Strengthening Athletes Strengths

I love my job!

I’ve said it before and I’m likely to say it again. There is so much about my job that I absolutely love. One aspect is the opportunity I have to work with so many fantastic people. The Dux Leadership Center has partnered with JMU Athletics to provide some leadership workshops to help the athletes in areas of their lives off the playing field. So, right now I’m preparing a workshop on Strengths for a group of 2nd-year athletes at JMU.

As I’ve thought about the materials and resources we might want to use during this workshop, I’ve really focused on how to customize this workshop to best help the athletes. As I’ve considered the messages they get from their coaches, their teammates, their parents, the fans, and so many others I couldn’t help but think about how often their hear nothing but the negative. They are constantly being told what they did wrong, how they should improve, and what they could be doing better.

I suspect that rarely, if ever, do they truly get to focus on what they are already doing well. I don’t see too many coaches, trainers, or teammates encouraging athletes to concentrate on their strengths and challenge them to get even better at them. Most are certain that real athletic excellence is found only by knowing all the weaknesses, fixing them, and thus improving overall performance. But, if history is much of a teacher, it’s easy to see that this is simply not true.

Take the Chinese Olympic Ping Pong team, for example. Their coach puts them through grueling, 8-hour long training routines where the focus is almost exclusively on improving the players’ respective strengths. Don’t get me wrong, weaknesses are not ignored. They simply aren’t the focus for achieving excellence. Weaknesses are fixed just enough to prevent failure. They don’t become the emphasis for success.

Instead, the players spend countless hours practicing and practicing and practicing their strengths. They learn to master and dominate those skills that are already strengths for them. As the coach says, “If you develop your strengths to the maximum, the strength becomes so great it overwhelms the weakness.”

You might be wondering if that approach can even work. Well, the Chinese team’s best player is known for having a poor backhand. The competition knows he doesn’t have an effective backhand. And yet, his forehand is so powerful, so dominant, that he cannot be beaten. And the same is true for the entire team. Over the years that the Olympics has included ping pong, the Chinese have won more than 50 medals, sometimes sweeping the bronze, silver, and gold in both the singles and the doubles competition in the same Olympiad. Their closest competitor, Korea, has a mere 17 medals.

I’m hoping to be able to convince the JMU athletes that fixing their weaknesses will only help them prevent failure. It won’t help them achieve excellence. The best path to achieving excellence is to strengthen their strengths.

Another Myth About Strengths

I am attending a small business support group right now. We meet once a week to focus on our challenges, talk about our successes, and learn new concepts and action steps we can take. Since each person, or partnership, in the group is given time to share personal stories and ideas there’s plenty of opportunity for me to hear about the struggles and difficulties others are facing, learn from them, and try not to make the same mistakes.

Interestingly enough, I also see how easily people live through their weaknesses. A couple of nights ago, during the meeting, I shared just a little bit about starting my coaching business and what it was all about. After I did somebody started sharing about the problems they were facing in their business, the difficulties they were having with the various employees, and a few other challenges. When she asked the group for some suggestions on what she could do, I offered the idea that taking a strengths-based approach to the business could dramatically change their approach, unlock some untapped talents, and really help others engage more in solving the problems. The answer I got surprised me.

In short, what I heard in response was, “I don’t know. Living our of your strengths is so hard. It’s easier living through your weaknesses. At least I know what the weaknesses are and if I spend time fixing them then I can feel like I’m doing something productive.”

I decided not to say anything in the moment, mostly because I didn’t think it would help. It sounded like the person’s mind was made up and my pressing the point wouldn’t really do any good. In truth, though, I was screaming inside. “No! No, you’ve got it all wrong! It’s actually much, much harder to live through your weaknesses. Spending time, energy, and effort to fix weaknesses, while ignoring strengths, is a sure-fire way to reduce effectiveness, disengage employees, and create more problems,

When we live through our strengths we are living in ways that tap into naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be productively applied. We become energized just thinking about what we are going to do. We generate power and capacity when we act on those strengths. Our minds are sharper, our thoughts are clearer, and our desire to get things done increases. I know that it sounds like fixing our weaknesses will be more productive, but in fact, it’s just the opposite.

Myth: It’s easier to live focus on fixing our weaknesses and harder to work on improving our strengths.

Truth: Working on our strengths is more energizing, more invigorating, and more fun. Fixing our weaknesses is demanding, draining, and debilitating.

Moral: Strengthen your strengths if you want to really be productive and manage around your weaknesses so they don’t cause failure in your life.

Demands of Work

Demands of Work

In spite of my excitement and enthusiasm for Strengths and the process of becoming a certified coach, I’ve had to take a step back and just focus on getting my job done. I still have a full-time job at James Madison University, which I actually love, and it is taking a lot of my time. The first two weeks before classes start are the busiest time for the Dux Leadership Center, where I am the director.

This year we completed 24 separate training workshops for other departments across campus, helping them prepare their student employees for working this semester. We did all of those workshops in 11 days. It’s intense! But, I coach and prepare my team of student employees, helping them tap into their Strengths, and give them the authority to make decisions and do their job. They have always delivered in spectacular fashion and this semester was no different!

Which reminds me, I need to share a bit about “intent-based leadership,” since that’s the method I use to lead and guide the student employees, and all the work we do, in the Dux Leadership Center. I’ll make a note and bring it up in the future.

Recent Thoughts

Recent Thoughts

I am in the middle of completing my Gallup Strengths Coach certification. I’ve done the course work, having spent a week in Atlanta about a month ago. I’ve scheduled my professional coaching session with a Gallup Strengths Coach. I’ll be preparing for the written exam and setting up my first 6 coaching sessions soon. Presuming all goes well, I’ll be a certified Strengths Coach before the end of the year.

My goal is to then take this, along with my decades of professional experience helping others become better leaders, and reach to help small business owners, parents, college students, and individuals of all types discover and develop the best part of themselves. The positive psychology approach of the Clifton Strengths assessment is an ideal way to leverage the best part of you into becoming an even better part of you.

As the weeks and months go by, I hope to add thoughts of my journey as a coach, my experiences helping others, and the insights and lessons I learn both about myself and about the journey of striving to maximize potential and turn it into a reality of excellence and success.

Of course, as the byline of the blog suggests, my focus will include more than just Strengths. I’ll also explore personality, with a particular emphasis using the DISC Personality Profile assessment. And, I’ll talk leadership.


Because, leadership. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. It’s a personal and a professional passion of mine for the past 35 years.

I hope to share my unique thoughts, bring along and share the thoughts of others who I respect admire and agree with, as well as challenge some thinking and writing of others who I may not agree with.

You’re invited to join in on the conversation by adding your comments below, too.