Goal Climbing

In the coaching profession, continual growth and achievement depends on setting goals. A veteran coach outlines steps for success.

By Lem Elway

Lem Elway is the former Head Baseball Coach at Anacortes (Wash.) High School and a member of the Washington State Coaches Hall of Fame. He has coached and taught at the middle and high school levels for over 25 years, and is currently teaching special education at Rochester (Wash.) Middle School.

Coaching Management, 11.7, October 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1107/goalclimb.htm

Coaching can be an immensely satisfying profession, particularly in today’s world. With more extracurricular options for students, increased academic demands, and a greater need to channel energy in a positive direction, the importance of coaches in shaping young people increases with each passing year.

But coaching, like a lot of things, is an activity of love and, over time, the luster that drew us to it can wear off. Coaching is like a marriage: It can be the most beautiful experience in the world, or it can sour and create a lot of heartache and hurt. Like a marriage, coaching requires continual hard work and the desire to improve while maintaining flexibility and adaptability.

This is especially true when things beyond our control build to create a negative situation and force us to ask ourselves why we do it. How do we maintain the enthusiasm and motivation to keep coaching?

No matter how long you’ve been coaching, the best way to maintain your motivation is to have goals. Enjoying coaching—and being a good coach—requires constant efforts to improve.

This means making a serious, critical, and introspective analysis of your objectives. What areas need improvement, and what is your plan of action to strengthen those areas? You must decide where you’re going, where you want to be, and how you are going to get there.

The Big Picture
At the center of this self-inventory process are your goals. Goals are like the rudder on a boat in that they keep you moving in the right direction. Even if your athletic director does not require you to submit yearly goals, you should develop some yourself.

It is imperative that the goals are written down on paper, expressed in positive terms, and defined in measurable ways. They can involve your professional or personal goals as a coach, or a combination of both. For example, does your coaching style need to be adjusted? Does your approach to selecting a roster need to be revised?

It’s also imperative to evaluate whether you are reaching your goals. For some coaches, this means asking a mentor or administrator to sit down at specified dates to review the goals. Others do this by themselves, sometimes simply by closing the door to their office and taking the afternoon to reflect.

To start the evaluation process, ask yourself the following four basic questions:

Why do I coach?
To keep ourselves motivated, we need to keep reminding ourselves why we are in coaching. The answer to “why do I coach?” will be a very personal one, of course, but it’s important to know what parts of the job satisfy us. Some possible reasons include:

• Giving back to the game that gave you so much.
• There are not too many experiences in life where you can spend time with so many people focused on a common goal.
• Camaraderie with people you might not otherwise get to know.
• The emotions of competition.
• Getting to know kids out of class and watching them grow and mature.
• Being able to make a difference in people’s lives—seeing your players turn into productive members of society when they leave.
• Building a successful program through hard work.

How do I define success?
Success is a relative term depending on your situation and expectations. It will mean different things to different people.

For some, success can mean taking a group of diverse students and teaching them how to be a team. For others, it’s winning the league championship every year.

For most coaches, though, success is a blend of teaching the lessons of sport and winning on the field. The key is figuring out what is most important to you. One way to think about this is to ask yourself, “When I’m gone from the game, how do I want to be remembered?”

What is my coaching philosophy?
It may seem easy at initial glance, but one of the hardest things to first establish and then revise on a regular basis is your coaching philosophy. The depth of your philosophical search can go as far as you want. But it must take you beyond coaching “in the moment” and identify those long-range benefits you expect your players to take with them into the world.

Start by looking at how you answered the first two questions. Your philosophy needs to be personal to you, and it must be an honest and true reflection of why you coach and how you define success. As an example, my philosophy goes something like this: I want to be able to take our players where they would not be able to take themselves. At the same time, I want to teach them how to develop successful attitudes, build team chemistry, establish character values, deal with adversity, and set goals.

Your philosophy can, and probably should, change as you grow and change—I know mine certainly has. As I have become more experienced, my philosophy has leaned more toward teaching long-term lessons. I still love to win (and hate to lose!), but I’ve found that bigger lessons and values need to be paramount as you journey to the end goal.

What is my commitment?
From the outside, coaching looks like an easy thing to do. And for those who don’t do a very good job, that may be correct. But the commitment to doing this job the right way can be overwhelming at times. It’s a commitment of time, energy, and emotion. In addition, the continual development in the areas of coaching techniques and knowledge of the game is endless.

In a lot of cases, coaching the “game”—teaching the sport and managing a team during competition—is the most refreshing part of the job. The peripheral issues such as logistics and players’ personal issues are time-consuming, but these aspects of coaching will help define your success and can’t be thought of as asides. When you evaluate yourself and your future, it’s critical to think about your commitment to the energy and time it takes to cover all the bases of coaching.

After answering these four questions, take some time to determine if your answers mesh with where you are now and where you are progressing in your career. For example, if you define success differently than the student-athletes on your team, you may be heading down the wrong road. At the high school level, most boys and girls say the reasons they go out for sports are: 1) for fun; 2) to improve skills; and 3) to stay in shape. Is that something you can accept and incorporate into your objectives? If you’re working at a college or university, do your ideas about athletics mesh with the institution’s objectives for its sports programs?

Another example: does your time commitment match the expectations of the athletes and parents? If you don’t have time to chat with one of your athletes’ parents on the phone in the evening, maybe you shouldn’t be a head coach. Maybe it’s best to be an assistant coach until you have more time. Or maybe coaching at a school with lesser expectations is the right choice.

The Smaller Picture
If you find that, overall, you are heading in the right direction—you can define your big-picture goals and they fit your current situation—the next step is to think about evaluating yourself more specifically. What are the small things you need to work on? Here are some areas to think about:

Organizational Skills: This critical area leads to success or failure and requires maximum effort. The key to organizational success is planning and scheduling. All possible tasks involved with the program must be written down and put into a timeline.

In- and out-of-season activities associated with the program must be planned and those plans must be communicated to all involved. This includes practices being organized for skill development and a schedule that allows players’ improvement to occur in a logical, positive direction.

The little things—bus schedules, academic concerns, equipment ordering—must also receive the necessary attention. You will develop trust and a following much more quickly if your athletes, their parents, and school administrators have the perception that all the details are being taken care of.

Instructional Skills: This is a multi-faceted task that requires learning the complexities of the game you coach, keeping abreast of new ideas within the game, taking a look at new and different teaching techniques, and perfecting your motivational skills. You need to continually analyze whether your athletes are learning the skills of the game in the most effective and efficient way possible.

Leadership: In general, being a leader means having self confidence, lofty yet attainable goals, good habits, and a positive outlook. It also requires making decisions that are best for everyone rather than just a few. More thoughts on being a good leader:

• Do whatever it takes to do things right.
• Always strive to improve.
• You need to give respect to get respect.
• Stress the positive and eliminate the negative.
• Be optimistic.
• Understand the feelings of others.
• Have emotional control in all situations.

Being a leader also means being open to a changing culture. You need to realize that players come to your program with different attitudes, goals, and objectives than they did five or 10 years ago. The ability to listen, to be understanding and caring, and to change with the times is imperative when dealing with the young people of today.

I believe that rules must be made and expectations spelled out, but each situation that arises with a student-athlete needs to be resolved on its own facts. One point to remember: Being compassionate doesn’t mean lowering your expectations of players. It means the lines of communication are open and you are approachable.

Gametime Skills: As simple as it sounds, the key to success in competition is planning. In sports, if anything good is going to happen, preparation must come first. It’s amazing how “lucky” a team is when it is prepared.

A good coach will focus on skill and mental development during practices, then at gametime will let the athletes perform. This involves making sure your team isn’t surprised by anything the other team might do, which will allow your athletes to play relaxed and to the best of their ability.

And you should prepare yourself for the game in the same way. In your mind, put each player in every possible game situation and anticipate what you are going to do—then you are mentally ready to make the best decision because you’ve anticipated that situation. Your ability to make these quick decisions will be the difference in the outcome of big games.

The most important role of the coach on game day, though, is to be the leader. The coach reflects the team’s state of mind and must remain under control in both negative and positive conditions.

A Role Model: Every day you must make difficult decisions. Many of these decisions can affect everyone on your team for years to come, so they need to be made with the utmost professionalism and deliberation. Players might not figure out the importance of these decisions until five or six years later, but that doesn’t mean you should stop teaching the lessons.

Communication Skills: Have you ever thought about why we were given two ears and only one mouth? We need to use the ears more than the mouth. As a coach, the ability to know when to talk and when to listen can be critical. It isn’t always easy to be a good listener, but it’s a skill that needs to be developed. Some valuable lessons to become an effective listener:

• Give eye contact to the person who is talking.
• Don’t interrupt.
• Don’t change the subject.
• Ask questions.
• Be responsive verbally and nonverbally.

People Skills: From public relations to communication with parents to fund-raising activities, more and more of coaching involves interacting with people other than players. People skills can be a very big asset when trying to incorporate many different opportunities into your program.

Having these skills is an important part of being seen as a leader. Thus, it is important to understand people, possess program creativity, stand firm on tough decisions, and realize you need to continue to change and improve.

Getting There
After thinking about your organizational, instructional, leadership, gametime, communication, and people skills, you’ll need to formulate goals and develop a plan for achieving them. To start the process, sometimes it helps to get feedback from others involved in the program. Ideally, your athletic director will be giving you an annual review, but you can go further. Some coaches ask their assistant or j.v. coaches and senior athletes to fill out a questionnaire about the head coach’s performance.

To formulate goals, have a game plan. Be aggressive in your thinking and never strive to stay the same, but don’t try to take on too much at once. Just as you wouldn’t ask a team to master a new bunt defense in one day of practice, don’t try to perfect all your people skills in one season.

It often works well to have long-term goals and short-term goals. For example, you may want to develop better communication skills with parents. Because this is a leadership goal, it cannot happen overnight. Changing one’s style is a slower process than changing an organizational skill.

You might want to break down that long-term goal into smaller targets, such as:

• Revamping your preseason parents’ meeting to make it more effective.
• Working harder on being a patient listener to parents.
• Taking the time to send an e-mail to all parents about the team once a week.

Other ways to achieve your goals include learning about coaching and teaching techniques, becoming more knowledgeable about your sport, and developing yourself personally to be more effective during practice and games. It also helps to research what other successful people have done.

Developing coaching goals is not a simple or easy process, but I believe it is critical to staying motivated and giving our students the best experience possible. Before the next season starts, take the time to think about how you define long-term success and analyze what you need to do to get there. Coaching is a time-consuming endeavor, but its rewards are matched by few other professions.

Similar versions of this article have appeared in other editions of Coaching Management.

Sidebar #1:
Why Set Goals?

All successful coaches need to evaluate themselves and their programs, but sometimes that isn’t an easy thing to do. Remember these positives if goal-setting seems overwhelming:

• When goals are achieved, they give us personal satisfaction.
• They give direction and purpose and help us grow.
• They help us win at things we can control.
• Goals give us the courage to try new things.
• They allow us a mechanism to be open to criticism and help us see our short-comings.
• They help us realize it is okay to fail because we learn from the experience.

Sidebar #2:
Communication Basics
Among all our duties as coaches, our communication skills are often the most important. The following is my checklist for communicating well as a coach:

• Form a partnership with the athletic director.
• Set up lines of communication with parents throughout the year.
• Show compassion, patience, and understanding with players.
• Provide leadership and motivation for players.
• Teach decision-making skills and the value of athletics.
• Develop lines of communication between teams at your school and solicit other coaches’ input.
• Be cooperative with other schools and their coaches.
• Cooperate with groups related to athletic programs.
• Be receptive to suggestions.
• Exhibit enthusiasm about coaching.