Keeping Coaches on Track

Evaluating coaches is a key part of your job. But exactly what criteria should you use? And how do you communicate these standards to your staff?

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.

Athletic Management, 14.2, February/March 2002,

Ask a human resources professional how to go about evaluating staff members, and there are two things he or she will suggest: Evaluate whether the employees are fulfilling their job descriptions and assess if they are reaching annual goals.

Sounds simple, right? But when it comes to evaluating a coach, simplicity disappears. Unlike many other professions, fulfilling a coaching job description is not so cut and dry. We ask coaches to be good teachers, organizational wizards, up to date on safety procedures, motivators, communicators with parents, hard workers, strategists ... to name a few.

So, how do you put all the qualities that make a great coach into a structured evaluation plan? I decided to ask some colleagues in my area about what they believe makes a great coach and then formatted their responses into specific performance criteria. I found 10 different characteristics, and will spell them out here.

Above all else, a good coach is a good teacher. "The goal of a superior coach is to facilitate a mastery of essential information so that the players can do their jobs on the field or in the arena," says Dr. Richard LaRue, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Exercise and Sport Performance at the University of New England in Maine. "Simply put, they have to be good teachers."

Compare some of the best classroom procedures to the procedures used in the "grass classroom" and the parallels are striking:

Sessions are preplanned.
The use of time and equipment is efficient and effective.
Instruction is based on up-to-date information.
All participants are involved to keep attention and retention levels high.
Emphasis is given to learning-by-doing and through repetition of skills.
Participants are challenged and expected to demonstrate an understanding of the material presented.
The goal is to develop a level of mastery within the participants and drive them to their maximum potential.
Participants are given a chance to test what they've learned. In athletic situations, the exam takes place during games and grades are based, in part, on improving individual and team performance.

Tanya Sullivan, a soccer and softball coach at Middleboro (Mass.) High School, adds that, like good teachers, coaches should also always be looking to teach lifetime lessons. "And the life lesson of understanding how to balance being competitive with winning at all costs must always be taught," she says.

All of these points can then be used to evaluate your coaches' teaching abilities. For example, is instruction efficient and effective? Are all participants engaged? Is performance improving?

Being organized must be a coaching fundamental. The wide range of tasks associated with coaching--from X's and O's to training techniques to public relations--demands orderly and systematic approaches that account for all details. I am always pleased to see a football coach pull out a game-day itinerary on Friday that accounts for virtually every minute of this 16-hour day.

The key, though, is that coaches don't go to extreme levels and become known as "control freaks." Being organized doesn't mean the coach has his or her handprint on everything that goes on within the program. It simply means that everything is accounted for, including delegating tasks.

Disorganization cannot be hidden for very long. The coach who leaves too many loose ends will lose the faith of his or her following.

Strong leadership can affect the program in many beneficial ways. The ability to command the players' attention and trust in critical competitive moments, for example, can push the team over the brink of success. Appearing credible and viable is key to engaging game officials or school administrators, too. And assistant coaches are more likely to thrive and work to their potential under an effective leader.

"When the leadership of the team is clear, then goals can be more easily achieved," says Rocky Gomes, Athletic Director at Carver (Mass.) High School.

To evaluate your coaches' leadership, examine whether team captains, athletic trainers, assistant coaches, and even the manager all understand the scope and limits of their functions. Strong and vibrant leaders ensure that all understand their roles and responsibilities.

They are also willing to rely on the input and talents of others. "Leadership does not necessarily mean dictatorship," Gomes adds. "Leadership means being able to bring out the best in others and knowing when to push what buttons."

Calling the right play, substituting personnel wisely, signaling for the critical timeout: all are signs that the coach is thinking strategically. A keen strategizer can sometimes compensate for weaknesses in a team. Understanding how to move the chess pieces, and when, shows wisdom and wile. These are advantageous qualities for a coach to have, and the very best coaches have them in spades.

"Good coaches have the ability to adjust, as things can change very quickly," says Randolph (Mass.) High School Athletic Director Al Smith. "Things go as you expect them to perhaps 10 percent of the time, and your strategy going into a game must change according to the situation. The trees that survive a hurricane are the ones that can bend."

Evaluating whether a coach is a good strategizer can be difficult if you've never coached that sport. But here are some areas to assess:

Does the coach devise and follow a game plan produced from scouting reports?
Are players substituted into positions to cover specific game situations?
Are adjustments made during the course of a game that neutralize the opponent's strengths?

If you can answer "yes" to these questions, chances are your coach is working to apply appropriate strategy to game and player management.

All good coaches have the capability--or "magic"--to motivate their players. Starting with the off-season workouts and carrying through all the way to the championship game, player performance is maximized when the proper motivation is there.

"A good motivator is one who can get people to do extraordinary things with less than extraordinary talent or resources," says LaRue. "Motivators are capable of influencing athletes to meet or exceed their capabilities."

But motivation doesn't only mean the coach can give a Knute Rockne speech. Coaches can motivate by word, explanation, example, or a combination of these factors. The key is that the coach understands many different motivational techniques and employs them at the appropriate times.

Bob Liljedahl, Athletic Director at Apponequet (Mass.) Regional High School, finds passion for the game to be a key characteristic of a good motivator. "Enthusiasm is something that I find common in good head coaches," he says. "And this enthusiasm usually translates well toward motivation."

Sullivan says that the best coaches also motivate players by demonstrating faith in them. "Coaches have a big message to convey to their athletes," she says. "The message is that the coach believes in them and what they can do. Once the athletes buy into this themselves, they perform better."

Smith adds that efforts to motivate must reach beyond players. "Coaches should also work to motivate the adults they work with," he says. "Parents must be motivated to support the coach and the program. And when the administration needs to be prompted in areas such as budget, coaches need the ability to convince and motivate employers to buy into their way of thinking."

Coaches become counselors whether by intention or not. Young people look to them for insight and advice on academics, future careers, even relationships and family matters. The dynamic between coach and athlete, in fact, can be intense because the time they spend with one another each day during the season can be greater than contact with friends or immediate family.

"This is why we want coaches who are good role models," says Gomes. "The leader of the team should model the behavior we want emulated and have the wherewithal to provide sound advice and guidance. In some instances, kids are reluctant to turn to anyone other than their coach for advice."

"High school coaches work with teens who are experiencing their most difficult years emotionally," Sullivan says. "They have issues every day, and coaches are there, in part, to help them manage their stresses."

"One coach here has a player on his team whose father died of cancer and mother was killed in a car crash," says Mashpee (Mass.) High School Athletic Director Mike Horne. "This coach helped him in school, he went to his house and made sure he had enough to eat, and he even helped the kid with figuring out the finances of managing a house. To say he went the extra mile would be putting it mildly."

In short, good coaches are good listeners. They are sensitive to the needs of players and staff and work proactively to help resolve those needs.

Coaching is not a "punch the time clock" kind of position. The demands are broad and varied. And, more and more, the successful coaches appear to be the ones who are willing to put in whatever time it takes to get the job done.

"When the coach is a tireless worker," says Gomes, "then that example translates well toward a hard-working team. You can't go through the motions and expect that success will automatically follow."

"Coaches must have a high level of energy," Sullivan adds. "And they must bring that energy to each and every practice and game, so the kids can feel it and benefit from it. I think it's pretty much a given now that good coaches have to be willing to put a lot of hours into their programs."

This isn't to say you should encourage coaches to work to the point of burnout, or neglect their family and social lives. But, you'll need to evaluate if the coach is putting in the time necessary to complete this difficult job.

"An effective communicator keeps everyone on the same page," says Smith. "When people know where you're coming from, there is little room for question or confusion."

Good communication takes many forms, all of which help to create an atmosphere of clarity and order. Communicating goals and expectations instills a sense of purpose in players and helps parents understand the desired outcome of the event. Communication with the media will lead toward an accurate portrayal of the team's efforts during the game. Having the ability to communicate a team's budgetary needs with the administration is certainly an asset. And leading the assistant coaches toward understanding the rationale for decisions goes a long way to creating harmony.

"Without good communication," says Gomes, "everything quickly starts to crumble and break down."

The very best coaches are also mentors. Assistant coaches with a mind-set toward improving their skills, abilities, and overall grasp of the game look to respected coaches to make this happen.

But even fairly new coaches can mentor. Mentoring someone else allows a coach to more thoroughly evaluate his or her own processes, which allows for the coach to do a self-evaluation.

"In my own brief career, I've been fortunate to mentor other coaches in both my sports, and it's helped to put me on a faster learning curve," says Rob Wiskup, a soccer and track coach at Middleboro (Mass.) High School. "I think one of the best things a young, rookie coach can do is to find someone to mentor."

Good coaches, like good teachers, are lifelong learners. Those who attend clinics, renew credentials through workshop and conference attendance, or just simply interact with other coaches keep stores of information current and the program vibrant.

"Responsiveness to changes and trends are keys to success," says LaRue. "There are many areas of coaching that continue to change: sport biomechanics, sport physiology, sport psychology, motor development, pedagogy, and even the players' experiences. These are knowledge areas that the outstanding coach will constantly strive to acquire and keep current over a successful career."

Tying It Together
Ideally, we want our coaches to be teachers, organizers, leaders, strategizers, motivators, counselors, workers, communicators, mentors, and learners. And, for your particular situation, you may want to add other criteria or put more weight on some. But how do we evaluate them on these criteria?

The first step is letting them know at the beginning of the season that this is the criteria you will be judging them on. You might even give them a copy of this article for explanation! Throughout the season, you must consider how well the coach is fulfilling his or her responsibilities in each of these areas.

Then, at the coach's review, you can discuss each criteria. Talk about where the coach excelled and what areas he or she needs to work harder on next year. It's important to give specific examples of how the coach did or did not measure up in each category, as well as suggestions on how to improve.

So, this year, instead of conducting coaching evaluations based on gut feelings about their performance, use a list of criteria that defines what you want them to strive for. This makes the sometimes tricky process of evaluations fair, efficient, and ultimately more effective.