Now Starting at Coach

What’s the best way to make sure a new coach becomes a good coach? A thorough (and enthusiastic) orientation program.

By David Paling

David Paling is the Director of Athletics, Health, and Physical Education for the Middleboro (Mass.) Public Schools. He is a frequent contributor to Athletic Management magazine.

Athletic Management, 12.5, August/September 2000,

After a long process, you’ve finally hired a new head coach for the girls’ soccer team. You’re relieved that this project is over, and she is eager to get started in her new position. But before you hand over the keys to the locker room and office, it’s important to acclimate her to your athletic department’s specific environment.
For any new coaches you hire, a thorough orientation program will help to maximize their chances for success. It will also benefit all other coaches and staff, as well as the players being placed under his or her direction.
As Carver (Mass.) High School Athletic Director Rocky Gomes explains, “Preparing a new coach for work here is one of the most important things that I do. There shouldn’t be any unanswered questions once the coach has begun to work with the team. All expectations should be quite clear prior to the time he or she actually steps into the gym.”

Step One: Explain Policies
It is fundamental for new coaches to understand the policies and procedures of the employing organization. What, for example, are the school and state rules governing the length of daily practices? Are there policies that set limits on the number of players on teams? What is the procedure followed when purchasing team equipment? Are volunteers permitted to assist the coaching staff? How is equipment issued? Is there prescribed procedure when discipline issues arise on a team? What is the procedure when medical emergencies arise?
It is best for coaches to receive detailed handbooks that spell out the majority of these policies and regulations pertinent to coaching. However, it is also important for athletic directors to take the time to verbally highlight much of this information. The purpose of this undertaking is to prevent possible misunderstandings and controversies down the road.
“Some coaches may perceive things differently than you expect,” Gomes says. “So rather than assume that they are going to read and fully understand our particular set of rules on their own, I spend a lot of time going over these areas with them.”
Within this discussion, it’s often enlightening for the coach if you offer background information and examples of precedent about specific areas of policy. For example, at Middleboro High School, one of our policies is that no games or practices may be held on Sundays. The reason for this is that many parents complained when we did ask students to attend sporting activities on this day. When coaches know the reason for the policy, it may help them to better understand and embrace it. In addition, understanding the larger scope of things is useful when situations arise that call for policy or procedure to be applied.

Step Two: Discuss Philosophy
If the foundation for policy making is philosophy, then all new coaches must understand the mission of the institution they have been hired to represent. In all likelihood the coach was hired based, in part, on his or her philosophy professed during interviews. So philosophical compatibility between the coach and institution, therefore, should already exist.
It is still useful, however, for the athletic director to provide a thorough indoctrination in this important area. Most school’s handbooks and public relations materials carry philosophy statements, and these can be easily reproduced and reviewed during the orientation session. The athletic director and coach can then discuss important aspects of the department philosophy. For example, if your athletic-participation philosophy strives to provide both a learning experience and competitive experience, you might want to discuss with the coach how to balance these two components. If the football team is losing 20-0, at what point should a coach consider putting in the second-string players?
Coaches also need to hear from their employers on the degree to which there may be flexibility within a philosophy. For example, at Middleboro, we stress the importance of sportsmanship and work to minimize sideline histrionics. However, some flexibility exists when coaches feel that emotion is needed to motivate a team. If a coach, for instance, elects to toss his clipboard to the ground inside a huddle of players as a way to garner attention, that may well be okay. If the same coach, however, kicks the first-aid kit and spills its contents across the field, then the line of acceptability has clearly been crossed. Most importantly, we discuss these examples up front, so the coach knows where there is wiggle room and where there is not.

Step Three: Job Descriptions
New coaches ought to have written job descriptions for their positions. At Middleboro, our coaches’ job descriptions cover six points (see Sidebar “In Writing,” at end of this article). Your school may choose to emphasize other key points, but the objective is for coaches to know their responsibilities up front.
“At Carver, we go beyond just the job description,” explains Gomes. “We give each coach a written letter of expectations from the principal. It’s a brief, one-page outline of what the total administration—not just the athletic director—expects from the coach. That way, even if the principal hasn’t spent the kind of time with the coach that the AD has, the coach won’t wonder where the principal stands.”
Along with knowing their list of responsibilities, new coaches should understand the unwritten expectations of your program. How important is it to your school, for example, that coaches serve as role models? Middleboro and Carver written guidelines make reference to this aspect of coaching, but the references merely scratch the surface. Another topic for discussion may be: What is the administration’s position on coaches behavior toward officials during games? It would benefit both the coach and the institution to engage in frank dialog that provides points of reference to what are sometimes assumed expectations in this regard.
“We list the fact that coaches need to be role models and that sportsmanship should be taught,” says Gomes. “But these kind of things really need to be talked about to penetrate beyond the surface of the issues.”

Step Four: Welcome Aboard
Once the policies, philosophies, and job descriptions have been discussed and understood, the orientation session can move into a second phase: introductions and more detailed explanations. A tour of the school and its facilities is a good place to start. This tour can teach coaches how to access the telephone, copy and fax machines, and computers. It could then include formal introductions to certain key staff, which may include custodians, athletic trainers, equipment managers, and secretaries as well as fellow coaches. (It’s also a good idea for new coaches to have more lengthy orientations with both the athletic trainer and equipment manager at a later time.) Meeting colleagues and staff helps to instill a sense of welcome and collegiality with the new coach.
At Carver High School, new head coaches also have the opportunity to meet athletic booster club members. This allows the coach and the members of the club to start to form a good relationship. The booster club president may want to explain some of the history and projects of the club and the coach can talk about his philosophies and expectations.
Next, it is appropriate to introduce the coach to prospective players. At Middleboro High School, players are gathered together informally and given the opportunity to get to know their coach for that season. The coach may have an agenda to cover with his or her players in this setting, or there may be a less-regimented exchange. Whichever case, the players should leave this assembly with a sense for the kind of experience they will enjoy under the direction of the new coach.
At Middleboro and Carver high schools, all coaches are also given a step-by-step procedure to follow in the event of an emergency. After coaches review the written materials, they spend time going over it carefully with the athletic directors and athletic trainers. This is important both in terms of ensuring the best care possible for the injured athlete, as well as keeping the school clear of litigious situations.

Step Five: Looking Ahead
Finally, new coaches must understand all the evaluation procedures that will be followed. Are there written forms that will be used? Who will do the evaluation? How often do these take place? What objectives must be achieved in order for re-hire to occur? It is important to provide the new coaches with this information from the outset of their employment. This will go far toward providing a sense of purpose and direction to the terms of employment.
Once new coaches have gone through planned orientations, they will enter into employment with the feeling that they belong and are part of the total athletic program. The chain of command is clear to them, as well as procedure and protocol. The athletic director can then reasonably expect that the season will proceed in a smooth fashion and that the constituency will be best served. As Gomes puts it, “Giving coaches a good orientation can proactively prevent problems before they occur. It’s an effective way of getting everyone headed in the right direction.”

Sidebar - In Writing
New coaches must clearly understand their job responsibilities, which is why it is important to have written job descriptions for every coach. When developing these descriptions, six key areas can cover the most important aspects of the position. Here’s a look at those we use at Middleboro High School.
Program: Coaches are responsible for the planning and execution of daily practices. Supervision of athletes, beginning with their arrival and ending with the last athlete’s departure from practices/games, is expected. Coaches must plan, develop, evaluate, and continually bring improvements to the program. Team rules must be established and maintained. All local, league, and state rules must be followed. Also, coaches are responsible for their own personal conduct, as well as the conduct of their players. Coaches must model the behaviors outlined in the National Federation’s Coaches’ Code of Ethics.
Public Relations: Coaches should develop a public relations component to their programs. The purpose and philosophy of their programs will be promoted internally (with athletes, student body and faculty/staff) and externally (with parents and the larger community). Coaches are responsible for representing the school at all local, league, and state functions. Working relationships with all media, including yearbook and student newspaper personnel, must be established. Coaches should work cooperatively with booster organizations. Coaches will interact positively with coaches of other sports to promote the best interests of the athletic department.
Safety: All coaches are responsible for maintaining safety standards as they apply to athletes, fields, facilities, equipment, and training. Coaches must understand and conform with the athletic department medical emergency procedures. Coaches must be diligent in securing areas and equipment after use. Coaches must not allow unsupervised activity to take place at any time. Information on informed consent must be communicated to all constituencies. Adequate warm-up and cool-down time must occur on a daily basis, and athletes must be allowed frequent opportunities to hydrate throughout sessions. Coaches must maintain active CPR certifications and work cooperatively with the athletic trainer.
Administrative: Coaches are responsible for maintaining accurate written records/reports, and meeting established timelines. Coaches are responsible for parent permission/risk forms, physical exam forms, team rosters, press information forms, and awards/all star information. They must submit annual budget requests, assist athletes with college and employment recommendations, and monitor the academic eligibility status of athletes.
Facilities/Equipment: Coaches will work cooperatively with the equipment manager. They will maintain responsibility for the issue and return of all athletic department uniforms and equipment. Coaches assume responsibility for the daily care and storage of equipment. Coaches are responsible for cleaning up team areas at the conclusion of all practices/games.
Education: Coaches shall be up to date regarding sport specific fundamentals and techniques, strategies, formations, positioning, rules, and conditioning through participation in workshops, clinics, and conferences. Coaches will maintain the ability to train and motivate their athletes. Coaches will reach a thorough understanding of the athletic department philosophy and utilize this philosophy as the foundation for their programs. Coaches will stay informed of rule changes and trends in their sport. State coaching certifications will be maintained.

To read articles by David Paling previously published in Athletic Management, including those on “interviewing coaching candidates” and “athletic department handbooks,” visit our Web site at and type “Paling” into the search field.