How’s your team? Are they happy? Do they feel fresh, mentally and physically, or are they run down?

Is team chemistry good?

What do they like most about practices, or being on the team in general? What do they dread about practice?

Are they doing well in school?

What do they most want from you as their coach? How well are you doing as their coach, in their opinion?

It is important to know the answer to these questions. We don’t need know their blood type, but a good coach has his finger on the pulse of his team. If we are barging ahead with our agenda, our goals, our methods without a clue about how our players feel and what they think, then we are not as effective as we could be as teachers and leaders.

Getting Players to Speak Up
If you were to ask them the above questions in a group setting they will probably say “fine”.

If you ask them one-on-one the chances they will give you a more sincere answer might go up some.

Because we are their coach they will usually say what they think we want to hear, because that is how they have been raised and because as their coach we wield a lot of power in two aspects of their lives that are important to them—membership on the team and role on the team. They don’t want to jeopardize those two things so they will give very safe answers if you ask them.

The Written Survey
My experience tells me that if you give them a survey with a variety of questions covering different topics that require brief answers, they tend to be much more open and honest.

Occasionally I will give my players a survey to see how they are doing, and to see how I am doing as their coach.

Here is an example of a survey I typically give:

On a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being best…

How do you feel physically? Mentally? Emotionally?

How well are you doing in school? (List each class and rate how well you are doing)

These initial questions will help you identify red flags. They may not give you details, but you can know that something is wrong if they put a 3 or lower. Then you can follow up with them one-on-one.

On the same scale, rate the following, and indicate with a + if that is an improvement, a – if it is worse, or a 0 if there is no change.

Team chemistry

Personal trustworthiness

Team mental toughness

Personal mental toughness

Team communication

Your openness to coaching

Your openness to change

There are a hundred good questions you could ask here, so they should change periodically, but the things you think are most important to the success of your team should be addressed here. It is important to know how each individual feels about such topics, and if they feel it is getting better or worse. If all of them rate a category high and there is no change, then it’s probably good. If everyone rates something high, but one player rates it much lower, then there is something going on with that player and you need to follow up.

If there are any minus signs, then something is wrong—any category that is getting worse is a problem; something is going on that probably needs to be addressed.

If you have been working on something together as a team, like mental toughness, and there are plus signs, then they at least feel like they are making progress in that area.

You can always ask them to elaborate if there is a minus or a low score, but they might not give a straight answer if they have to explain it. Better to let them rate it and you can follow up if you need to.

WARNING: Try not to overreact to their answers. If their honesty sets off a firestorm or an inquisition, they will be reluctant to be honest in the future. Look for trends and find ways to address it so that they do not feel like it is a reprisal or retribution for their giving honest, albeit negative, feedback. Remember also that they may just be in a sour mood when they took the survey. Maybe she just bombed a test or his girlfriend isn’t returning his calls. If you feel like you need to follow up be prepared to listen, not to lecture.

Other types of questions you should ask require a short answer…

What is your favorite activity in practice?

What do you like least about practice?

If you were in charge of practice, list 3 activities that you would be sure to include.

If you could change anything about our team, what would it be?

What is our biggest weakness as a team?

What is our greatest strength?

The answers to these types of questions are windows into how your players feel about how you are doing as coach. It also is an opportunity for them to give you feedback in an indirect way—feedback you should absolutely crave if you want to be an effective teacher and leader. You don’t necessarily need to change things according to how they wish things were, but maybe you need to at least explain better why you do what you do, or the purpose of a certain activity in practice—why it’s so important.

Sometimes we need to change—straight and simple. If the entire team—or even just a critical majority—indicates that they wish something were different about how you are coaching the team, you need to take a good hard look at it and ask yourself if how you can make it better. If they say, for example, “practices are boring”, then something is wrong. Practices should not be boring. They can be demanding, challenging, and even repetitious at certain times, but not boring.

These questions also create an opportunity for you to instill a sense of ownership and build trust amongst your players. Regardless of what age or gender you are coaching, your players have valuable things to contribute to the success of the team beyond their passing platform and blocking footwork. Give them a chance to speak up, and when they do, listen. People who feel like their ideas and feedback are valued will give more to the team; they will work harder, look after the team more, and eventually they will hold themselves to a high standard even when you are not around to demand it of them.