Powerful Partnerships

Successful coaches share practical tips for collaborating with assistant coaches—including how to balance giving advice with allowing independence.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: kb@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 13.8, September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1308/partnerships.htm

Large rosters, often comprising both men and women. Athletes with disparate abilities, competing in a wide array of unconnected events, each with a hundred nuances. Several of your athletes competing at the same time in far-flung venues. These factors, and others, mean head track and field coaches need to rely on their assistant coaches, perhaps more so than head coaches in any other sport.

Setting up effective communication between head coach and assistants is an important first step toward a solid working relationship, but it takes more than communication to work well with your staff. It also takes a conscious effort to build mutual trust and respect. Effective head coaches work to include their assistants in decisions that affect the whole program, gracefully handle disagreements among staff members, and foster an environment where coaches and assistants learn from each other.

This article examines techniques successful high school and college coaches use to develop rich and productive relationships with their staffs. As one of them succinctly puts it, “Let’s face it. You’re only going to be as good as your assistants.”

Building Cohesiveness
A constant flow of effective communication is the first ingredient in a strong head coach-assistant coach collaboration, according to Chris Bucknam, Head Coach of Men’s and Women’s Track and Field at the University of Northern Iowa. Bucknam is so convinced of the importance of communication that he insists on having his entire staff share one office.

“We have a large, one-room office where I can get a feel for everything that’s going on in our program,” says Bucknam. “It’s like having a continuous coaches’ meeting. If there’s an issue we need to talk about, I can just swivel my chair around, start a discussion, make a decision, and then swivel back. For two years, we were in separate offices where we couldn’t do that, and we lost some of our momentum. Now that we’re all back together, we’re getting a lot accomplished again.” The system seems to work: In 2004-05, Bucknam’s staff guided the men’s squad to indoor and outdoor conference championships.

Bill Bruno, Athletic Director of the Brick (N.J.) School District, who worked for 17 years as a head track and field coach and for 16 years as an assistant, also believes in the value of regularly getting staff members in the same room. As head coach, Bruno held breakfast meetings in his homeroom, arriving 45 minutes early to discuss afternoon practices over coffee and donuts with two of his assistants.

For Marty Owens, Head Men’s and Women’s Coach at Susquehanna University, regular sit-downs with the entire staff are unrealistic. As a part-time head coach supervising a staff of five part-time assistants, he has little opportunity to schedule meetings that everyone can attend. Instead, he keeps in close contact with assistants by e-mail and cell phone, and when he needs to speak with the whole group, Owens holds a staff meeting while the team stretches.

No matter how you set up your chain of communication with assistants, remember that communication is more than just you talking to them. “Solicit assistants’ opinions at meetings and make decisions as a staff,” advises Bruno. “Make your assistant coaches feel like an important part of the program and make sure they know they’re truly vital to the overall success or failure of the team.”

Once you have an effective communication system in place, follow the second rule of making a staff into a team: Let your coaches coach. “Give your assistants a sense of independence,” says Bruno. “You can’t pay them a higher compliment than that.”

At the University of California-San Diego, where the men’s and women’s coaching staff includes one associate head coach, three paid assistant coaches, and five volunteers, Head Coach Tony Salerno gives his staff as much autonomy as possible. “Our organization is very decentralized,” he says. “I run the show, but mostly I follow basic management theory: Hire assistants who are smarter than you, let them do their jobs, and give them support. As a rule, I ask my assistants what they need and then stay out of their way.

“In order to be effective, they need to know that I have complete confidence in their abilities,” Salerno continues. “They know that I trust them to get the job done, and once that responsibility is put into their lap, it puts them on notice that they need to be at the top of their game.”

At Susquehanna, Owens takes responsibility for the tasks that affect the whole program, such as scheduling indoor facilities, coordinating equipment purchases, planning meets, and setting team goals. On most every other decision, his assistants are free to do as they choose.

“I believe in letting them coach,” says Owens. “As long as they’re not hurting anyone or anything, our assistant coaches have total freedom. I will never claim to know everything about track and field—there’s just too much information. Each assistant has an area of expertise, and this team is just as much theirs as it is mine.”

Bringing volunteer assistant coaches into the fold and helping them make the most of their roles can take a little special effort and mentoring, but according to Salerno, the extra work can reap big rewards. At UCSD, Salerno uses volunteer assistant coaches who are often alumni of his program and only one or two years removed from the student-athlete experience. They help the team by taking times during workouts, monitoring weight training, providing advice on technique, and relieving Salerno of some of the responsibilities of hosting a meet, like managing officials and videotaping events. On top of all that, one of their most important contributions to the program isn’t even part of their job description: befriending student-athletes.

“Because they’re generally closer to the age of the athletes on our team, our volunteer assistants help us stay in touch with what’s going on,” says Salerno. “We get some pretty good information about personal issues. Our volunteers provide some real benefits in managing this many athletes.”

The key to working well with volunteer assistant coaches, says Salerno, is to pick them wisely, which is why he prefers using former student-athletes, especially former captains. He coaches them to be clear about the disciplinary boundaries that go with their new positions, to avoid romantic entanglements with any members of the team, and to see themselves as role models for their student-athletes.

Bucknam also sees clear advantages to using recent alumni as volunteer assistant coaches. The challenge, he says, is to make sure that they get the supervision they need. “You have to watch them a little more closely in practice, to see how they’re interacting with the athletes,” advises Bucknam. “At the beginning, I give them daily supervision, and as they get more proficient, I allow them to do more on their own.”

Handling Disagreements
Many head coaches welcome differing opinions from their assistants knowing that varied approaches produce better results. In some cases, though, a head coach must make a tough decision, even if some people on staff disagree with them. In many cases, an assistant coach’s view will carry the day, but the head coach should retain the power to have the final say and know when and when not to use it.

The key to managing disagreements, says Roberta Anthes, Head Women’s Track and Field Coach at Rutgers University, is for head coaches to clearly articulate their coaching philosophies with their assistants from the beginning. That way, when conflicts arise, the head coach can refer to those fundamental principles.

“If there’s a disagreement, the head coach has to say, ‘This is my philosophy,’” says Anthes. “‘I understand that if you were in charge, you would do things differently. But it’s my responsibility to make this decision, even though I know you don’t like it.’ Listen to your assistants, but be decisive about your philosophy and true to your vision.”

When Anthes does intervene, it’s almost always to protect athletes from potential injury, either in training or competition. She teaches assistants to err on the side of caution, and on the rare occasions that she overrules another coach, Anthes carefully considers her assistant’s reasoning before explaining her own.

In one example, Anthes wanted a star athlete to compete in two events at a championship meet, while her full-time assistant coach, James Robinson, thought the athlete was healthy enough to compete in three. “I told James I respected his reasoning, because he knows his athletes very well and he made a very strong case,” she says. “But even though it might have been a good idea in some contexts, I felt that given this athlete’s history of injury, it wasn’t a good idea in this context. I didn’t feel completely comfortable overruling him, but I felt that my discomfort had to be secondary to the well-being of the athlete. It was not worth the risk of injury to score a few extra points.”

Bruno recommends looking at disagreements as learning opportunities—for both you and your assistants. “You’re not always going to agree with each other, and that’s part of the point of having multiple perspectives,” he says. “What’s crucial is that people trust one another and that everyone is encouraged to openly discuss what they’re thinking. It’s good for assistants to provide input, even if the decision doesn’t go their way. And a head coach who really trusts his or her assistant coaches will respect their opinions.

“A disagreement is a chance for you to take a step back and reevaluate what you’re doing,” continues Bruno. “One of your assistants may have a better way of dealing with a given situation, and you may end up going with their idea. If their ideas are better, be mature enough to say, ‘That’s a great point. Let’s do it your way.’ If you go with their opinion, it will only strengthen the bonds you have with your assistants.”

Help Them Grow
One of the best ways to foster assistants’ morale—while at the same time giving you a stronger staff—is to look for ways to help your assistants further their skills. Salerno encourages his assistants to learn from other coaches, both on his staff and at other schools, and to integrate other systems into their own program.

Bucknam fosters professional development by giving assistants the chance to recruit in groups and having them watch competitions together, discussing and analyzing other coaches’ successes. He expects younger assistants to continually challenge themselves, finding mentors in their events and presenting papers at local, regional, or national clinics.

At Pinelands (N.J.) Regional High School, where he spent 11 years as head track and field coach, Bruno used subvarsity competitions to provide additional opportunities for assistants to gain experience. “I would send one or two assistant coaches to a freshman-sophomore track meet and give them control of the whole group,” says Bruno. “They’d be in charge of as many as 30 athletes at a full-fledged track and field invitational. They’d have the experience of getting everyone to the meet, filling out the relay card, taking care of timing, and getting results.

“They were completely in charge of those student-athletes, and they got a feel for what a head coach goes though on a daily basis,” continues Bruno. “Then, when they came back, we’d talk about their day. I’d ask, ‘How did it go? What did you do well? What would you do differently next time around?’

“As they became more comfortable in their roles, there were times when we would split the varsity team in half. Some assistants would take athletes to a meet in New York, and some would take other athletes to a meet in South Jersey. That way, assistants became even more involved in running the program, and they became much better coaches because of it.”

At Rutgers, Anthes mentors Robinson, who was named the 2005 East Region Assistant Coach of the Year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, by involving him in all the day-to-day details of her job. “I try to expose him to absolutely everything about the profession, with the idea that he should become capable of being a head coach some day. I share questions I have about our schedule, our recruits, and our scholarships. Before I go into a budget meeting, I sit down with him and say, ‘Here’s the budget I’m proposing. What do you think?’

“The more you help your assistants grow in their profession, the more engaged and devoted to the program they become,” continues Anthes. “By bringing them into the decision-making process, they become more knowledgeable and have more at stake.”

Effective Evaluations
As they do in any successful organization, evaluations play a crucial role in providing feedback for your assistants, promoting open communication, improving performance, and increasing job satisfaction. This is true whether a coach is a paid assistant or a volunteer.

In Brick Township, where all coaches work with renewable one-year contracts, Bruno observes both practices and meets before sitting down with assistant coaches at the end of the season. “I want to see how our athletes respond to their coaches and how our coaches respond to each other,” says Bruno. “I also want to see how they handle criticism. Everything I see is going to be part of that evaluation.”

To begin this discussion, Bruno uses a two-page evaluation form. One page rates assistants on the performance of their specific responsibilities and a second page summarizes their performance for the season, complete with areas that need improvement. The assistant then has 10 days to respond in writing before the evaluation is placed in his or her file.

When Anthes began coaching at Rutgers 22 years ago, she had no formal procedure for evaluating assistant coaches. At the end of the season, she would sit down with her assistant for a conversation about what had and hadn’t gone well. Two years ago, she started adding some structure by writing a short synopsis of the season to use in the evaluation process. The written summary has proven to be a great help in setting the tone for a two-way conversation between head coach and assistant.

“The evaluations have been a learning experience for James and for me,” says Anthes. “Writing down my ideas has made me more exacting, but really, the evaluations have been more like having a discussion than giving a grade. It’s been just as important for me to listen to him as for him to listen to me. He gets a chance to tell me where I can improve, too.” For more advice, see “Evaluating Assistants” below.

Sharing Credit
Making assistant coaches feel valued also means sharing the limelight when your teams succeed. There are numerous ways, both big and small, to share the credit. Robinson’s 2005 Assistant Coach of the Year award was the result of a nomination by Anthes—a step which resulted in nationwide recognition for his efforts. However, she has also made sure to send him a thank you card at the end of each season—a small gesture that’s nonetheless important.

When Owens was named the 2005 Division III Mideast Regional Track Coach of the Year by the U.S. Track Coaches Association, he brought all five of his assistants onto the stage, where he thanked them for their contributions to the team. “We don’t think of any event as being more important than any other,” he says. “What got us to the championships was working as a team. I look on this award as Coaching Staff of the Year, because our success comes from all of us working together.”

As head coach, Bruno directed members of the media to speak with his assistant coaches. He also announced their successes on the school’s PA system, publicly praised them in front of the team, and recognized them at the program’s end-of-season banquet.

“I could never have been as successful as I was without the assistant coaches who worked with me—not under me, but with me,” says Bruno. “Track coaches work with a large number of athletes, and there is a lot of teaching that goes on before any of them can be successful. You have to rely on your assistants, and you have to make sure they get their due credit.”

For Anthes, the time and thought she’s put into working with her assistant coaches has led to an unexpected benefit: It’s made her better at her own job. “As a head coach, mentoring your assistants forces you to evaluate what is really and truly the best method of doing something,” she says. “You become more aware of your own standards, why you have them, and what you have to do to live up to them. As you teach that to somebody else, you get to hear their point of view, and you may learn something that you’d never considered before.”


Sidebar: EVALUATING ASSISTANTS

Because head track and field coaches expect their assistant coaches to work with a great deal of autonomy, evaluating their performance can be a challenge. Bernie Cullen of Cambria Consulting, a Boston-based firm specializing in human resource management and organizational development, offers a handful of tips for effective evaluations:

• Instead of thinking of your evaluation as a once-a-year event, maintain an open, year-round dialogue. “Provide constant feedback, just as your assistants do with their athletes,” says Cullen. “Doing evaluations as an ongoing process eliminates some of the formality of an annual review.”

• To evaluate an assistant’s day-to-day performance, ask for help from your student-athletes. “If you don’t have direct access to an individual assistant’s performance, go to the people who do,” says Cullen. “Solicit information from your athletes by asking questions in a general, informal fashion: ‘How’s it going? What are you working on?’ Don’t explicitly try to extract information about the assistant coach, because that could compromise his or her authority. Simply find out how the athletes are doing and use that to form a fuller picture of your assistant.”

• Present that feedback to your assistant coach as the basis for a dialogue. “Let’s say an athlete tells you she needs clearer feedback on her technique,” says Cullen. “You can relay that to your assistant by asking, ‘What would lead someone to say that?’ You shouldn’t use the feedback in a crass, evaluative sense, but as a catalyst for discussion about how the assistant coach is approaching these situations.”

• If you have concerns about an assistant coach’s performance, don’t put off discussing the problem. “If there are obvious deficiencies in an assistant coach’s performance, you need to address them as they come up,” says Cullen. “Don’t hold back your bad news until the end of the season. When you come to the annual review, there really shouldn’t be any surprises.”

• Provide a balance of positive and negative comments. “When you go into an evaluation, don’t just focus on the areas that need improvement,” says Cullen. “Make sure you give equal time to talking about what the assistant coach is doing right.”