Sailing Away

It's natural for coaches to occasionally second guess their commitment to their teams. But how do they know when it's really time to retire?

By Keith Manos

Keith Manos is a Wrestling Coach and former Athletic Director at Richmond Heights (Ohio) High School. His books include Wrestling Coach's Survival Guide and Coach's and Athletic Director's Complete Book of Forms and Letters, both published by Prentice Hall (800-947-7700).

Athletic Management, 13.6, October/November 2001,

To leave or not to leave, that is often the question. For coaches, it's a question that can prompt a lot of deliberation and even more stress. It is also a question usually answered more emotionally than practically.

As the job of coaching becomes more difficult--more pressure to win, more parental involvement, more liability concerns--an increasing number of coaches are hanging up their hats. As Gary Walton writes in Beyond Winning, "The importance of leadership and education still exist, but other roles compete for the scarce time available, and there is less time for a coach to provide personal direction to student-athletes. And the stress is causing an alarming number of coaches to depart the profession early."

So, how do you help coaches who are trying to decide whether it's time to hang up the hat and whistle? How do you know if they're burned out? On the other hand, how do you find out if they would actually be miserable watching from the bleachers next year?

The demands of a season can take their toll on any coach, no matter how enthusiastic or motivated. So it's important for a coach to determine if he or she is truly ready to step down or are simply tired at the end of a long year.

The following two-part checklist can help athletic directors assist coaches as they evaluate the decision to retire or to remain in the profession.

Stop Coaching When ...
... attending practices and competition just isn't appealing. If you do not look forward to seeing and working with the team every day, then you are probably ready to leave.

Or, if the extra 15 to 20 hours a week seem longer and harder than ever and you are exhausted at the end of each day, you may no longer be up to the physical demands of coaching. When it comes to working with kids, you are shortchanging the students if you don't have the energy to do the job right.

... you have accomplished all your goals. It doesn't matter whether you list winning a state title or working better with the j.v. coach as this year's goal. What matters is that you still have goals. If you don't, it could be a signal that your enthusiasm has waned.

... the sport itself is not challenging. If the X's and O's have become more of a chore than a challenge, if you no longer enjoy talking strategy with other coaches, it may be time to leave. Similarly, if another challenge in your life has become more meaningful, you should probably be doing that after school instead of coaching.

... problems with the administration, parents, or booster club are interfering with your mental health. Every coach gets frustrated at times dealing with the above-mentioned groups, but if the stress is pervasive, coaching may no longer be for you.

For example, do you find yourself exhibiting symptoms like doubt, anger, frustration, negativity, regret, and worry? Are you leaving conflicts unresolved? Do you find yourself overreacting to administrative challenges?

However, if the stress is tied to one specific person (such as a certain administrator or one particularly problematic parent), then think through your other options before leaving the profession. Can you tough it out until that parent's child graduates? Will that administrator soon move on? Or, it may be worthwhile to coach at another school.

... the lows are lower, and the sting from a loss lingers longer. No coach enjoys losing. But if it takes you longer to bounce back from losses than it used to, or the wins don't taste as sweet, it may be time to step aside.

... you regret how much time the sport takes you away from your family. Even if retiring is the furthest thing from your mind, every coach should have frequent discussions with his or her spouse and children about the effect coaching has on family life.

Continue Coaching When ...
... it is still a personally rewarding activity. If your mental outlook on the job is positive, coaching is still a gratifying experience, you feel confident and secure about your ability, and you enjoy the friendships with colleagues and competitors, then keep that whistle around your neck.

... you still enjoy the challenge of competition and testing your skills against other coaches. If you are still very competitive and look forward to preparing for that next contest, you are on the right track.

... coaching offers professional growth and a needed income. Maybe you are an assistant coach and you want to be a head coach, or a high school head coach who wants to work at the college level. Those are solid reasons to keep coaching.

... you still receive great satisfaction in working with players, coaches, parents, administrators, and the media. It is important that these relationships continue to be meaningful and fulfilling, and that you receive positive feedback from these persons.

... you need to be an advocate of the sport either in your own school or in the local area. If you coach a specialized sport and there are no other coaches in the area, or if you have agreed to serve a term with a coaching group, you should probably stay with the job and fulfill these obligations.

In these situations, it's a good idea to mentor a new coach who can eventually fill your shoes. This can even be a fun, new challenge to keep you going for the final years.

Never Say Die
We never use the word "quit" as coaches, but sometimes a coach does need to step down, take a break, or just spend more time with his or her family. And that's nothing to be ashamed of. It's better to leave the job than be uninspired in front of a group of eager youngsters.

And if you do decide to forego the title of coach, know that you can always come back to it. Whether it's three years later, a decade later, or as a volunteer, coaching, like riding a bike, easily comes back to those who have once enjoyed it.