Sam Messam

How does your story shape your coaching?
Being a difference-maker for others starts with awareness of the self.

To bring to life the connection between the central role of the coach and creating impact for people and communities, we sought out a coach with a powerful personal story. We wanted to highlight an example of how one coach makes the link between their life story and the way they coach people.

Sam Messam is that coach. His story is a must-read for anyone who cares about coaching, fairness and social change. Sam is Under 16 Men’s Head Coach at City of Leeds Basketball Club and Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Lincoln.

We asked him; How does your story shape your coaching?

Sam’s Answer

My coaching story starts way back. I’m an identical twin. I grew up in an area of deep deprivation. I had difficulties at school and I experienced racism firsthand. Throughout all that, I found safety, belonging and identity through sport.

“As a result, I focus on creating a safe space when I’m coaching and building a sense of belonging. I prompt the players to talk about ‘who we are’ as a team to get them thinking about identity.

Thinking about it now, my experiences growing up have led me to focus on creating an awareness of advantage and privilege within the young people I coach and a desire to develop a sense of ownership, responsibility, effort and teamwork. I spend a lot of time talking about opportunity and access with the university students I teach. I remind them that advantage can be something as simple as being driven to practice, rather than taking two buses.”

“I have to remind myself that not everyone has faced adversity”

“One thing that troubles me is when we give players a label or status and the sense of entitlement that can bring. I struggle with that because of my early life experiences. I believe everything is earned because that’s what I had to do. I want young people to appreciate that and to understand how they earnt their achievements. But I have to remind myself that not everyone has faced adversity.

I want players to direct their own experiences so I ask a lot of ‘W’ questions. I try to get at topics of fairness and equity via basketball topics like substitutions and playing time.

As a coach, we’re always trying to get better but sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking it’s about winning or getting the best coaching jobs. My greatest trophies are the messages I get from former players when they reach a life milestone.

But I wasn’t always like that.

I had to let go and become a contributor to someone else’s story.

3 Takeaways

1. Consider your own story and how it shapes your coaching
Consider what aspects of your early life experiences stand out to you as an adult. What values and norms did you form at an early age that are still important to you today? And how is your coaching shaped by the stories you tell yourself about your life and your coaching? How has your personal narrative led to sunk-cost bias that prevents you from changing?
2. Ask ‘W’ questions to move beyond sport
Uncovering the personal narratives of your players can inform and support how you coach them. The route to understanding their personal narrative is via empathy and the key skill is questioning. Asking questions that start with “why”, “what” and “when” can start the process of understanding who you coach.
3. Impact starts with you
The starting point for creating impact for the people we coach and the communities we serve is ourselves. Self-awareness is the turnkey that unlocks the development of understanding, skill and execution. Coaching to the point of burnout helps none. Only by supporting our own wellbeing can we then support the growth of others.

Reflection Questions

  1. What part are you playing in the personal story of the people you coach?
  2. What role is your team playing in the collective story about the community you represent?
  3. How is your coaching shaped by the stories you tell yourself about your life and your coaching?

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