A Fresh Start

If you don’t look forward to the first day of practice every year—and all that goes with it—it might be time to step back and ask yourself whether you need new challenges, to coach elsewhere, or to just reassess how you work.

By Lem Elway

Lem Elway just completed his first year as Head Baseball Coach at Black Hills (Tum-water, Wash.) High School and Head Football Coach at Rochester (Wash.) High School, where he teaches special education. A member of the Washington State Coaches Hall of Fame, he has coached sports at the middle school, high school, and college levels, including baseball, basketball, and football.

Coaching Management, 13.7, September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1307/freshstart.htm

You’ve just finished up an incredibly tough season and you’re ready to throw in the towel. The athletes didn’t seem motivated, their parents drove you crazy, and your athletic director was off playing golf whenever you needed a helping hand. You worked your tail off for the team and all you got in return were complaints.

You’re about to hand in your letter of resignation, but then again, you’re not really sure you want out. You do love coaching—working with the kids and the thrill of the competition.

Ever have a season like that? Most coaches have. How do you decide whether it’s time to leave and start over?

I recently left the school where I’d been coaching for 16 years. It was a difficult decision, but one that was ultimately in my best interest. It took a lot of reflection, thinking about my options, and getting ready for new challenges. But here I am, at age 58, a rookie head coach in a new school with more energy than I’ve had in years.

What Went Wrong?
There are many reasons a coach might want to resign. Sometimes it is because a painful situation arose with parents. Maybe the time commitment has become too overwhelming. For some, lack of support from administration or a shrinking budget is the impetus. Others just feel they’ve lost their passion for coaching.

Before you write that resignation letter, it’s important to reflect on why you are thinking about quitting. A critical and unemotional look at the situation is essential to making the right choice. This is the only way to figure out if you truly want to quit coaching altogether, if you should move to another school, or if you just need to change some of your strategies before the next season starts. Here are some areas to think about:

Parents: When I started coaching, working with athletes’ parents was not an issue. Parents rarely dared to question a coach and were quickly told to mind their own business if they did. Today, working with parents is a big part of the job and can run even a veteran coach ragged.

Parents in another district are probably not going to be much different. Every team has parents who will question your decisions, overprotect their children, and not understand the greater good. The truth is you need to embrace working with parents if you want to continue coaching.

However, some schools are better at supporting their coaches than others. If your current administration lacks procedures for parent questions and does not back you up in parental disagreements, you might want to look for an administration that will.

This issue can be especially sensitive when it comes to disciplining athletes who break school or team rules. One reason I left my former school was that I was verbally attacked (as were members of my family) after the administration disciplined five seniors from my team who were caught breaking the team no-drinking rule. Some parents were relentless in trying to get me fired. Although the administration backed me and I stayed at the school for another five years (and we continued to have a winning program), the negativity took its toll. I needed a fresh start to preserve my enthusiasm for coaching.

School Climate: A coach I know relocated after seeing his budget cut year after year and the administration withholding the support he needed. He joined a school with a strong athletic director and a community committed to high school athletics.

On the flip side, some coaches become frustrated with a climate that puts too much emphasis on winning. A new generation of parents who want the team to bring home a regional championship every year might not be your idea of a good time. If that’s more pressure than you want, it may be time to say good-bye.

Time Commitments: Being a head coach is much more time-consuming than it was 10 years ago. If you aren’t spending enough time with your family, you’ve got a very good reason to take a break from coaching. Whether you’re juggling childcare with your spouse, or taking your kids on weekend college visits, there are things in your family life that you can’t afford to miss.

In most cases, you can return to coaching when the time is right. Even if your old job has gone to someone else, there will be opportunities to coach in just about every community. I’ve seen head baseball coaches leave their post, then return to coach the school’s newly formed softball team. I’ve also seen former head coaches return as assistant coaches with great success.

Mistakes Made: This is hard to do, but it’s critical that you think about the mistakes you’ve made that contributed to the negative situation. We all make mistakes, but only those who can analyze their missteps will learn how to grow from them. Conduct a critical evaluation of yourself and write down what you could have done differently.

For example, maybe you didn’t make your expectations clear enough at the beginning of the season. Maybe you are struggling with evaluating the talent on your team. Maybe your strategies weren’t well thought out. Maybe you haven’t found the right balance of being strict yet understanding with your athletes. Maybe you tried to skirt parents’ questions. Maybe you neglected to ask for help. Maybe your practices weren’t focused enough.

Be honest with yourself about the mistakes you’ve made. And then be honest about figuring out your role in avoiding similar problems in the future.

Is Repair Possible?: With a complete understanding of what went wrong and your role in the problem, you next need to think about whether the situation can be repaired. If you feel that you can avoid the same problems by doing some things differently next year, then write down your goals for how you want to change and stay where you are. In some cases, you might also need to talk to people to repair any damage done.

If you honestly don’t feel the problems will go away no matter what you do, then hand in that resignation letter and think about your next step: Do you stop coaching altogether or look for a new position? To help make this decision, think about going to practice next season at a new school: Are you pumped up as you imagine yourself meeting new players (and parents)? Or would you be forcing yourself to get excited at that first meeting? If the former is true, then keep reading.

Putting Out Your Resume
Before you decide to look for another job, understand that there is work to be done and decisions to be made. First of all, think about your parameters. “Is it possible to relocate or do I need to look for a job in the area? What are my financial needs? What are my family’s needs?”

Think about what you want in a job, as well as about your coaching goals. What has your current school taught you about what gives you job satisfaction? What has it shown you about finding a suitable work environment? What have you learned about the qualities to look for in your next athletic director? How has your experience prepared you to take the next step?

Some coaches consider the college level. Advantages include teaching more-skilled athletes and becoming a parent-away-from-home, having more assistants and administrative help, and few if any in-class duties. On the other hand, college coaching requires more time commitment and travel, and break-in salaries can be lower than that of many new scholastic teacher-coaches.

Once you know what you want, start researching and networking. I found it helpful to talk to other coaches at schools that had openings and in communities I was interested in moving to. I asked them about working with the athletic director and other administrators, how problems with parents are handled, what type of students attend the school, whether the coaches on staff get along, and the history of the sport at the school.

Next, get your resume and a list of personal recommendations in order. Review your interview skills, and talk to others who have recently gone through the process for tips. For example, in today’s world, questions about handling parents and program philosophy are at the top of the list. Make sure you have practiced answers to a list of possible high-priority interview questions. This will give you interview confidence. (See “Interview Questions” below.)

New Coach on the Block
Once you have secured a new position, plan to work hard in that first year to get off on the right foot. When taking leadership of a program, there is much to learn and communicate.

To start, establish relationships with as many people as you can:

• Meet with prospective athletes to introduce yourself and learn about their goals and objectives.

• If possible, meet with the former coach of the team to get his or her perspective on the history of the program.

• Meet teachers, counselors, and secretaries in the building to establish professional relationships.

• Establish lines of communication with parents who might be involved with your program in any way. Make sure there are multiple ways they can contact and communicate with you.

• Meet with local radio and newspaper outlets to introduce yourself and facilitate ways to satisfy their needs for information.

• Attend and be visible at as many school and community activities as possible to show your support for other programs.

• Meet with the booster club to get members’ sense of the program and begin to work on projects together.

• Meet with “feeder” coaches to provide leadership, information, and support for their programs.

• Talk to the principal and administration about the issues they see as important.

As you talk with people, find out the history of the sport at the school and any significant issues from the past. For example, understand why the former coach left and what people liked or disliked about him or her. Get a sense of whether the best athletes at the school are involved in your sport, and if not, why not. Find out how problems have been handled in the past and how parents have responded.

It’s also a good idea to understand the coaching dynamics in your new school. As time passes, you can put your personal touch on the program to reflect your style, but to start, follow the standards set by veteran coaches. For example, if tidy uniforms are important to the coaches of other sports, make sure your kids are tucking in their shirts and looking sharp. If coaches are supposed to lead individual booster clubs, then do so. If they are supposed to follow the lead of a booster club president, then don’t step on anyone’s toes.

Here are some other things to find out:

• Do the good athletes specialize or play multiple sports?
• What is the success level of other sports at the school?
• What outside influences in the community are related to athletics and your sport?
• Do players participate in club sports during the off-season?
• How strong is the involvement and support of parents?
• What is the expectation level of the program from the athletes, school, and community?

If there are assistant coaches to be hired, work with your athletic director to get the best folks on board. If possible, it’s great to have a veteran coach of another sport work as your assistant to help you with the details of the program. If you’re hiring all new assistants, conduct thorough interviews and check references. Beware of candidates who have children or relatives in the program or those who seem to have their own agenda.

With some background knowledge, start the season by communicating your expectations to athletes. Some coaches draw a line in the sand about rules, but when starting new, it often works best to set some guidelines, and then adjust gradually. Most important is to communicate everything well. As a new coach, your rules might contradict the past, and so you must use positive and diplomatic skills to make the transition smooth and constructive. Pick your battles carefully. Starting a new program means selling your procedures, expectations, and philosophy, which can’t be rushed.

Don’t assume anything. It’s easy to forget about all the little things that need to be addressed, but if they aren’t, frustration and anxiety can result. For example, when I took over here at Black Hills, I’d always allowed CD players on the bus, but not on the bench. Players brought them on the bench without my knowledge at first, and I was surprised. However, instead of getting angry, I quickly set the rules straight and explained why I banned CD players on the field and bench.

Another example is the role of seniors on a team. Some new coaches like to work only with the younger players and think toward the future. Here at Black Hills, I elected to work with the seniors and make them the leaders. Seniors often have a high level of anxiety with a new coach. My attitude was that, as long as they hustle, provide enthusiasm, and are coachable, I would find a playing spot for them. My top priority was to change the attitude of the program (which will eventually lead to higher performance levels) and I felt it would work best if the seniors could help me do this. Whatever you decide to do, remember that how you handle seniors is important.

It’s also critical to explain your expectations to parents. A parents’ meeting needs to occur a month or so before the start of the season, at which time you cover all aspects of your program’s operations, expectations, and procedures—including discipline procedures. This can easily become the most important meeting for your program and your leadership. It puts you in a proactive mode and opens the lines of communication. Parents must be relaxed and encouraged to ask questions, and they should receive good, clear answers. Parents can only support those policies they know and understand.

Starting over can be a painful or exhilarating experience. To make it a rewarding one, take the time to think deeply about your desires and your options. Then, have an organized, systematic approach, stay positive, and communicate well. The future is in your hands.

Sidebar: Interview Questions
Here are eight questions you should be prepared to answer as a coaching candidate:

• Why should anyone hire you?
• How are you different from other candidates?
• What can you offer to make a program better?
• What are your strengths?
• What are your weaknesses?
• How do you handle problems with parents?
• How do you deal with conflict?
• What is your coaching philosophy?

Versions of this article have appeared in other editions of Coaching Management.

For a look at Lem Elway’s previous articles in Coaching Management on working with parents, setting goals, and fundraising, search “Elway” at our Web site: www.AthleticSearch.com.