Before discussing what qualities and skill sets that make for a good coach, we need to first acknowledge how very difficult this profession of coaching really is. Coaching is sometimes a thankless, frustrating “no-win” kind of job. It’s an occupation that is most often done in a public fishbowl. In other words, if you coach, then you are in a highly visible position that continually exposes you to the public’s scrutiny and evaluation. It’s one of those professions where the general public regularly weighs in on what kind of a job they think you’re doing whether you want their evaluation or not.
When it comes to judging your job performance, everyone seems to be an expert and have the “qualifications” to criticize you. Fans, parents, students, alumni, the media, and the team’s organization or administration all seem at the ready to offer you either the thumbs up or thumbs down signal. What’s even more frustrating for a coach is that so much of this external judgment comes from individuals who don’t seem to have a clue about you, your players, or what you’re trying to accomplish with the team.
Coaching is also one of those jobs where your professional effectiveness is almost always narrowly measured by something that is very often totally out of your control: winning and losing.
In many ways you can be a bad or ineffective coach, yet because you are lucky enough to have great players on your squad, you win all the time. Because of this external record you are considered in your profession to be a “great” coach. Similarly, you can be a wonderful coach and teacher but because of a lack of player talent, luck, or other circumstances beyond your control such as player injuries, your won-loss record is just mediocre and, as a consequence of this, you’re seen as an ineffective coach.
Which behaviors and characteristics will best motivate and inspire your players? How do the really great teachers conduct themselves? What it is about these individuals that make them so successful? What are some specific things that you can learn from them that will help elevate you in the coaching ranks? If you so choose, then you can use this list to begin to work on making yourself that much better as a professional.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD COACH?
#1) The very best coaches GET THEIR ATHLETES TO BELIEVE in themselves – good coaches inspire their players to do more than they think they can. In fact, all good teachers do this. They get their students to entertain possibilities that stretch the limits of their beliefs. Part of this involves building the athlete up rather than knocking him down. Good coaches always build self-esteem rather than undermine it. This self-esteem building is not a gimmick nor is it done artificially. In other words the coach doesn’t praise a mediocre effort. He/she simply makes it a practice to catch his/her athletes doing things RIGHT. The good coach doesn’t get caught up in playing head games that leave the athlete questioning his/her abilities.
#2) The really effective coaches DO NOT USE EMBARRASSMENT & HUMILIATION AS “TEACHING TOOLS” – they understand that embarrassing or humiliating a young athlete for a mistake, failure or short-coming is an aggressive assault on that athlete that doesn’t build mental toughness or enhance performance! There is NOTHING educational or constructive about it. It tears down that athlete and grossly undermines his/her self-esteem and creates performance problems.
#3) Great coaches are GREAT LIFE TEACHERS – a good coach understands that what he/she is teaching goes far beyond the X’s & O’s. This kind of coach does not just teach the skills, technique and strategy within the narrow confines of the sport. Instead he/she looks for opportunities where the more important life lessons can be taught such as mastering hardship, handling and rebounding from failures and setbacks, trusting your teammates, sacrificing individual needs for the benefit of the group, emotionally dealing with winning and losing, good sportsmanship, fair play, honesty, integrity, etc.
#4) The best coaches KEEP THE GAME IN PERSPECTIVE – they do not get distracted by how big any one game is in relation to their job as a teacher. Similarly, they understand that sports are just games and are merely a vehicle to teach their charges other, more important life lessons. They understand that what they teach and how they teach it will have an impact on the student that goes far beyond the sport.
#5) Great coaches DO NOT LET THEIR EGOS AND SELF-WORTH GET TIED UP IN THE OUTCOME – the best coaches are mentally healthy enough to know that they are NOT their performances, regardless of what others around them may say. They do not feel diminished as an individual when their teams fail nor do they feel that much better about themselves when their squads succeed. These individuals understand that coaching is only one thing of many that they do and therefore they do not let this one thing solely define themselves as a person. Coaches who get into trouble with their athletes do so because they are emotionally more vulnerable and tend to feel threatened by a loss or failure. Their egos are on the line whenever these individuals compete and therefore they feel like they have much more to lose. Many blatant coaching mistakes come directly from the coach’s overemphasis on the game’s outcome because that individual self-esteem is too caught up with this outcome.
#6) Great coaches UNDERSTAND INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES IN THEIR ATHLETES – the best coaches have a basic understanding that each athlete on their team is different in attitude, personality, response-ability, sensitivity and how they handle criticism and adversity. These coaches take the time to get to know each athlete’s individual differences and styles. They then hand-tailor what they say to, and how they treat this athlete to achieve maximum coaching effectiveness. They know that while one athlete may respond well to a hard edge and raised voice, this approach may totally shut another one down.
#7) The best coaches COACH THE PERSON, NOT JUST THE ATHLETE – effective coaches take the time to get to know the athlete as a person. They take an interest in the athlete’s life off the field, court or track. They don’t see personal, academic or social problems as a distraction to the job of coaching. They view “outside problems” as an opportunity to further build a relationship with the athlete. This kind of caring is never lost on the athlete. Coaches who take an interest in the athlete’s total life are more trusted and respected than those who don’t. As a result, coaches who really care about the athlete as a person find that their athletes are more motivated and work harder. You can’t ever separate the athlete as a performer from who he/she is as a person.
#8) The best coaches are FLEXIBLE –they approach their teaching by continuously looking for a better way to reach each athlete. When an athlete struggles to learn something the better coaches do not look at this as a “learning disability” and blame the athlete for their incompetence. Instead they approach it as a “teaching opportunity” and therefore change how they are presenting the material to that athlete. If one approach doesn’t work, then they try another until they figure out the best way to reach that particular athlete. Just because that athlete may not be responding to your coaching does not mean that he/she has an attitude or commitment problem. Coaches who are rigid, who continually adopt the attitude that “it’s my way or the highway” are far less effective than those coaches who have mastered the fine art of being flexible. Understand here that flexibility does NOT mean being wishy-washy. You can be flexible and strong at the same time.
#9) The great coaches are GREAT COMMUNICATORS – they understand that communication is a two-way street and involves a back and forth between coach and athlete. Bad coaches think that communication is a one-way street. You talk and the athletes listen. Instead, effective communication entails that you as a coach carefully listen to what your athletes are saying. When your athletes talk you must BE QUIET INSIDE SO THAT YOU CAN LISTEN. Unless you carefully listen to them when they talk then you won’t have a clue as to what your athletes are really saying or how to best help them. Far too many coaches are too busy countering in their head what their athletes are saying to actually hear them. If you can’t learn how to listen then you will never truly be effective in reaching your players.
#10) Good coaches TAKE THE TIME TO LISTEN TO AND EDUCATE THEIR ATHLETES’ PARENTS – they make it a regular practice to communicate with the parents and educate them about the sport and the role that they need to play on the team. Your success as a coach often depends upon getting parents to work with you, not against you. The only way to make this happen is if you take the time to talk to and train your parents. This means that you must learn to listen to their concerns and questions. Take a proactive role with them. Do NOT wait for a problem or crisis before you decide that it’s time to actually approach your parents. Do so right from the beginning of the season and do it often. Let them know about their support role on the team. Help them understand that their job is NOT to motivate or coach their child. Teach them what are appropriate and inappropriate behaviors at games and on the sidelines. Educate them about the sport and what it takes to excel. Explain your philosophy about competition and playing time. Be open to feedback in a non-defensive manner.
#11) GOOD COACHES “WALK THE TALK” WITH THEIR ATHLETES AND PARENTS – good coaches know that what you say and how you act are similar. YOUR MOST POWERFUL TEACHING TOOL IS MODELING. They operate on the principle that their actions and how they conduct themselves will always speak much louder than your words, therefore, they actively model the behaviors and attitude that they want their players to adopt.
#12) Good coaches KEEP THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT EMOTIONALLY SAFE – they understand that the emotional climate on the team dramatically affects how players practice and perform. They make it their job to directly and immediately deal with scapegoating, bullying and petty jealousies that sometimes arise between players. They give a very clear message that cruelty and mistreatment of others will not be tolerated and contradict the mission of the team. As a consequence this kind of coach creates an atmosphere of safety on the team that is absolutely crucial for optimal learning and peak performance.
#13) Great coaches CONTINUALLY CHALLENGE THEIR ATHLETES TO DO BETTER AND PUSH THEIR LIMITS – they inspire their athletes to believe in themselves by continually putting them in situations which challenge their limiting beliefs. They don’t allow their players to just get by with the status quo. They do this by pushing their athletes outside of their comfort zone, physically, mentally and emotionally, and then helping them discover that, in fact, they can do better than they first believed they could. They teach the “GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE principle,” which states that the only way to grow physically and emotionally is to constantly challenge yourself to do things that aren’t easy. In this way they refuse to tolerate mediocrity in effort, attitude, technique, training or performance.
#14) The best coaches CONTINUALLY CHALLENGE THEMSELVES – they continually model the attitudes and behaviors that they want their players to adopt. They maintain a “beginner’s mind” when it comes to their professional development. They understand that regardless of how much success they may have had in the past doing things their own way, they can always learn new and better ways. In this way these coaches continually step out of their comfort zone as “experts” and put themselves in the more uncomfortable position as “beginner and learner.” Because these coaches “walk the talk” and demand from their athletes exactly what they demand from themselves, their athletes are far more motivated to meet the coach’s higher expectations.
#15) The very best coaches are PASSIONATE ABOUT WHAT THEY DO – these coaches know that passion (love) is a high-test fuel that will power you over obstacles, beyond setbacks and through frustration until you achieve success. Their passion is infectious, motivational and inspiring.
#16) Good coaches are EMPATHETIC AND TUNED INTO THE FEELINGS OF THEIR PLAYERS – they have the ability to communicate to their athletes that they truly understand them. When you are empathetic you leave your athlete feeling that you as his/her coach deeply understands. This goes a long way in building athlete loyalty, self-esteem and motivation. Keep in mind that being empathetic doesn’t necessarily mean that you are an emotional pushover. You can have the ability to understand where your players are coming from and still make the coaching decisions that you feel are necessary. Coaches who lack the ability or don’t take the time to tune into the emotions of their athletes because they mistakenly believe that “all this emotional crap” is a total waste, end up inadvertently undermining their best coaching efforts.
#17) Good coaches are HONEST AND CONDUCT THEMSELVES WITH INTEGRITY – they know that their most powerful teaching tool as a coach is modeling. They also know that how they conduct themselves in relation to their athletes, the parents, opponents, the referees, the fans and the media is never lost on their players. They are honest and demonstrate character and class in everything they do.
#18) The best coaches MAKE THE SPORT FUN FOR THEIR ATHLETES – they realize that sports are just games, and games are meant to be fun. They find creative ways to integrate this fun into what they do over the course of the season, on a daily basis in practice and during competitions. When an athlete is enjoying him/herself, that athlete is loose and relaxed. Since loose and relaxed are two of the most crucial ingredients to peak performance, it is in your best interests as a coach to find innovative ways to keep your athletes smiling.
#19) Good coaches are NOT DEFENSIVE IN THEIR INTERACTIONS WITH THEIR PLAYERS OR PARENTS – they understand that part of being a good communicator is that you have to be open to negative feedback and criticism because within this feedback are the seeds to becoming a better, more successful coach.
#20) Great coaches USE THEIR ATHLETES’ MISTAKES AND FAILURES AS VALUABLE TEACHING OPPORTUNITIES – they know that their athletes need to be relaxed and loose in order to play to their potential and that a fear of making mistakes will always undermine this relaxed state. To this end, the good coaches give their athletes permission to fail and make mistakes. They instill in their players the understanding that mistakes and failures are nothing more than feedback, feedback about what you did wrong and specifically about what you need to do differently next time. One of the bigger teaching mistakes that coaches make is to get angry and impatient with their athletes when they mess-up or fail. This response to your athletes’ mistakes will insure that they will make plenty more of them. Knowing that your coach gets impatient and angry when you make mistakes will cause you to worry about this while your performing. The best coaches teach that failure is feedback, and feedback is the BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS!