Highly successful coaches in three different sports take time out to explain their winning coaching philosophies.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 14.10, November 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1410/goingdeep.htm

Ask most football coaches for their coaching philosophies, and you expect to hear about spread formations, controlling the line of scrimmage, and commitment to success. What you don’t expect to hear much about is love or Salada tea bags.

But Al Fracassa isn’t like most football coaches. A member of the Michigan High School Coaches Hall of Fame, he’s won more games than any other football coach in his state and was named the NFL High School Coach of the Year in 1997.

Head coach for more than three decades at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Fracassa sums up his coaching philosophy this way: “Above all, 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 became solidified when he played at Michigan State for head coaches Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty. “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.”

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 different sports to talk about their coaching philosophies. They discuss what their philosophies are, describe how they evolved, and recall the experiences that formed their beliefs in the first place.

An Evolving Process
Fracassa says the biggest developments in his coaching philosophy have reflected changes he’s seen in the athletes he coaches. “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.”

Although he has six state titles to his credit, winning has dropped in importance as his philosophy has evolved, Fracassa adds. “When I was a young coach, I went into every season thinking we had to win all of our games,” he says. “But over time I started asking, ‘Is this really what coaching is all about?’ It’s good to teach to win, but what’s most 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 my entire life, and now 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 still remember.”

Building Confidence
In his 33 years as a baseball coach, one game sticks in Eric Kibler’s mind as the moment his coaching philosophy was born. The moment isn’t one of glory or triumph—in fact, it’s an experience he’d probably rather forget. Instead he uses it to help him recall what makes him a coach and shape his approach to mentoring his Horizon Hills (Ariz.) High School team.

“I was a very young coach, and I humiliated a kid in front of his teammates,” Kibler says. “He made a mistake, and I shouted at him out on the field. That might not sound like a big deal, but I knew as soon as the words were out of my mouth that it was wrong. I felt terrible. After the game, I apologized to him and to the entire team. I told them that wasn’t the way a coach should ever act, it wasn’t right, and it wouldn’t happen again. And it hasn’t—I have never done that since.”

That experience helped Kibler define two things about his coaching philosophy. “First, I believe in using the game to build kids up,” he says. “I don’t allow any coach in my program to take away a kid’s dignity, because my biggest goal is for players to leave my program feeling confident. The second is that I will always evaluate my own performance and be willing to say I’m sorry when I make a mistake. Those are two big elements of my coaching philosophy, and they were formed from that experience.”

Named 2005 Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, Kibler says another anchor of his philosophy is a focus on the process. “We don’t talk a lot about winning,” he says. “We even keep goal setting to a minimum, because if that’s overemphasized, it can lead to a focus on the outcome. Winning is important—don’t get me wrong—but I believe in working hard and allowing the results to take care of themselves.”

That approach proved itself in 2005, when the team won its third state title under Kibler. By his own evaluation, the team was not his most physically talented, but their desire and mental toughness filled the gaps.

“The mental aspect of my coaching has grown over the years to the point that I give it just as much thought as I do the Xs and Os,” he says. “I’ve learned that confidence, desire, and a willingness to take risks can take a team places no one thought they could go.”

Providing plenty of positive feedback is another way Kibler adds to his players’ confidence. “I make sure to praise the kids whose contributions might go unnoticed,” he says. “If someone on the bench steals a sign, I point out in front of the team that those are the things that turn the tide in a game. After every game, whether we won big or stunk the place up, I leave them on a positive note.”

Responsibility to team also permeates Kibler’s philosophy. “One of our mottoes is, ‘We’re here to pick each other up, not to show each other up,’” he says. “I stress to my guys that not everybody is going to play a good game every game. It’s their job to say to a teammate who just struck out, ‘It’s okay. You’ve done it for us in the past, so I’ll get it done today.’ That extends to life off the field, too.”

Kibler presents team rules with the same team-focused approach. “My rule is, ‘If you do anything that takes away from the reputation of this team, it’s a violation of some sort,’” he says. “Having them first think of how their choices will affect the team is a simple way of doing things.

“Kids need to know that their coach will enforce his rules,” he adds. “Many of them have people in their lives who have a lot of rules but don’t enforce any of them. My philosophy is to have few rules and enforce them all.”

For Kibler, evaluating his coaching philosophy is an ongoing effort. “I assess it after every season, but really, I’m always tweaking it,” he says. “I take issues that arise as an opportunity to refine my philosophy. For example, with steroids being such a big topic in the professional ranks, I’ve done a lot of thinking about my philosophy on talking to my players about that. I’ve decided to focus on the message, ‘Integrity is everything.’

“I’m constantly learning and evaluating myself,” he adds. “The final part of my philosophy is that the day I can’t say I’m doing that—and walking through the gates ready to put in 100 percent—I’ll turn in my keys. That is what I expect of my players, so that is what I expect of myself.”

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, playing 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 court. “It applies to every facet of their lives, and mine 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 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 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.”

A version of this article has appeared in other issues of Coaching Management.

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.

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.

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

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

Create the statement. Look at all the #1 items and write a paragraph or more that links them together. If some of the #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 #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.”

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 include placing it on a Web site, printing it on 3x5 cards you hand out to athletes, and including it in a preseason packet for athletes and parents.

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.

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 Athletic Management, Coaching Management’s sister publication.