Building A Coaching Culture

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Benjamin Franklin

I went to dinner the other night with a few friends who happen to be high school coaches and teachers. They have all been working in these professions for decades. The conversation was lively and free wheeling. Lots of story telling and a little kvetching. Inevitably the conversation turned to how much kids and parents have changed since we were younger. There was a little of the usual hyperbole regarding how much tougher we were, how much less attentive our parents were, how our character was formed, etc.

building a coaching cultureWe laughed a bit at ourselves, but then  someone mentioned that coaches have really changed as well. My friends felt it used to be that most high school coaches considered themselves educators who had a role in shaping the person as well as the athlete. They held tryouts and the kids at the school showed up and the coach worked with who was there, the good, the bad and the average.

But now it seemed that the high school coaches were out recruiting and focused primarily on winning.

Another friend acknowledged this might be true but noted that the culture of high school sports had changed.  She pointed out that nobody was teaching young coaches any differently any more. There is growing pressure from parents as well as the need to establish reputations and careers.

Building a Coaching Culture

I have thought about this a lot since that night and the implications for the coaching profession.

When I was just starting as a coach my father used to call my house after many of my games and leave me a message, “I hope you won today, but if you didn’t remember about half the people in your profession failed today.”  He was trying to be funny so that he could deliver a bigger message and help me keep things in perspective. When I was offered a college soccer job he was most impressed by the SAT scores of the football team (they were high) even though at that point they hadn’t won very often. He thought it was a school with the right priorities. And, he was right.

But I can also say that it was easier to build a soccer program there after the football team started winning. Winning impacted recruiting and the culture of the entire athletic department without detracting from the quality academics of the school. It certainly made recruiting easier.

So, there is a balance to these things.

The real question is how does a leader establish the culture at her school or his program that she or he wants, while maintaining the proper balance between winning and development?

Believe in something

Develop a clear philosophy that informs all decisions. Articulate it to the staff and coaches that work at the high school.  It brings clarity to your decisions and the role of people around you. A young coach working for a leader with a vision has an easier time expanding his or her own to be bigger than just winning the next game or tournament.

Live your word

People will judge you more by what you do then what you say. If you state you believe in player and personal development, but every choice you make is about winning and losing then you will start to lose credibility. A good example is Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach at UNC whom I have written about before and whom I admire very much. When I was a young fan watching the UNC men’s basketball team play it used to drive me nuts how much he substituted throughout a game, but especially in critical moments.

I wanted him to keep his best players in the game; I wanted him to be sure the team won. But, he was playing the long game, preparing a full roster for later in the season when he would need everybody.  He was demonstrating trust in his players and building confidence.

Clearly he knew what he was doing and could withstand some criticism from some fans.

Emphasize Coach Education

Create a coaching education program or provide access to one. Everybody wants to get better at what he does. Corporations devote quite a bit of resources to training in order to maximize the productivity of each employee. Even the best, in fact especially the best want to learn, but it does not happen by accident.

Every time I go to  hear a coach teach a course or run a session I notice some of the very best in my profession watching, looking for something, even just a phrase or a tidbit that will be useful.  Or, consider the questions great coaches ask others about their methods and processes. Think about the amount they read or seek from other disciplines and then integrate in to their own coaching.

Be a mentor

Coach education does not have to be formal.  Take the opportunities as they arise to teach young coaches through words and actions about game and training decisions, but also about character and the decisions necessary to lead a team or department. Introduce them to people who can help their careers and point them in the right direction.

Mentoring is crucial to development and is also useful for retention when active mentoring takes place within a department. Foster a culture in which best practices are shared and informal mentoring is the norm.

Provide Feedback

I am not talking right now simply about the annual review. I am not even sure how valuable an annual review is to an employee unless an administrator is present and observing his training and games fairly regularly. But, if the A.D. is watching her work why wait to give feedback? Especially if there is an opportunity to acknowledge something positive.

Everybody wants feedback. Athletes are constantly seeking it from the coach. They want to know where they stand and they want useful actionable information.

Why would a coach be any different? My only caveat is to keep it constructive and positive, but more on that at another time.

Stand firm behind a coach

Many coaches have a story of the time their boss didn’t have their back; the time the parent called or the student complained. But, great bosses know how to listen to complaints from students and parents without undermining their coaches. How can a leader ask the coach to buy into her philosophy if she won’t stand firm beside the coach when he is challenged?

When the boss stands firm trust is built.  There is then room to challenge a coach in a constructive manner when she makes a mistake. The administrator  will have more room to actually lead and more people following behind as he does.

Those are a few of my thoughts. Any other suggestions on how to build a coaching culture?