People talk all the time about what makes up a great teacher or coach. The vast majority of the conversation focuses on the daily business of the craft: methods, information, and strategies. And this makes perfect sense.
But every once in a while, we get a glimpse of what coaching and teaching really are. Last month, at the Little League World Series, we got one of those glimpses, courtesy of Dave Belisle, coach of the Rhode Island Americans, in the moments after his team suffered a heartbreaking loss that eliminated them from the tournament.
(If you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend it.)
This speech strikes such a chord because it is a perfect case study of relationship-based coaching. It’s an approach where the coach puts his effort and focus on building relationships — creating identity, trust, and a sense of belonging.
A conventional coach focuses first on skills. A relationship-based coach, on the other hand, focuses first on creating a sense of belonging. A conventional coach asks: what can I do to help them win? A relationship-based coach asks: what can I do to help us nurture connections and create a culture? A conventional coach views his team through the lens of performance. A relationship-based coach views his team through the lens of family — which, not coincidentally, tends to make the teaching all the more effective. People work hard for a team. They work even harder for a team that truly feels like family.
Let’s look more closely at Belisle’s speech, which is like a textbook for relationship-based coaching.
First, he connects:
Everybody, heads up high, heads up high. Let’s talk for a moment here. Look, I’ve gotta see your eyes, guys.”
It would be so easy to overlook this given the emotion of this moment, but it’s massively important. I gotta see your eyes, guys. Be here, right now, together.
Then, he establishes the core message:
There’s no disappointment in your effort — in the whole tournament, the whole season…We came to the last out. We didn’t quit. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!
Notice how he focuses on things the team can control — the effort — and uses it to affirm the strength of the team identity. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!
He keeps building, focusing ruthlessly on their accomplishment and linking it to their identity. The message: they succeeded not just because they played well — they succeeded because of who they are.
You had the whole place jumping, right? You had the whole state jumping. You had New England jumping. You had ESPN jumping. OK? You want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way.
He doesn’t BS them — this is the last game — but he frames their disappointment around their larger, far more meaningful connection:
It’s OK to cry, because we’re not going to play baseball together anymore. But we’re going to be friends forever. Friends forever. Our Little League careers have ended on the most positive note that could ever be. OK? Ever be.”
Then explains what’s about to happen — which, of course, is about more relationships, connecting to those who love and support them:
So, we need to go see our parents, because they’re so proud of you. One more thing. I want a big hug. I want everyone to come in here for one big hug. One big hug, then we’re going to go celebrate. Then we’re going to go back home to a big parade.
This is not conventional coaching. This is a clinic on relationship-building. Fully 90 percent of what he says is about team identity and family. And he proves his words through his actions and the steadiness of his demeanor, especially those long, intense pauses that drive the words home to each kid, one at a time.
You’d call these “soft skills” but as this shows, they are anything but “soft” in their application. They’re a product of a relationship-based approach that has four core principles:
- 1) Seek to create belonging by establishing a clear, vivid identity.
- 2) Be vulnerable. Notice how the coach talks openly about emotions, especially his own. This creates safety and trust.
- 3) Teach the whole kid. Connect in ways beyond the field or classroom.
- 4) Tell the truth. The strength of the relationship is in its honesty and trust.
So simple, and so powerful. If anybody has any other examples of relationship-based coaching/teaching, or ideas to share, I’d love to hear them.