Beyond Coaching Clinics

Want a better coaching staff? The first step is knowing how to educate them—beyond the Xs and Os.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.5, August/September 2003,

Most people recognize that coaches are teachers. They teach their athletes lessons—either knowingly or not—about winning and losing, dedication and teamwork, sports and life.

But who’s responsible for teaching the coaches? In our country, the answer is no one.

The United States is the only major nation in the world without a national coaching education and certification system. The result has been a hodgepodge of requirements, varying greatly from state to state and sport to sport.

At the high school level, this leaves athletic directors holding the bag. Parents and upper-level administrators want coaches who are trained professionals, but there is no set standard on how that training should take place. In response, athletic directors must keep up to date on the latest in coaching education and how to best educate their own staff of coaches, both formally and informally.

Forty-five states now have some educational or certification requirements for high school coaches. Some cover all coaches while others apply only to coaches who are not certified teachers. Some call for extensive classroom learning while others simply require CPR and first aid training. At a bare minimum, every athletic director must know the rules in his or her state and make sure that coaches meet them.

Beyond these minimum requirements, most coaches tend to focus their educational efforts on the bevy of sport-specific clinics that are available. Yet, “Xs and Os are only a small part of coaching,” says Tim Flannery, Assistant Director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). “The bigger parts are sport science, knowing how to condition athletes and care for injuries, and teaching skills, knowing how to motivate and communicate with kids. Those are important skills that most coaches don’t have any training in.”

To help educate coaches in these areas, the NFHS/American Sports Education Program (ASEP) Coaches Education Program is introducing two changes. In February 2004, it will introduce a Bronze Level certification program and begin to offer courses online (see “New Options” below.)

Dr. Thomas Sawyer, Professor of Recreation and Sports Management at Indiana State University, who helped develop a state-wide coaching education program in Indiana, sees online and distance learning as a critical component in the future of coaching education. “It’s awfully hard to find coaches in this day and age,” he says. “And we are finding that to require a person who is not a teacher, and has another job, to meet on certain days of the week to take a course is not the most acceptable and convenient way to educate them. Distance education seems to be the easiest way.

“In Indiana, 90 percent of the people who take our LANSE [coaching education] program course take it via distance learning,” he continues. “Either we mail them the materials and they complete them and send the test back, or they complete them over the Internet and send their test back.”

Distance learning has also worked well in Maine, where an average of 130 coaches a year are trained using ITV, the state’s educational television network. “We try to make it as easily accessible for coaches as possible,” says Keith Lancaster, Director of the Maine Center for Coaching Education. “This is especially helpful for coaches in remote rural areas.”

Flannery adds that on-line options provide benefits beyond accessibility. “Right now, our ‘Principals of Coaching’ course is a seven-hour clinic in person,” he says. “We spend X amount of time on each subject, and we really don’t have much time to go back to further discuss subjects. But online, you can spend as much time as you want when you take the course—if coaches have an issue they don’t understand very well, they can review it as many times as they need to.”

Another new initiative in coaching education is an attempt to get the different programs to work together. The NFHS is working with the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, the NCAA, and others.

“Our goal in working with the NIAAA is to get athletic directors to raise their commitment to coaching education a notch and embrace coaching education as one of their key roles,” Flannery says. “We’ve been sending that message in many informal ways, but I think we need to do it more formally.”

Many of those formal efforts center on improving and coordinating educational opportunities for athletic directors themselves. One plan includes greater overlap between the NIAAA Leadership Training Courses and the NFHS/ASEP coaching education program.

“Until now they’ve been two separate programs,” Flannery says. “There’s been the NFHS coaches education courses on the one side and the leadership training program on the other. But we need to create ways to marry the two and bring them closer together. One of our strategies is to get the NIAAA to endorse our program and to develop a separate course around the role of the athletic director as it applies to coaching education.”

The NFHS is looking beyond high school athletics as well. They’ve formed a coalition with the NCAA and United States Olympic Committee to promote coaching education throughout the country. “We think it’s time for each of our organizations to get into coaching education from the youth level all the way up to the elite levels,” Flannery says.

Although the coalition is still in its early stages, Flannery says one of its first steps is considering a broad-based survey to assess the state of sports and coaching education in America and get hard evidence to go along with the anecdotal evidence each group has compiled. Once this is done, he feels everyone will be able to get on the same page and work cooperatively.

The coalition also plans to broaden its reach to other organizations, including sport-specific groups that are already heavily involved in educating coaches. “We need to get the Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, the AAU, and other organizations to buy into what we’re selling,” Flannery says. “I don’t think we’ll have any problem doing this, but we need to make them feel a part of this coalition because we don’t want to exclude anyone.”

Along with what the NFHS offers, there are many more programs out there—PACE is similar to the NFHS/ASEP program and used in several states, Indiana offers four different options to its coaches, and sport-specific coaching associations are starting to do more with their education programs. So how does an athletic director sort it all out? The first step is becoming knowledgeable about what is being offered.

Lancaster believes it’s especially important for athletic directors to take any courses that are mandatory for their coaches. “Even if they’ve coached in the past, methods have changed and times have changed,” he says. “If they’re going to evaluate coaches they need to hear the same information their coaches hear, and taking the class is the best way to do it.”

“It’s also important that they expose themselves to coaching education so they can get excited about it,” Flannery says. “It’s hard to get excited about a program if you’ve never experienced it. For that reason alone, we encourage all administrators to sit for our courses. That way an athletic director can keep reinforcing the fundamental principals and important concepts in front of their coaches.”

While being knowledgeable is the first step, Robert Buckanavage, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Directors Association, encourages athletic directors to consider teaching the courses themselves. A retired athletic director, Buckanavage teaches several instructor trainer courses a year. They’re typically full-day seminars that take attendees through the clinic itself and show them how to prepare to teach the class. Attendees also have a chance to practice their teaching skills in front of small groups.

“Athletic directors need to step up and be trained as instructors,” Buckanavage says. “I’ve always been a strong advocate of administrators creating value in their school districts and one of the ways they can create value is through coaching education. They can train their coaches to be better coaches who can more effectively deal with student-athletes, parents, the media, the school board, and the administration. That’s how you create value in your programs. And if you do that, the winning will take care of itself.”

Buckanavage admits that teaching a group of coaches can be a daunting task, but that athletic directors can try it out slowly. “I tell the people I train that if they need support, they can come to clinics where I’m teaching and get their feet wet by teaching a certain aspect of the clinic, just to get a little more comfortable being in front of an adult group,” he says. “I also encourage them to partner with another athletic director in their area and set a goal of co-presenting a workshop. That way there are two people sharing the teaching responsibilities.”

Whether or not you decide to teach a course, it’s important to set a tone that coaching education is a part of your program. Lancaster suggests making this clear before a coach is even hired.

“When coaches are interviewed for a position, part of that interview should include a section explaining that coaches are expected to keep up to date in their sport and with coaching in general,” he says. “If coaches know right at the beginning that this is part of their job, and that they’re going to be supported by the athletic director, it makes a big difference.”

“I think it’s part of establishing a good relationship with your coaches,” Buckanavage says. “If the coaches understand that you’re trying to improve the programs, coaching education will be an easy sell. When I went to my coaches in 1990 and began to offer this, I simply explained what it was about and how it would benefit them. And they began to buy into it.”

Then there are the other, more concrete, steps. “Hopefully, the district can provide some incentives, whether it’s paying for course materials, which we did, or giving coaches some comp time for attending a clinic,” Buckanavage says. “Some school districts have successfully put those carrots out there to entice the coaches to these professional development activities.”

“I think recognition is important,” Lancaster says. “Let it be known which coaches have attended clinics or met certain standards through additional training. Some schools have a difference in stipends, where coaches who have met certain standards receive a little more pay.”

Michael Stutzke, Athletic Director at Sebastian River High School in Sebastian, Fla., feels it’s important to cover the cost for coaches. He has taken out a school membership in the Florida Athletic Coaches Association (FACA), which allows members of his coaching staff to attend numerous FACA clinics and seminars at no charge. “They take full advantage of the clinics,” he says. “At the same time, if a coach tells me that there’s a volleyball clinic being offered in Tampa, we’ll gladly pick up the tab on that as well.

“I try to take the financial aspect out of the process,” he continues. “If they’re willing to take the time, we’ll take care of the rest.”

Lancaster points out that some classes even count toward continuing education credits for coaches who must regularly be recertified as teachers. This may allow a coach to dip into available staff development funds outside the athletic department.

Athletic directors also have other methods at their disposal besides classroom training. One of the easiest for coaches, and most popular for athletic directors, is a regular staff meeting. The approach can range from simple discussions of issues among coaches to presentations from outside experts.

“When I was an athletic director, I would have an in-service day for my coaches using information I learned from my involvement with the NIAAA,” Flannery says. “For example, we had one on conflict resolution. One of the worst things a coach can face is a parent flying at them from out of the stands. So we talked about how they might deal with that situation. What questions do you ask? How do you reach common ground?

“We would also talk about teachable moments,” he continues. “A lot of coaches let teachable moments fly by the side because they don’t recognize them. We’d discuss practical scenarios, such as when the ref calls a technical foul at a critical point of the game or one of our players gets a foul and goes out of control. When we lose a tough game or when we win a tough game, what would be the appropriate lessons for coaches to teach kids and talk about?”

Stutzke does some training before the start of each sports season. He holds meetings at a local restaurant and picks up the tab for all the coaches’ meals. After dinner, they will discuss whatever issues are on their minds, from changes in the athletic department handbook to coaching methods.

“I have had some success reaching out to the senior members of my staff through having this skull session and dinner, because you’re able to go around the table and elicit advice for other coaches,” he says. “For example, I’ve got a volleyball coach who has been doing this for 20 years, and if every one of our coaches just handled their paperwork responsibilities the way he does, I would sleep a lot better at night.”

Stutzke also uses this time for non-coaching members of the staff to address the coaches. “We’ve had our athletic trainer come in and speak on topics in his profession,” Stutzke says. “A couple of years ago, we even changed from one sport drink to another after he gave a presentation on dehydration.”

Sometimes, an athletic director may want to turn things over to an outside expert. Although these types of in-service events take some time to set up, they can be extremely beneficial for both the coaches and administrators. Outside experts can also provide the athletic director with the chance to be a student instead of the teacher.

“There are a lot people available in every community if the athletic director can just take the time to look for them,” Sawyer says. “For the legal issues, more and more lawyers are getting familiar with sport and injury. Most hospitals have sports medicine experts who can come in and talk about how coaches can respond quickly to injuries and emergencies. You can also find nutritionists to talk about what athletes should be eating. One good place to start is the local college or university.”

Colleges and universities are also a good place to send coaches to watch other coaches in action. Most college coaches are willing to let high school coaches watch their practices and maybe even meet for a short discussion.

“College coaches can be a great resource, so provide your coaches with some time to visit them,” Lancaster says. “Even though the game may be a little more sophisticated, especially at the big-time college level, typical college coaches aren’t that much different from high school coaches. I can remember attending clinics for many years as a coach, and what the college coaches were using fit right in with what I was doing. We could use a lot of the drills and information, even though they were working with higher-level athletes.”

High school coaches can also get organizational ideas from their college counterparts. “What our coaches have seen when they visited college coaches are coaches conducting practices far more structured than they thought was possible,” Stutzke says.

High school coaches can learn a lot from each other as well. One common way is through a mentoring program where more experienced coaches help out younger coaches at their own school.

“In our district, older coaches would take younger coaches under their wing,” Buckanavage says. “You always have some veteran, experienced, knowledgeable coaches, and I would ask them, ‘We have a new coach coming into our soccer program, can you help him out?’

“I also challenged my varsity head coaches to step up and provide the leadership for their entire program—fifth and sixth grade coaches, middle school, ninth grade, junior varsity, and their own varsity assistants,” he continues. “They would put together their own clinics and train their own coaches for their own system and their own strategies. Some even worked with the local community programs.”

Mentoring is an especially effective way to stress the importance of education to coaches who think there’s little left to learn. “I tell my more experienced coaches that if other coaches see that they’re willing to go to clinics and share experiences at our meetings then they will become mentors,” Stutzke says. “I challenge them to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”

Athletic directors can also help their coaches by finding written materials for them to use. In addition to clipping pertinent magazines and newspaper articles, there are many books that address coaching education.

“I established an office library of coaching books and some of the sport specific text books that ASEP and the other groups published,” Buckanavage says. “Coaches were able to sign out those text books for their own perusal and knowledge. It was an excellent resource for coaches to be able to read a book that, say, Dean Smith wrote on basketball.”

Lancaster took a slightly different approach when he was an athletic director in Maine. “An excellent suggestion would be to work with your librarian to have a section on coaching,” he says. “Then you may be able to purchase materials such as books and videos through the library fund that could be available for coaches to check out.”

Along with setting the stage and providing opportunities to learn, the best athletic directors take one additional step: They analyze what each of their coaches need. For example, Stutzke had one coach who understood the mechanics of his sport, but was not as well versed in motivating his players. So Stutzke sent him to a talk on motivation.

“If coaches want to be considered professionals, they need to roll up their sleeves and not just simply say, ‘Because I’m a winning coach, I’m a good coach,’” he continues. “There is more to being a coach than just your wins and losses. They’re mentors to young people, and they can have a life-long impact on their athletes.”

Sidebar: New Options
In February, the NFHS and American Sport Education Program (ASEP) will launch a new Bronze Level coaching certification, which consists of three courses. The Coaching Principals course will be an update to the current course of the same name and will cover non-sport specific information such as coaching philosophy, principles of communication and motivation, effective skill instruction, and player, team, and self-management. The Sport First Aid course, also an update of a current offering, will cover evaluating and responding to athletic injuries as well as recommended first aid for 130 common injuries. The sport-specific Coaching Technical and Tactical Skills courses will address techniques and tactics, new and effective coaching methods, and game preparation and management. CPR certification will also be included as part of the Bronze Level certification requirements.

The Coaching Principals course branches into many areas. “We have information on the coach’s role in character education, drug awareness, and helping kids make wise and healthy choices,” says NFHS Assistant Director Tim Flannery. “We also have information on coaching diverse athletes, men coaching girls, Title IX, homophobia, and sexual harassment. I think we have a responsibility to educate coaches about their role and how they are going to be held to a high standard.”

The new Bronze Level courses will also provide more information on the “games approach” to coaching. “One of the things we’ve found over the years is that the ‘drill-drill-drill’ method gets boring as kids go up the ladder,” Flannery says. “If you look at the statistics, the reason most kids play sports is to be engaged and to enjoy it. And the drilling can become so monotonous that they lose interest.

“We’re certainly not saying that drilling should be done away with—it would still have its place,” he continues, “but through a games approach, the coach can create other ways to teach skills and make it more enjoyable for the participant. For example, in soccer, you have small-sided games with 3-on-3 or 5-on-5. It’s not simply scrimmaging—it’s actually a controlled situation to teach a concept or lesson.”

NFHS officials hope the Bronze Level certification will also create a thirst for more knowledge from coaches. Depending on the success of the Bronze Level certification, the NFHS is considering Silver and Gold levels down the road. “The Silver Level will expand on the sport-specific information with separate courses on advanced tactics and advanced techniques,” Flannery says. “We’ll have a whole course on the psychology of sports, which is already talked about in the Coaching Principals course. We’ll also have a whole course on conditioning, and another on the planning part of coaching, including preparing for the season, practices, and contests.

“Then the Gold Level will be the most advanced and based a lot more on a practicum approach,” he continues. “There will be less emphasis on coursework and more on going out there and demonstrating that you’ve learned from all of these other courses you have taken.”

The NFHS will also start offering online courses with interactive learning opportunities. According to Flannery, the program will utilize a fictitious coach character who will lead users through the course. Several characters will be available, each representing a different coaching style, which will allow users to get multiple views on how to handle the different situations presented in the course.