The Heart of the Matter

Before you can help your athletes succeed, you need to know who you are and why you do what you do. Defining your coaching philosophy is your first mission.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. She can be reached at:

Coaching Management, 14.3, March 2006,

When Head Women’s Basketball Coach Mike Divilbiss moved from Lewis-Clark State College to the University of Idaho, he felt prepared for the pressure of climbing the coaching ladder. He’d built the LC State program into an NAIA Division I contender, winning 33 games in his last season and taking his team to the Final Four. He was ready for NCAA Division I competition. Or so he thought.

“In my first two years at Idaho, we won 11 and 10 games,” says Divilbiss, now in his fifth season at Idaho. “Coming off a season with 33 wins, that was a soul-searching time for me. I asked myself, ‘What are you doing here? Who are you? What’s important to you?’

“I expected the experience of moving to Division I to be about adjusting to a higher level of competition and focusing on the scoreboard,” he continues. “Instead, I ended up completely re-examining my coaching philosophy and really asking myself, ‘Why coach basketball in the first place?’”

Divilbiss’s soul-searching resulted in a personal philosophy statement that’s published on Idaho’s athletics Web site. In place of the usual collection of stats and accolades, Divilbiss’s bio describes how he goes about molding a basketball team into a family and teaching his players to handle successes and failures in life.

“In the end, I came back to the fact that winning wasn’t the most important thing to me and that success was about much more than the scoreboard,” he says. “Changing jobs ending up providing me with the chance to truly define my coaching philosophy.”

What’s your coaching philosophy? Whether you think about it daily, analyze it once a season, or rarely reflect on it at all, it’s the framework on which your performance is built. Coaches who take the time to clarify and refine their philosophies are rewarded with a roadmap for better decision-making and a deeper, more meaningful experience for themselves and their athletes.

Here, we ask veteran coaches in three different sports at three different levels of competition to talk about their coaching philosophies. They discuss their philosophies, describe how they evolved, and recall the experiences that formed their beliefs.

Focusing on the Journey
Mark Guthrie, Head Coach of Men’s Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, has used a coaching philosophy with three basic principles to guide 19 teams to NCAA Division III titles. The first principle is that the experience belongs not to him, but to his student-athletes. “I had my time, and this is their time,” Guthrie says. “So I let them tell me what they want to accomplish. I allow the student-athletes to set their own individual and team goals, and my role is to help them reach those goals.”

Based on that philosophy, Guthrie starts each season by asking his athletes to set their goals. “Not surprisingly, they always come back with, ‘To win the national championship,’” he says. “Everything is geared toward winning the title, from how I plan practices to how I approach meets. If they told me one year their goal was to win a conference title, I’d base everything on that instead.”

Second, Guthrie believes in regularly putting his student-athletes into challenging competitive situations, even if they feel they’re in over their heads. “We’re a D-III school, but we run at Wisconsin, Minnesota, Purdue, and the Drake Relays and the Kansas Relays,” he says. “I believe in taking my athletes to places where they are going to see fantastic talent. It gives them confidence when they get to the most critical situation we face: our national meet.”

A team focus is the third hallmark of Guthrie’s philosophy. “I talk to my athletes a lot about how every member of the team contributes to the final result, whether they score points or not,” he says.

Guthrie says that watching other coaches—both those he respects and those he doesn’t—has helped him refine his philosophy over the years. “I remember early in my career watching a coach chew out a kid who had screwed up in a meet,” he says. “I knew right then that wasn’t going to be part of my philosophy. Some coaches say, ‘You have to tear kids down to build them back up,’ but I don’t believe that. When an athlete screws up, they know it, and the last thing they need is to be torn down. I tell them, ‘Tomorrow is another day. Let’s start over from here and do what we need to do.’”

Guthrie tests his beliefs by watching how they stand up in tough situations. “Going into the D-III indoor championships two years ago, one of my athletes was the top thrower in D-III history in the 35-pound weight, and we were counting on him for 10 points toward the title,” he says. “Instead, he fouled three times. It was a big blow, but I followed my philosophy. I told him, ‘The sun is still coming up tomorrow and even though this is pretty important to us, it’s not the end of the world.’

Then at the outdoor nationals, he threw a lifetime PR and won the hammer. If I had jumped down his throat at the indoor nationals and told him he had let us down, I’m not sure he would have had the confidence to put it behind him. So I believe my philosophy served me well, and it goes back to when I saw that one coach early in my career do just the opposite.

“The longer you coach, the more your philosophy evolves,” he continues. “You see what works and build on that, and you see what doesn’t work and change it. It’s a slow process. I think it takes at least a decade before you have a fairly solid philosophy. And even after that, you don’t want to get locked in—there is no such thing as a permanent coaching philosophy. Good coaches never stop looking for ways to adapt.”

Guthrie sets aside time after each season to evaluate his philosophy. “I go out on my boat, and no one can go with me,” he says. “I don’t bring a cell phone. I just cruise and think about what happened during the season. Are my core beliefs and my approach working? If the answer is no, I start breaking down what isn’t working and figure out how to change it.

“The toughest time to evaluate your philosophy is when you’re succeeding,” he continues. “After a losing season, it’s easy to look back and try to figure out what went wrong. But it’s just as important to go back after a great season and ask, ‘Did we do everything we could, or is there a better way to do it?’”

Over the years, Guthrie says his philosophy has evolved to be much less about wins and losses and much more about the process. “I’ve come to realize that it’s all about the journey, and I’ve developed a little tradition to communicate that to my athletes,” he says. “I make sure we are always the last ones to leave a competition. We wait, and after the noise has died away and all the other teams have left, we just stand there for a minute and look around so they don’t forget the experience.

"The medals will tarnish and the ribbons will fade, but the memories will carry them for the rest of their lives. I tell my athletes, ‘Just stand here a minute and soak it in so you’ll always remember what you’ve been through and what you’re a part of.’”

Three Little Words
Divilbiss has a philosophy that’s distilled down into three words: hard, smart, together. He freely admits the words are borrowed from legendary basketball coach Dean Smith, but Divilbiss has put his own stamp on the phrase that has come to stand for a very specific way of doing things.

On the basketball court, “play hard” translates to putting in maximum effort every day. Playing smart reminds his players to take care of the little things: boxing out for rebounds, making the sure pass, reading defenses properly. And playing together means every athlete understands teamwork—when to pass the ball and when to take it to the basket.

The meaning of “hard, smart, together” also extends beyond the basketball court. “It applies to every facet of their lives, and of my life too, because I ask it of myself,” Divilbiss says. “I expect them to play ‘hard, smart, and together’ in the classroom and socially as well. I expect them to extend maximum effort in their schoolwork and to ‘play together’ by helping one another make good decisions in social situations.

“I don’t believe you can be one person in one part of your life and a different person in another part of your life,” he continues. “So my players can’t tell me they’re going to be a mess academically and then become disciplined and accountable on the court. My philosophy is that we have to build quality people who are ready to make good decisions and give maximum effort on and off the basketball court. ‘Hard, smart, together’ has become shorthand for that.”

Divilbiss regularly spends time thinking and reading about coaching philosophy, even after nearly two decades as a head coach. “Reading has shaped my philosophy a great deal and still does,” he says. “I’ll read something and think, ‘I like that. That fits me.’ Then I’ll make it part of my philosophy.

“I spend a lot of time listening to other coaches, too,” he continues. “I go to clinics not so much to learn about basketball as to hear coaches talk about why they do what they do. And of course, my philosophy has also developed through my experiences.”

One of those experiences came at Lewis-Clark when his team was 26-0 and ranked number one in the country as it entered the conference finals. When his team lost the game on a half-court shot at the buzzer, Divilbiss says his own reaction disappointed him.

“I didn’t get down on the kids, but I didn’t lead,” he says. “I lost my perspective and I was making it all about the scoreboard. Ever since, I’ve wished I could have that moment in the locker room back. But evaluating that experience helped me return to who I am and what I believe in.”

Along with pivotal moments, Divilbiss uses his daily experiences and interactions to refine his coaching philosophy. “One way that I evaluate how well my philosophy is working is to continually ask myself, ‘What does this team need from me?’” he says. “I also ask my captains and listen carefully to their answers. If I’m constantly adjusting my approach to give them more of what they need, I know I am working from a sound philosophy.

“There’s really no time when I’m not evaluating my philosophy,” he adds. “It’s synonymous with who I am as a person, and that’s something I think about every day.”

From the Heart
Ask most football coaches for their coaching philosophies, and you might not expect to hear much about love. But Al Fracassa isn’t most football coaches. He’s won more games than any other football coach in Michigan and has been honored with an NFL Coach of the Year award.

Head coach for more than three decades at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Fracassa sums up his coaching philosophy this way: “Work hard and do the best you can every day. Know what you expect from your players and make sure they know, too. Never forget that each member of your team is equally important. Above all else, make sure you care about your kids, because there is a whole lot of love involved in being a good coach. If you don’t truly care about your players, you will not ultimately be successful. But if you do, your kids will remember it for the rest of their lives.”

Fracassa says his philosophy began with what he learned from his high school coaches and solidified when he competed for Michigan State as a student-athlete. “The coaches made every player feel they were a part of the team,” he says. “They were disciplined coaches, but they also cared about each player as a person. I believed at the time—and I still believe—that was the reason we won the national championship in 1952. I’m going back a long way, but that was definitely the beginning of my philosophy.”

Fracassa says the biggest developments in his coaching philosophy have reflected changes he’s seen in his players. “Years ago, I was tougher in the things I said to athletes,” he says. “But as the culture has changed and the expectations of athletes and their parents have changed, I’ve eased up a lot. I still let them know when I don’t like their effort, but I’m more conscious of saying it in a way that’s not going to hurt their feelings. It’s important to evaluate and adjust your philosophy as times change.”

Winning has dropped in importance as Fracassa’s philosophy has evolved. “When I was a young coach, I went into every season thinking we had to win all our games,” he says. “But over time I started asking, ‘Is this really what it’s all about?’ It’s good to teach to win. But what’s important is that kids are a part of something. The lessons they learn come from being out there every day, not from winning a state championship, and that’s become my philosophy.”

Throughout his career, having concise phrases to sum up his philosophy has helped Fracassa define what he’s about as a coach. “My high school coach used to say, ‘Do it better than it’s ever been done before,’” he says. “That simple phrase has stuck with me throughout my entire life and I use it with my players. I borrowed the phrase, ‘Never give up,’ from Vince Lombardi. And how about, ‘Contentment with past accomplishments stifles future achievements’? I got that from a Salada tea bag, but it fits into my philosophy.

“If you’re trying to figure out your philosophy, make it simple,” he adds. “Figure out what you’re about as a coach and put it into simple terms that you can put up on the wall and repeat to yourself. It helps guide your coaching, and when players come back 10 years later, those are the concepts they’ll remember.”

A version of this article has appeared in previous editions of Coaching Management.