In Sync

How do you make sure your players are in sync each and every day? You can start by examining your coaching philosophy.

By Laura Smith

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

Coaching Management, 14.5, April 2006,

When Patti Perone took over as Head Volleyball Coach at Horseheads (N.Y.) High School in 1988, she heard one comment over and over: “You have some pretty big shoes to fill.” Her predecessor, Tom Skidmore, started the Horseheads volleyball program, had been its only coach, and was revered by the community for his success and old school coaching style.

Perone had coached before and was just beginning to develop her own coaching philosophy. Teaching life skills was at its core, along with building relationships, staying positive, fostering confidence, and seeing players blossom as individuals. But her style was very different from Skidmore’s, and she began to wonder if it would be successful at Horseheads.

“He had an authoritarian, no-nonsense way of dealing with his players, and that just isn’t in my personality,” says Perone. “I knew one thing: I could never be successful if I tried to mold my philosophy into his. So I decided to stay true to who I am.”

The approach has worked. Perone has led her team to 11 state semifinal round appearances, including four championship berths. Horseheads won the New York State Class A Championship in 2001.

“Before I came here, if someone had asked what my philosophy was, I don’t think I’d have had an answer,” she says. “Following a coach who was so successful and yet so different from me really made me think about what my coaching philosophy is.”

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 team’s performance is built. Here, we ask veteran coaches in three different sports to discuss what their philosophies are, describe how they evolved, and recall the experiences that formed their beliefs.

Teaching Success
It’s a long time after a season ends before Perone knows whether it was a success. In fact, it can be years. “I don’t judge success by wins and losses,” she says. “I judge it by the outcome of my players’ lives.”

That approach forms the bedrock of her coaching philosophy: She believes that the most important part of her job is to teach her players skills that will make them successful off the court and for the rest of their lives. “I believe that coaching is teaching at its best, and I believe I can teach kids things through volleyball that they can’t learn in a classroom,” Perone says. “Put kids in a team situation, and they are going to encounter lessons they won’t get anywhere else.”

The cornerstone of these lessons is an emphasis on team, which often begins with some remedial concepts about family. “It’s impossible for kids to understand team if they don’t understand family,” she says. “In a time when a lot of players come from split families, my first job is to tell them, ‘This team is a family. That means we’re all responsible for each other. We’re going to develop a chemistry that will make us far better as a whole than we could ever be as individuals.’”

She puts her players through a local ropes challenge course at the beginning of each season and immerses them in other team-building exercises. “That definitely shows me who our leaders are and which kids know how to communicate and solve problems—concepts they’re going to need on the volleyball court,” she says. “I’ve found that it’s not necessarily having the most talented kids on your team that gets you where you want to go. It’s having the kids who play the best together.”

While teaching them to understand the true meaning of “team,” Perone also finds it critical to get to know players as individuals, and she has developed a unique tool to do that. Every so often at the beginning of practice, she passes out “me cards,” blank index cards on which players can write anything they want to tell her. Players can sign their cards or return them anonymously.

“At first, they might just draw a little picture, and they don’t sign their names,” Perone says. “Eventually they’re writing their phone numbers on them and telling me that things aren’t going well at home, or that they’re interested in a boy but they’re afraid to talk to him.

“Building relationships with my players is key to my philosophy, especially since I’m coaching girls,” Perone continues. “I have learned that girls don’t care how much you know about a sport until they know you care about them.”

When there is a conflict, she pushes her players to speak up for themselves. “For example, if a player has a problem with something I’m doing, I tell her parents I don’t want to hear from them, I want to hear from their child. It’s easy for a parent to come to me to solve a problem, but then we’re not teaching the kid anything about dealing with real life.”

Perone’s final philosophical principle is to emphasize performance goals over outcome goals. “I tell my players, ‘Every time you step into the gym, I want your work ethic to be second to none,’” she says. “They can’t control their talent, but they can choose their effort level and enthusiasm.”

Perone says she didn’t give a lot of thought to coaching philosophy early in her career, and that her focus on it has grown steadily over time. “When you first start coaching, you’re just excited to get in there and lead a team,” she says. “But philosophy is something every coach should think about, because your philosophy becomes the foundation of your program and it ultimately determines the strength of your program.”

Once she began piecing together a philosophy, Perone watched successful coaches carefully and read books by coaches she respects, like legendary volleyball coach Sally Kus from Sweet Home High School in Amherst, N.Y., and basketball coach John Wooden. “I asked myself, what do they do that works?” she says. “And I took away the pieces that I thought would work for me.

“If you’re trying to define your philosophy, the first question you need to ask is, ‘What is important to me?’” she continues. “Another way to phrase it is, ‘What kind of team do I want to put on the floor?’ Answer that, and you’ll have a good start on a philosophy.”

How does Perone know whether her philosophy is working? “I learn from my past players,” she says. “They are the product of my philosophy, so when they come back and talk to me, I listen. I look at whether they’re still involved with volleyball and whether they still love the sport. I look at whether they’re doing good things with their lives, and I see whether the life skills I taught stayed with them. I consider them to be my best source of evaluation.”

Focusing on the Journey
Mark Guthrie, Head Coach of Men’s and Women’s Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, has used a coaching philosophy based on three basic principles to guide 19 teams to NCAA Division III titles. The first principle is that the experience belongs 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.”

Guthrie starts each season by asking his team to set a goal for the season. “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 tell me one year their goal is to win a conference title, I’ll 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 compete in some meets against Division I schools,” he says. “I believe in taking my athletes to events 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, whether they score points or not, contributes to the final result,” he says.

Guthrie says that watching other coaches—both those he respects and those he doesn’t—has helped him refine his philosophy. “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 also 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 personal record and won the hammer throw event.

“If I had jumped down his throat at the indoor nationals and told him he had let us down,” he continues, “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. You see what works and build on it, 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, good coaches never stop looking for ways to adapt and improve.”

Guthrie sets aside a special time after each season ends to evaluate his philosophy. “I go out on my boat alone and 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 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 are what 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
University of Idaho Head Women’s Basketball Coach Mike Divilbiss has a philosophy that’s distilled into three words: hard, smart, together. Divilbiss freely admits the words are borrowed from basketball icon Dean Smith, but he 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 an athlete understands teamwork—she knows when to pass the ball and when to take it to the basket.

However, “hard, smart, together” extends beyond the basketball court. “It applies to every facet of their lives, and of my life too, because I also 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 each other 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 says he still puts time into thinking about coaching philosophies. “I go to clinics now not so much to learn about basketball, but to hear coaches talk about why they do what they do,” he explains.

Divilbiss also looks at pivotal experiences in his coaching career as opportunities to define his philosophy. One came in his former job as Head Coach at Lewis-Clark State College, when his team was 26-0 and ranked number one in the NAIA, then lost in the conference tournament finals on a half-court shot at the buzzer. “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 then, 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.”

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, the coach’s bio describes how he molds a basketball team into a family and teaches 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.

Along with pivotal moments, Divilbiss uses his daily experiences and interactions to refine his coaching philosophy. “I continually ask myself, ‘What does this team need from me?’ I also ask my captains that question 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.”

Portions of this article appear in other editions of Coaching Management.

Sidebar: Making A Statement
By Dr. Dennis Docheff
Dennis Docheff, EdD, is a Professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Central Missouri State University and a former football, basketball, and track and field coach.

Along with figuring out your coaching philosophy, consider writing a personal philosophy statement. Developing a concise, written description of your philosophy will allow you to think about what is important to you and communicate that to others. When there’s a decision to be made, your philosophy statement will serve as a personal guide to steer you in the right direction. Here is a way to break the task down into a six-step process.

1. Write a list. The first step is to create a list of everything important to you in life—everything. If family is important to you, list it. If having time to exercise is a priority, list it. How about your professionalism? Winning? Salary? Try to include everything that may impact your daily behavior.

2. Prioritize your list. Next, prioritize each item on the list: 1 = very important, 2 = somewhat important, and 3 = moderately important. Here’s an example:

Family: 1
Influencing students: 1
Success of my athletes: 2
Winning games: 1
Championship titles: 2
Lifelong learning: 1
Friends: 3

There are no right or wrong answers in this process. The items listed and the numbers next to them should reflect your true feelings.

3. Create the statement. Look at all the No. 1 items and write a paragraph or more that links them together. If some of the No. 1 items do not seem to fit what you want to say, it’s okay to leave them out. And you may decide to upgrade a few No. 2 items because they help to define what you are truly about. Elaborate and add text to bring out what really inspires you on a daily basis.

The following is an example of the opening of a philosophy statement: “I love to learn, and learning inspires me to teach others. Through coaching, I hope to positively influence today’s youth, so they might be good citizens tomorrow. Patience, kindness, and love direct my interactions with athletes. Although I like to win, it is imperative that I do so in a fair and just manner. I believe in doing what’s right.”

4. Publish it. When people think of publishing, they typically think of books or magazines. But coaches have many avenues to publish their philosophy statement. The simplest way is to place it in a frame and hang it on the office wall or post it in the locker room where athletes can read it. Other ideas: place it on your school’s Web site, print it on 3x5 cards you hand out to athletes, or include it in a preseason packet for athletes and parents.

5. Put it into practice. The most important part of the process is putting the philosophy into action. Try setting one or two monthly goals that are directly related to your philosophy and check your work at the end of each month. Another idea is to create a term “report card,” either on your own or with a mentor to gauge progress toward your larger goals. Or keep a journal, where you write about your daily activities, then reflect on how well your behavior matches your philosophy.

6. Review it. As people grow and mature, things that were once important in their lives may change and thus their philosophy may change, too. Even if the philosophy statement remains the same from year to year, reviewing the document will refresh your perspective.

Certainly, trying to live out a public philosophy puts pressure on a coach. It takes courage to tell people, “This is what I’m about. Please hold me accountable.” However, writing and reviewing your philosophy will help you coach in a manner that truly represents who you are. And the longer you use it, the more likely you will be to reach your goals.

A version of this sidebar has been published in Coaching Management’s sister publication, Athletic Management.