Characteristics Contributing to the Success of a Sports Coach

Abstract

Identifying particular characteristics (qualities and abilities) of successful sports coaches could offer other coaches help in improving their performance. Toward this end, 15 high school coaches completed a survey on 17 possible such characteristics, ranking 5 of them above the rest (≥ 90th percentile): quality of practice, communicating with athletes, motivating athletes, developing athletes’ sports skills, and possessing knowledge of the sport. Coaches seeking to enhance their success might focus on these characteristics.

Characteristics Contributing to the Success of a Sports Coach

I have coached interscholastic sports for over 20 years, and I believe I have done a good job. But is what I have done sufficient to define me as a “successful” coach? Or have I lacked some characteristic needed to be a success? If so, how can I identify and develop that characteristic?

A natural place to start is by defining successful and characteristic as they will be used in this paper. According to Merriam-Webster, the noun characteristic is “a distinguishing trait, quality, or property” (Merriam-Webster, 11th ed.). The same source defines successful as the condition of “gaining or having gained success” and success as a “favorable or desired outcome.” As the word is used in this paper, a characteristic is also a skill or ability needed to accomplish a desired task, while the adjective successful also indicates a good, excellent, superior, or winning status.

Why is it important to identify the characteristics of successful coaches? One way to answer that question is by asking why people coach. Most people coach because they enjoy working in sports and with athletes. Most appealing about the relationship with athletes is assisting them in achieving their goals. To achieve goals, athletes need skill and knowledge—and someone to introduce this skill and knowledge competently. To return to the original question of why we should identify the characteristics of successful coaching, if helping athletes is one of the reasons people coach, and if it were known exactly the coaching characteristics that promoted athletes’ achievement, wouldn’t coaches use those characteristics? Acquiring skills and knowledge would allow the coach to be part of a beneficial transfer of information to the athlete, assisting in the success of each.

But how can the characteristics that are essential in a successful coach be identified? Based on personal experience? Selected at random? In preparing this paper, the two approaches have been combined: A reasonably long list of characteristics likely to contribute to coaching success was developed, and a target group of high school coaches was asked to rank the characteristics’ importance.

Specifically, 17 characteristics were proposed, and the coaches rated them 1 (least important ) to 5 (most important), for three distinct levels of play, Little League, high school, and college. Those characteristics receiving the highest scores were then chosen for research and discussion. This survey of coaches was an unbiased way to find out or identify the characteristics that the survey sample believed are most useful to coaches at each level.

The topic of successful coaching and personal characteristics of successful coaches is well covered by the research literature. Most such information presented in books, magazines, and other periodicals appears somewhat sport-specific, but some articles are stand-alone pieces on defined aspects of those coaching characteristics required for success. From sport to sport, characteristics defining successful coaching may not be identical, but they do share a number of similarities. An example of these similarities appears in a series of books published by the American Sport Education Program, a division of Human Kinetics publishing of Champaign, Illinois. The books, while sport-specific, share a common emphasis on the importance of fundamental coaching skills: communication, motivation, practice planning, and developing and evaluating athletes. (Again, in this paper, a characteristic may be an ability or a skill as well as a distinguishing trait.)

McCloskey (1999) discusses several coaching methods that can greatly improve a coach’s competence and at the same time enhance player learning. According to McCloskey, methods a competent coach should be able to employ include monitoring and developing athletes’ skills, motivating athletes by providing positive reinforcement, and offering helpful feedback by communicating with athletes to assess their understanding of lessons and expectations and to check the progress of the coaching. Sport to sport, these three methods consist of essentially the same process, thus some of the characteristics required for successful coaching overlap.

The research suggests that in all kinds of sports, there are characteristics that successful coaches share. What are they? The survey conducted for the present study showed the top five characteristics of successful coaches are (a) the quality of practices, (b) communicating with athletes, (c) motivating athletes, (d) developing athletes’ sports skills, and (e) possessing strong knowledge of the sport. How can a coach obtain these characteristics? Most coaches learn from experience, from trial and error. But for those who do not yet have much experience, the deficit can be made up for with knowledge.

Definition of terms

Quality of Practice

Quality of practice includes the content of a practice session what goes on during the practice situation. Content includes but is not limited to teaching requisite skills, transferring knowledge (information), and undertaking conditioning. Quality of practice also reflects the frequency and duration of practice. How often teams or individuals practice is the frequency, while the duration is the length of time practice sessions last. A coach must decide how often and how long athletes should practice to develop skills and knowledge most effectively. The timing of practices affects their quality, so coaches must also tailor practice to the season. In the preseason, a practice is usually shorter and emphasizes conditioning. During the season practices are longer (at least in the beginning, though they often get shorter as the end of the season nears), because so many materials typically need to be covered.

Communicating with Athletes

For coaches, communication often means making one’s point clear to athletes. Getting points across is essential to players’ success. The coach’s capacity to transfer knowledge (information) affects the outcome of both single contests and entire seasons. Then, too, communication is a two-way street. Successful coaches can interpret feedback given to them by players (and others) and use the feedback in making decisions. Feedback can result in subtle or drastic adjustments or none at all.

Communication and feedback can sometimes be nonverbal. Coaches and players often recognize each others’ states of mind simply by observing mannerisms and gestures. If their characteristics include skill at communicating, they can use nonverbal cues to promote success.

Motivating Athletes

The ability to motivate athletes is a desirable trait that not every coach possesses. A fairly elusive ability, motivating athletes is nevertheless a tool of the trade among successful coaches, who use it to help athletes play to their fullest potential. The amount of motivating players may need from a coach depends on the degree of both their ability and their desire. But even a high level of desire and ability does not guarantee success.

Developing Athletes’ Sports Skills

In every sport, at every level, performance depends on fundamental skills. During athletes’ developmental years, repeated drills in the fundamentals are essential. The purpose of repeating skills during practice is to make their use during competition a habit, done naturally and without much conscious thought. Successful coaches (and teachers) know the order, or progression, in which fundamental skills may be taught most effectively. Easier skills are taught first, at the entry level of play, while more difficult skills are taught at more advanced levels of play.

Possessing Knowledge of the Sport

A coach should know as much about his or her sport as possible, because knowledge of the sport is the most important factor in overall coaching success. Such knowledge can be gained through education and experience, but knowledge is more than just knowing rules and regulations. It is also the ability to draw on all one’s resources to make the right decisions.

Review of Literature

Quality of Practice

The ability to ensure the high quality of practice—which incorporates the quantity of practice as well—is a successful coach’s most important characteristic (Pavlovic, 2007). Practice quality involves all activities of the players during practice time, whatever practice time’s frequency and duration. The ability to plan practice time efficiently is another important coaching characteristic. Successful coaches continually seek ways to improve the content of practices, incorporating new information in the practice plans. Pugh, Wolff, Defrancesco, Gilley, and Heitman (2000) suggest five ways to improve the quality of practice: Vary the drills used to develop athletes’ skills (less repetition of particular drills, though not of drilling); limit portions of the practice during which players are not participating actively (i.e., when they stand around waiting); limit practice to 90 min 2 times per week; address demonstrated weaknesses rather than working exclusively on the same fundamentals; and use more scrimmage games in practice.

Communicating with Athletes

Coaches with good communication skills seem to succeed in getting the most from players. The characteristic of communicating ideas to players clearly is one that successful coaches rely on. Communication breakdowns mean undelivered messages, so coaches and players who want to achieve established goals must talk and listen to each other. Mahoe (2007) suggests five points for coaches seeking to make their points with athletes successfully. First, have a plan that includes clear understanding of who it is that must be communicated with. Second, know what it is that needs to be communicated; exactly what is the point of your question or comment? Third, consciously determine when and where a message can best be delivered (e.g., at practice or a game; before, during, or after the practice or game). Fourth, understand why you want the message communicated, what its importance is or how it may help players succeed. Finally, consider how messages and information would be most appropriately communicated (i.e., in a demonstration or in illustrations).

Evans (1995) argues that successful coaches develop relationships with their players in order to teach and motivate them best. The two-way communication in such relationships means both coach and players can learn from each other. The trust developed through such relationships often provides those involved with a unique and rewarding experience.

Motivating Athletes

Hansen, Gilbert, and Hamel (2003) explained at length the many benefits of motivation as a coaching tool. Coaches above all seek to help athletes realize personal potential (Hansen, Gilbert, & Hamel, 2003). Beyond knowing how to analyze players’ strengths and weaknesses, coaches must also have a sense of how to overcome weaknesses and build on strengths by motivating the players. There are many different forms of motivation, and Hansen, Gilbert, and Hamel argue that because motivation is so complicated, it challenges all coaches working on all levels of play. (See the section on survey results; supporting Hansen, Gilbert, and Hamel, the surveyed high school coaches indicated that the ability to motivate athletes is equally important at the Little League, high school, or college level.) Hansen, Gilbert, and Hamel also bring up the relationship between coach personality and the characteristic of motivating players. If motivating players effectively is dependent on inherent personality, then this characteristic may be one that cannot be acquired through education.

Developing Athletes’ Sports Skills

Coaches must be able to critique players’ skills and make the proper recommendations to help players improve. What goes into critiquing differs by level of play, because coaches’ judgment must weigh players’ developmental levels, both physical and mental. As athletes mature, practice skills can become more physically challenging and complicated. Splete (2002) supports these ideas, stressing that skill development should be age (i.e., developmentally) appropriate. A coach evaluating athletes’ progress must take into account each player’s gender, age, weight, and strength. The coach must also understand that sport readiness depends on three basic neurodevelopmental components: (a) the attainment of basic motor skills, (b) social development (ability to interact with others), and (c) cognitive aptitude (understanding of instructions, strategy, and tactics) (Splete 2002). With these variables in mind, the coach can choose the drills that are right for the athletes.

Knowledge of Sport

Coaches need to know more than just Xs and Os and rules of the game. Coaching knowledge encompasses a broad range of information, for example which drills are best suited to athletes’ developmental level and most likely to improve their skills. Coaches must know how to condition athletes (and how to rehabilitate injured athletes) safely. They must know how to run a productive practice and how to make adjustments in game situations. Without mastering communication and motivational skills, they will not get their points across to players. The list of things a coach must have knowledge of is endless. But knowledge alone does not guarantee success. It is important that a coach understands when, where, and how to use information effectively.

A coach who lacks knowledge in a given area can develop it by educating himself or herself. Clinics, seminars, and classes are available, or, less formally, understanding can be developed by watching videos or reading books and periodicals on the topic of interest. One area a coach should be well versed in is athletic injuries. According to Oakland (2001), injuries are an inevitable part of athletic participation, making basic knowledge of first aid necessary for all coaches. In most sports-related emergencies, medical professionals will not be available immediately, so the coach must be prepared to make decisions.

Education is only part of the approach to strengthening coaching knowledge. Experience—actual hands-on practice—is a great substitute if education opportunities are not readily available. Nevertheless, the ideal situation would be for a coach to possess a combination of both education and experience.

Survey Results

This study’s first purpose was to identify characteristics that are associated with successful coaching. A survey of 15 high school coaches was employed to eliminate personal bias in the selection of the characteristics to be researched. The participants were asked to rate 17 proposed characteristics on a scale from 1 (least important) to 5 (most important). Furthermore, the coaches were asked to rate each characteristic as it related to three different levels of play, Little League, high school, and college. The five characteristics receiving highest scores in the survey were, in this order, quality of practice, communicating with athletes, motivating athletes, developing athletes’ sports skills, and possessing knowledge of the sport (see Figure 3). For all three of the levels of play, each of these five characteristics scored above the 90th percentile. They were thus the five characteristics selected for investigation. Interestingly, the top five characteristics are all skills (see Table 1); furthermore, they are skills that are by-products of both education and experience.

Proposed characteristics receiving lower scores in the survey than these five are not necessarily unimportant to coaching success. A coach pursuing excellence is in actuality well served by a combination of many characteristics, even those that scored low on the survey. Figure 2 includes a representation of low-scoring characteristics (shown in yellow). At first glance, years of experience coaching other sports might seem less important than what a coach has achieved in the primary sport. It should be remembered, however, that even a coach inexperienced in a given sport could still, if he or she needed to coach players in that sport, draw on previous experiences in coaching other sports. Many similarities do exist between sports, as is especially apparent when looking at four of the top five characteristics and applying them to any sport. Furthermore, should a coach initially lack familiarity with the details of a sport, the coach could certainly resolve to educate himself or herself in order to address weaknesses in knowledge.

A second low-scoring characteristic is the coach’s winning record. Its score of 27 in the survey reflects differences related to the level of play. At the Little League level, the coach should be more concerned with players’ skill development than with the winning record. In the tellingly titled article “A Successful Losing Season,” Sites (2007) discusses the importance of improvement. Even during a losing season, a Little League team that shows improvement along the way is successful; conversely, even during a winning season, a team that does not show improvement is unsuccessful, according to the author. But at the collegiate level, a coach must consider the ramifications of a losing season. Successful college coaches with several winning seasons have been known to lose their jobs when those seasons are followed by a single losing season. Money is, of course, the name of the game on this level, as in professional play. Boosters and fans do not spend their money on, and do not want to be associated with, losing teams.

Among the characteristics receiving middle-range scores in the survey were education, certification, and experience (see Figure 2). The acquisition of these characteristics is essential to the successful coach and should not be overlooked. However, these three characteristics are less important at the Little League level, according to the survey, than at the high school and college levels. One possible reason is the general shortage of Little League coaches, people who donate their time and effort for few if any material rewards. Because securing Little League coaches is already a challenge, those coaches’ need for education, certification, and experience may be overlooked. But should it be?

The importance of developing athletes’ sports skills was rated just as high at the Little League level of play as at the high school and college levels. Should not the physical and mental development of children be the most important concern during their formative years?

Figure 4 presents the relative importance of characteristics for each of the three levels of play. The 15 respondents assigned a score of 1–5 to each of the 17 characteristics, for a maximum score of 1,275. The characteristics were rated least important for coaches at the Little League level (score 841), more important for those at the high school level (score 1,048) and most important for those at the college level (score 1,103). The numbers also indicate the necessity of competence in all areas on the more advanced levels of play.

Significance and Limitations of the Survey

Coaches on all levels of play and in all types of sports can benefit from the findings of this paper. By working to develop in themselves the five top characteristics identified by this survey, coaches will become more successful. Ultimately, the one who may gain most from increasing success is not the coach but the player.

Limitations of the survey include the fact that participants were not asked to identify themselves, so their gender, race, age, and experience were not taken into consideration when reviewing the data. The survey results might have been affected by the makeup of the sample. A better way to validate the data would have been to target a specific group of coaches (i.e., women coaches, men coaches, coaches in a particular age range, coaches of particular races, assistant coaches, head coaches, experienced coaches, inexperienced coaches).

Another possible limitation is bias among the coaches surveyed, all of whom coached at the high school level. Between the Little League and high school levels of play, there was a large gap in the overall importance of coaching factors (841 vs. 1,048, a difference of 207). A possible reason for the gap is that high school coaches may consider themselves more qualified than Little League coaches. Similarly, the smaller gap between the scores for high school and college (1,048 vs. 1,103, a difference of 55) suggests that perhaps high school coaches consider themselves to be just as qualified, in some areas, as college coaches. Had Little League and college coaches participated in the survey, it is possible the results would have differed.

Conclusion

The characteristics ranked by the survey participants are important for coaching success, and perhaps there are additional characteristics that would also serve coaches in their quest to become successful. Those could be the focus of further study. So could the issue of whether a characteristic is beneficial in and of itself or works in combination with another characteristic or characteristics. Some interaction seems, even from the present research, to exist between characteristics. For example, knowing how to go about developing athletes’ sports skills was a factor in quality of practice. And, it would appear that motivating athletes would depend to a considerable degree on skill at communicating with athletes. Finally, knowledge of the sport, as an all-encompassing term, includes all of the identified characteristics, not just the highest scoring characteristics.

Whatever characteristics a coach possesses, success is not guaranteed if the coach does not feel a need to improve. Successful coaches continually look for ways to improve. Inexperienced coaches can and should improve their characteristics through education; the resources are plentiful. Both inexperienced and experienced coaches who lack certification or licensure of some sort should have to obtain it before being allowed to coach. Even if many coaching positions are vacant, as at the Little League level, athletes’ (children’s) safety must not be overlooked. Not only should instruction in first aid and CPR be a required qualification for all coaches, in this day and age, a background check of each candidate may also need to be considered.

References

Evans, C. (1995). Five steps to a positive coach-player relationship. Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director, 64(6), 86. Retrieved June 5, 2008, from the Gale General OneFile database.

Hansen, B., Gilbert, W., & Hamel, T. (2003). Successful coaches’ views on motivation and motivational strategies. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 74(8), 44–48. Retrieved May 29, 2008, from the Gale General OneFile database.

Mahoe, S. (2007). Five ways to improve communication with your players. Coach and Athletic Director. 76(7), 44. Retrieved June 5, 2008, from the Gale General OneFile database.

McCloskey, M. J. (1999). Successful sports coaching: Guidelines for adults in children’s recreational activities. Childhood Education, 75(5), 308–310.

Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (11th ed.). (2003). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Oakland, D. (2001, August). Coaches and injured athletes. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 76(9), 12. Retrieved June 6, 2008, from the Gale General OneFile database.

Pavlovic, S. (2007). Ten qualities of a successful coach. Coach and Athletic Director, 76(9), 58–59. Retrieved May 29, 2008, from the Gale General OneFile database.

Pugh, S., Wolff, R., Defrancesco, C., Gilley, W., & Heitman, R. (2000). A case study of elite male youth baseball athletes’ perception of the youth sports experience. Education, 120(4), 773–783. Retrieved from the SPORTDiscus database.

Splete, H. (2002). Developmental stages of sports readiness can’t be rushed. Family Practice News, 32(17), 33. Retrieved June 6, 2008, from the Gale General OneFile database.

Table 1

Number of Surveyed Coaches Identifying a Coaching Characteristic as Important at Three Specified Levels of Play

17 Characteristics of Successful Coaches Little League High School College Total Percentage of all respondents
High school education 57 71 72 200 88.9
College education 36 67 73 176 78.2
Certification 62 68 68 198 88.0
Athletic experience
in high school 52 66 57 175 77.8
in college 36 58 68 162 72.0
Coaching experience (in years)
In primary sport 39 57 63 159 70.7
In other sport(s) 32 39 41 112 49.8
Numerous coaching achievements 26 41 47 114 50.7
Strong win-loss record 27 37 52 116 51.6
Skills
Quality of practice 67 73 75 215 95.6
Scheduling, care of facilities 50 61 66 177 78.7
Event management 40 57 65 162 72.0
Communicating with athletes 68 74 72 214 95.1
Motivating athletes 67 71 73 211 93.8
Developing athletes’ sports skills 70 71 69 210 93.3
Possessing knowledge of one’s sport 61 73 73 207 92.0
Organizational skills 51 64 69 184 81.8
841 1,048 1,103

Figure 2. Importance of 17 coaching characteristics, according to 15 individuals working as coaches at the high school level.

Figure 3. Top five characteristics of successful coaches according to 15 individuals working as coaches at the high school level.

Figure 4. Relative importance of coaching characteristics for Little League, high school, and college levels