As a college basketball coach for nearly 20 years, I had many experiences that I was proud of. But, I also made my share of mistakes, especially early in my career. Now that I have left coaching to work with teams as a leadership trainer and consultant, I look back on my career and offer up five things that I wish I knew when I first started out in coaching.
(1) Dead Right
One day in high school, I was walking down the sidewalk with my mother. We needed to cross the street. Instead of going to the intersection and crossing at the crosswalk, I decided to do it sooner since I figured I could make it before the next car went by. My mother grabbed my arm and pulled me back. “What are you doing? There are cars coming”, said my mother. “Don’t worry mom”, I replied confidently. “Pedestrians have the right of way”. “Yeah and you’ll be DEAD RIGHT”, she retorted. This is a common problem among coaches. We are infinitely smarter than our players. We are right more than we are wrong. We understand things at a much higher level than our player. However, our job isn’t to be the smartest people in the room. What should happen is not always what will happen. We don’t build a great program or win games because of theories, philosophies, or plays on paper. We win with people. We win when our players are inspired and motivated. It does us no good to be right if our players don’t respond positively to our knowledge. Our job as coaches is to take our players from where they currently are to where they want to be. Our job is to help the team maximize its’ potential. Our job is not to be right. It doesn’t matter who is right. There were a lot of games that we lost because a kid screwed up and didn’t do what i told them to do. But then again, did I communicate properly with them? Did I put them in the right situation? Did I adapt, adjust, or align my coaching in the best way to maximize potential? What matters is whether your players respond to you and you are able to connect with them in a way that motivates them to be successful.
(2) Train all your players and coaches
Early on I did what most coaches did and that I only did leadership training (if at all) with my captains. These sessions were even voluntary for my assistant coaches. This meant that we weren’t training future leaders and our staff wasn’t always on the same page. In reality, a basketball team is only going to have 2-3 captains. That means that there are more players that aren’t trained to be leaders on any given teams. This creates a situation that is both dangerous for the future and can cause many issues on your current team since your players will not know how to be leaders when they are away from the coach or the captains. Training everyone helps develop more ownership and creates a culture of accountability whether your players are in the locker room, in the back of the bus or in the cafeteria.
(3) Enjoy it
Getting the opportunity to work in athletics is a blessing. I met so many people that thought I had the coolest job because I was a coach. I often took my occupation for granted. I was consumed with winning and excellence. Though admirable and important, those outcomes did not allow me to enjoy my job, life, and experiences like I should have. Now that I am no longer coaching, I see how I squandered some of these opportunities. I didn’t appreciate what I had as a coach. We only have one life to live. Being in athletics is cool. Enjoy the ride.
(4) Dig your well before you’re thirsty
Develop and nurture relationships with key people, not just in the coaching profession but with individuals in the community and at your school. Do this with no strings attached. Add value to others without expecting something in return. One day you might need them, though. When this day comes, it will be too late to develop a connection with them. Build up goodwill and trust with these people. At worst, if you never need them, then you have a strong friendship with someone new. This doesn’t just apply to people with high status such as the District Attorney, Dean of Students, Mayor or head of the Chamber of Commerce. Some of the most important people are the I.T. people, custodians, maintenance people or cafeteria workers at your school. Treat everyone like they are special because they are. Coaches are notorious for being demanding and having a sense of entitlement. Free tickets to a game, inviting someone to come grab some food in the hospitality room after a game, free t-shirts, etc… are just a couple of ways that you can make someone’s day. If the only time a person hears from you is when you need something then you are doing it wrong.
(5) Invest in people
I went to clinics. I read books and articles. I watched instructional videos. I knew my X’s and O’s but I didn’t focus on the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s until much later in my career. We are in the people business. We develop and impact people through athletics. X’s and O’s are just a tool. Nearly every coach begins coaching because they want to help kids. They want to have a positive influence and impact on the world around them. Most coaches had a coach that played a big part in shaping their life. Remembering the “why” is crucial but it is often forgotten about during the course of a season. Unfortunately, we start to focus more on the “how” and strategy of coaching. The more you focus on the process and the “why” you coach, then the more that the “how” will take care of itself. If your players believe that you care about them and can help them accomplish their goals then they will be more likely to play hard for you. You want players to play hard, run the right plays and be committed, then give them a reason. They have to trust that you have their best interest in mind.