Providing a Step Up

It’s asking a lot to instantly turn a mediocre coach into a star. But developing four key skills can help him or her take a huge step up.

By Keith Manos

Keith Manos is the former Athletic Director and current Head Wrestling Coach at Richmond Heights (Ohio) High School.

Athletic Management, 15.6, October/November 2003,

Many lament the lack of good coaches in the high school ranks. New coaches often try to do too much too fast, and old coaches cling to the Billy Martin approach. But neither type of coach should be given up on. Instead, they may simply need a little extra guidance from their athletic director.

Bad behavior is often a symptom of lacking certain skills. Many coaches today are great at Xs and Os, but they’ve never been taught how to lead their team. I believe providing these coaches with help in four key areas can get them on the right track.

The Right Approach
We see big-time coaches on television ranting and raving on the sidelines, and it makes it seem like yelling at athletes is something to aspire to. It’s not, and it’s important to let your coaches know this.

Teach your coaches how to have the right approach. They must know the difference between yelling and coaching. Encourage coaches to utilize a liberal amount of specific praise to influence players’ performances.

Coaches must be especially attentive toward ways they treat athletes when they make a mistake. Coaches who intimidate or threaten athletes should not be allowed to continue in the profession.

Today’s athletes usually won’t tolerate abusive coaches because they are much more independent than their counterparts in previous decades. Athletic directors shouldn’t either. If coaches can’t improve in this area, termination should be considered.

Goal Setting
Many young coaches struggle because their season lacks direction. They may know how to set personal goals but don’t understand the nuances of goal setting as a team.

Coaches should always work with their athletes to establish team goals, beginning with the first team meeting or practice. The coach should introduce the need for goals, then simply ask, “What are your expectations for this season?” Answering this question might be challenging for some athletes who are used to the coaches declaring the team goals or those who may not be certain yet what they want to accomplish, but after returning letter winners state some goals, newcomers usually feel more confident about offering their own expectations.

From there, the coach and players should collaborate to come up with a list of specific, observable goals for the entire team (making the playoffs, avoiding any technical violations, or blocking 90 percent or better, for example). Next, they can decide together what specifically needs to be done to reach those goals.

Through this discussion coaches and athletes typically discover they have the same goals and become unified by some common objectives: challenging practices and a successful season. This type of collaboration truly leads to team unity and positive feelings.

After the initial goals discussion, the goals should be typed and then posted on a locker room bulletin board. Coaches should also review these goals weekly (if not daily) to keep the athletes focused on them. As each goal is met (or not) during the season, coaches should address why it was or was not achieved.

Practice Plan
The proper planning of practices is another key element of successful coaching. First, coaches need to recognize the big picture—that is, not only planning for a single practice but also for an entire season. Practice plans can vary from sport to sport, coach to coach, and season to season, but they should all follow a logical sequence of activities that develop the athletes’ skills, strength, and endurance. They should also be linked to the goals the team has set.

A mediocre coach might need help in how to prepare a practice plan that keeps athletes involved and offers multiple opportunities for skill development. Explain that the same drills over and over just don’t cut it for today’s kids. Direct them to sport-specific books, seminars and clinics, and suggest they watch the practices of your successful veteran coaches.

If the coach is still struggling in this area, athletic directors should observe several practices and then offer constructive feedback to coaches about their organization. It would be especially important to cite the positive elements in these practices so the coach feels encouraged about his or her progress.

Dealing With Losing
Struggling coaches typically have poor strategies for dealing with losing. After a loss, they’re often angry and frustrated and may even feel sabotaged by their athletes. These are the coaches whose post-game review ends with the players running sprints.

Coaches should instead remain positive and recognize that the players are probably just as confused about why the team lost as the coach is. They shouldn’t blame anyone or anything for the loss. They need to understand that losing only means what the coach (and the athletes, in turn) says it means. A loss simply reveals what didn’t work at that time at that competition—it doesn’t necessarily indicate the athletes are poorly motivated or less skilled.

Administrators can help their coaches devise more productive strategies for dealing with losing by talking with them about their feelings on the topic. Ask them, “How important is winning to you? How do you usually deal with losing? How do you expect your athletes to react after a loss?” Ideally, this conversation should take place at the beginning of the season.

You can also point out that the best coaches don’t dwell on a loss or make excuses. In fact, they don’t attach any importance to the loss other than how it can help the team get better. Indeed, wise coaches prepare ahead of time how to deal with a loss—what they will say to the athletes, how they will structure the next practice, how they’ll correct mistakes.

It is rare when any team or athlete goes undefeated. The consistent winners learn to bounce back from a loss, to improve weak points, to work harder. Even winning the contest doesn’t mean all mistakes have been eliminated—no game is played perfectly. Athletes, in fact, are most loyal to coaches they see working hard to review all the particulars of their performances in a competition, win or lose.

Dealing With Criticism
To be sure, every coach should expect to receive criticism at some point in his or her career. No coach escapes some form of disapproval. Yet, with effort, every coach can deal with criticism in a productive and positive way. Encourage your coaches to:

1. Establish themselves as a person to be trusted. They can do this by being accessible and honest towards others when a problem comes up.

2. Maintain a professional demeanor even when others respond emotionally. Remain assertive but not confrontational when dealing with opposing points of view. Avoid being provoked.

3. Anticipate problems before they reach a crisis stage. Repair damaged relationships through compromise and cooperation.

4. Never let criticism deter them from completing their coaching duties.

Athletes have changed over the years, and the successful coaches have learned how to change with them. If you find that some of your coaches haven’t adapted as well as you would like, don’t despair. By helping them improve their skills in these core areas, you’ll ensure that both they and their athletes have a better experience next season.