Mike Hebert | Formerly of the University of Minnesota
The Acknowledgement Rule has been part of my program since the early 1980s. It’s one of those simple tools that manages to solve a lot of problems. Without it, or something close to it, the shaping of trusting behaviors is very difficult.
Here are 6 keys to the rule:
- Whenever you are spoken to by a coach or teammate, you must acknowledge to the speaker that you have heard and understood her/him. Take the emotion out of your response.
- This acknowledgement can be made through spoken words or gestures, but it must convey that you have heard what has been said to you.
- Keep in mind, acknowledging that you have been spoken to does not mean that you agree with what has been said.
- Learn to develop an acknowledgement style that invites further communication. Don’t leave a coach or teammate thinking that you are unapproachable.
- Respond every time a coach gives you feedback or instruction.
- When a teammate communicates something to you in the heat of battle and you are momentarily offended, acknowledge in a non-inflammatory manner.
Let me tell you about a brief episode from my coaching career that led to the creation of the Acknowledgement Rule. An athlete on my team was afflicted with “pessimism disease.” Virtually every time she made an error in practice she would frown, pout and grow silent. I’d often veer from my intended course and walk toward her, quietly providing some positive reinforcement and instruction as I passed her. But inevitably she’d leave me marooned on my coaching island by saying nothing in return, providing no eye contact, and continuing her straight-ahead glare.
For several days, it was my perception that she couldn’t hear me. After my first attempt to gain her attention failed, I would repeat my comment using a louder voice. Still, no response. Finally, on the third attempt, I would go louder and include a pinch of frustration (which was already building and didn’t need to be manufactured).
“HOW ABOUT CREATING SOME BALANCE IN YOUR DEFENSIVE STANCE!”
At this point, she would spin toward me and respond, “I HEARD you.”
Well, how was I supposed to know? Nothing in her body language provided any clues. At that very moment, I decided that this particular form of communication had seen its last day in my gym. All I needed from her was, “OK, Coach – got it.” Or a slight nod of the head in my direction, accompanied by a little eye contact. It would be nice to hear, “Yeah, I’m being pretty selfish here.” But I didn’t get any of those types of responses.
My players learned over time that there was an additional underlying reason for The Acknowledgement Rule. I was looking for “clean air.” I wanted our players to communicate as a team in an environment governed by the principles of The Acknowledgement Rule and free from meaningless jingles like, “Come on, guys, let’s pass the ball!”
Ultimately, I wanted them to “listen” to the match and adjust to what they were hearing and seeing. I stuck by this rule for more than 35 years, and it worked. I think it will work for you too.
Mike Hebert is a retired college volleyball coach who coached at Pittsburgh, New Mexico, Illinois and, most recently, Minnesota. He guided the Gophers to a Big Ten championship in 2002 and three NCAA final four appearances (2003, 2004, 2009). His Illinois team reached the final four twice: 1987 and 1988.