liz says to me, ‘Kevin, I can’t believe you forgot to take the garbage out….what’s wrong with you?’-- that’s appealing to my punk. If she says something like, ‘I know the man that I married is responsible and driven and happened to miss getting the garbage out this week,’ that’s appealing to my prince and I’m much more likely to feel good about getting the garbage out next time.” 

Betsy: “I believe that when I use the range of my whole self as a coach, I will allow my clients to access more of their whole selves. So for example, I use my humor, my vulnerability, my stories, my femininity, my masculinity, my fears, my playfulness, etc. when I’m working with clients to elicit more of their range and whole selves. How do you use your whole self as a coach?”

Coach Black: “That’s awesome, and I totally get what you’re talking about. Whoever I’m working with, I try to be the most vulnerable person there is. I talk about my mistakes. I admit when I mess up. I’m not afraid to ask questions or to look stupid. I put my life on display. I write a blog where I openly share who I am, my opinions and ideas, so that people can see who I am behind closed doors. In our culture we tend to hold people up on pedestals and only see the highlight reel of their lives rather than all of the sacrifice, hard work, doubt, criticism, and fear they’ve had to overcome. I believe in pulling back the curtain so people can see the truth behind the scenes. So, the stories that I share with my athletes are not just the headline version about a man who skied solo all the way to the north pole, but all of the setbacks, struggles, and issues that he overcame along the way. Finding the grit to persevere no matter the challenge is the true headline of any success story.”

Betsy: “Speaking of grit, given everything that you have on your plate (3 kids, married, your commitment to wrestling and the community), how do you keep yourself energized and manage your time?”

Coach Black: “I don’t! (Laughing) No, seriously though, I have clear priorities and I am very up front about what they are so that everyone knows they exist. They are faith, family, and wrestling. I make sure my family time is intentional. I am almost completely extroverted. I get my energy from being around people. I could be around other people all the time if left unchecked—kids, coaches, family, friends. But I’ve learned that in order to sustain myself, I need to take what I call, “Kevin Time.” I need to take some time for solitude to organize my brain. Liz and my family know that I need to take “Kevin Time” and it’s usually just an hour or two and then I can come back rejuvenated, fine, and ready to go. [At this point I asked Liz if she gets “Liz Time”, which seems to most consistently be her morning run before her day starts].

Betsy: “What resources do you access to continually improve your own coaching skills?”

Coach Black: “That’s a really good question and I think it’s really important. I make sure I’m always reading and staying current with the latest research regarding personal growth and mindset. There is a leadership podcast that I really like, a faith podcast that I listen to, I like to listen to Seth Godin for daily insights, and probably the biggest resource that I use to feed myself is a leadership conference that is held annually in the Twin Cities.

Within the bigger wrestling community as well as athletics in general, we are still in the dark ages in terms of understanding the importance of investing in ourselves as coaches. Coaches don’t think twice about watching film of athletes and having athletes watch video of themselves in order to critique performance, but how often do coaches watch film of themselves coaching and critique their own performance? The reflective process for coaches is lacking.”  

Betsy: “What types of qualities would you like to see more of in leaders presently and as you think about the future for our kids?”

Coach Black: “Humility. Whenever humility is involved everything is better. I would like to see leaders who are less interested in who gets the credit and more interested in the overall outcome or mission of what you’re trying to collectively accomplish.”

For more information about Coach Black’s ideas regarding youth sports (and other things), you can visit his blog  HERE

 

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