This study examines coaches’ learning experiences by identifying some of the major obstacles beginning coaches may encounter. It also suggests ways to prevent potential problems by examining the knowledge of more experienced coaches. Head high school football and basketball coaches were surveyed to determine things they would do the same and things they would do differently, if they were starting their careers over again. Based on survey responses, several themes emerged. The emergent themes were in the areas of relationships, professional development, conditioning and training, organization and administration, scheduling, academics, promotion and fundraising, facilities, job choice, and rules and accountability. When asked what they would do differently, the largest numbers of responses were in the areas of relationships (79%), organization and administration (41%), and job choice (28%). When asked what they would do the same, the largest number of responses were in the areas of professional development (72%), relationships (59%), conditioning and training (59%), and rules and accountability (45%). The results of this study are consistent with previous research on coaching and offer implications for those interested in entering the profession of coaching
Loser or Legend: Beginning Considerations for Interscholastic Coaches
Coaching is probably one of the toughest professions in the world. Contrary to the opinion of many, coaching is not a tough profession because of the pressure to win. Sure coaches are fired everyday based on their win-loss records, but most coaches understand the nature of the sport and live for the intense competition. What makes coaching such a difficult profession are the innate complexities of the game and the specialized body of knowledge required to be a good coach (Martens, 2004). What makes coaching a daunting profession is that coaches are expected to possess knowledge across a wide range of domains, including the ability to master the many roles a coach is required to perform that are unrelated to specific practice or game instruction (Lynch, 2001).
It has often been said that hindsight is always twenty-twenty. This is especially true in the profession of coaching, where split-second decisions and inches are what separate loser from legend. Early in his career at Duke University, basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was considered a loser. So was former football coach Tom Landry, who had a losing record in each of his first six seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Both of these coaches are now considered legends. At their best, most coaches have win-loss records of .500 or less. However, coaching is about more than wins and losses. At its best, coaching is about teaching life skills through game strategy. The best coaches know this. Still, most coaches never quite master this art and science either.
Given a chance, even the most experienced coaches would do some things differently, if the decisions would result in more victories on or off the field. Since the ability to go back in time is not an option, the ability to reflect on past experiences and then share that coaching wisdom is the next best alternative. According to O’Donnell (1998), coaches learn through experience (trial and error) or by studying other successful coaches. This theory of learning is what makes sport camps and clinics such a popular and lucrative business. Neophyte coaches often seek the knowledge of highly experienced coaches with the hopes that it will translate into the neophyte becoming a better, more knowledgeable and more successful coach.
Florida is one of the most populated and geographically largest states in the union. According to a study published by the National Sporting Goods Association (2002), the state of Florida is one of the leading states when it comes to sports participation. Thus, Florida is an important state to consider when researching and studying coaching.
With the goal of exploring coaches’ learning experiences in interscholastic sports, the purpose of this study was to identify some of the major problems a beginning coach may encounter, and to suggest recommendations to prevent potential problems. Specific research questions which guided the study were:
- If you could start your coaching career over from the beginning, what things would you repeat or do exactly the same?
- What things would you not repeat if given a chance to begin again as a new coach?
Respondents for this study were head football and basketball coaches (n=78) of high schools in the Central Florida area. All high schools solicited in this study hold membership in the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA).
A survey instrument was developed and used in this study to gather demographic data on coaches at high schools in the Central Florida area. A small pilot study using approximately six coaches was conducted to test the validity and reliability of the instrument. Individuals in the pilot study were from two representative high schools within the Orange County School district. Subjects in the pilot study were asked to complete the questionnaire and comment on the thoroughness of the directions provided, ease of completion, and suitability of questions as they pertain to the content. Using the results of the pilot study, the survey instrument was updated to incorporate recommendations. Problems with the instrument were addressed and corrected.
The survey instrument consisted of 10 items containing closed-ended questions and four items containing open-ended questions (see Appendix C for the complete survey). Data was gathered for comparative purposes only. Confidentiality of responses was guaranteed to all respondents. The overall return rate of the survey was 37 percent, which included responses from 29 subjects.
During the fall of 2003, head football and basketball coaches (n=78) from high schools in the Central Florida area were mailed a cover letter, consent form, questionnaire, and a stamped self-return envelope. The statistical software package, SPSS 11.0, was used to analyze the descriptive data.
Another method of gathering data was the review of related documents and archival records. Documents used to gather data included individual high school websites, research papers on coaching, and the National Federation of State High School Associations website. This method of data gathering provided complementary information to that obtained in the surveys. In this manner, the researcher could triangulate and cross-check data provided by the survey (Wolcott, 1994).
The major areas of concern and responses, as self-reported by respondents, were in the following 10 categories: (1) relationships, (2) professional development, (3) conditioning & training, (4) organization & administration, (5) scheduling, (6) academics, (7) program promotion & fundraising, (8) facilities, (9) job choice, and (10) rules & accountability.
What Coaches Would Do Differently
Head coaches were asked to identify three things they would do differently if they could start all over again as a new coach. Responses listed below are based on the 10 categories that emerged from the research.
23 of the 29 coaches that responded (79%) indicated that, if they had it to do all over again, they would do things differently in the area of relationships. Their responses included ways they would deal differently with assistant coaches, parents, student-athletes, the administration, and their own family.
3 of the 29 coaches (10%) indicated they would do things differently in the area of professional development. Their responses included ways they would enhance their growth by not pigeon holing themselves by positions coached, re-prioritizing their teaching and coaching roles, and working harder to learn the craft of coaching instead of taking it for granted.
Conditioning & Training
5 of the 29 coaches (17%) indicated they would do things differently in the area of conditioning and training. Their responses indicated that they would practice less, work to develop feeder programs, and reverse the way they introduce offensive and defensive strategies.
Organization & Administration
12 of the 29 coaches (41%) indicated they would do things differently in the area of organization and administration. Their responses ranged from issues involving budgets, pre-game meals, delegating responsibilities, getting rid of players, and handling written agreements.
7 of the 29 coaches (24%) indicated they would do things differently in the area of scheduling. Their responses indicated they would: not over-schedule, not schedule back-to-back games, not schedule as many tough opponents, practice more on the weekends, and like to have more control over their schedules.
3 of the 29 coaches (10%) indicated they would do things differently in the area of facilities. Their responses indicated they would do more to improve the condition of their facilities.
8 of the 29 coaches (28%) indicated they would do things differently in the area of job choice. Their responses indicated they would: be more careful about the jobs they selected, and not coach as many sports.
Rules & Accountability
4 of the 29 coaches (14%) indicated they would do things differently in the area of rules and accountability. Their responses ranged from being stricter to being more flexible.
What Coaches Would Do the Same
Head coaches were asked to identify three things they would repeat or do exactly the same if they could start all over again as a new coach. Responses listed below are also based on the 10 categories that emerged from the research.
17 of the 29 coaches that responded (59%) indicated that, if they had it to do all over again, they would do things the same in the area of relationships. Their responses included ways they would repeat similar behavior with assistant coaches, parents, student-athletes, the administration, school staff, and religious beliefs.
21 of the 29 coaches (72%) indicated they would do things the same in the area of professional development. Their responses included ways they would enhance their personal and professional growth by being life-long learners.
Conditioning & Training
17 of the 29 coaches (59%) indicated they would do things the same in the area of conditioning and training. Their responses indicated that they would: implement strength training programs, set team and individual goals, spend the majority of their time teaching the fundamentals, and work to develop and train young talent.
6 of the 29 coaches (21%) indicated they would do things the same in the area of academics. Their responses indicated they would: set academic goals, develop academic support programs, assist students with post graduation plans, and continue their own education.
Program Promotion & Fundraising
3 of the 29 coaches (10%) indicated they would do things the same in the area of program promotion and fundraising. Their responses indicated they would work to develop the image of their program.
7 of the 29 coaches (24%) indicated they would do things the same in the area of job choice. Their responses indicated they would: seek out a good mentor, seek out good talent, develop a network, and take any job to get into the profession.
Rules & Accountability
13 of the 29 coaches (45%) indicated they would do things the same in the area of rules and accountability. Their responses ranged from setting to enforcing rules.
Conclusions and Recommendations
This study examines coaches’ learning experiences by identifying some of the major obstacles beginning coaches may encounter. It also suggests ways to prevent potential problems by examining the knowledge of coaches. Specifically, this study looks at best practices in high school coaching and examines what works and what does not work.
Coaching is about more than “Xs” and “Os”. It is about influence and getting things done through other people. Thus, coaching is part art and part science. As such, the profession of coaching requires a specialized body of knowledge more specific to the sport and a more generalized body of knowledge across a wide range and sphere of influence. To be successful, coaches need to be knowledgeable of game strategy. They also need to be knowledgeable of the many roles a coach must undertake. Possessing this knowledge is crucial for a beginning coach.
This study implies that much of this knowledge can be learned from more experienced coaches. It not only identifies some of the major problems a beginning coach may encounter, it also suggests recommendations to prevent potential problems. To help expedite the learning curve of beginning coaches, we offer the following recommendations:
Build and maintain nurturing, supportive relationships. These relationships will include the school administration, assistant coaches, student-athletes, faculty, parents, and the coaches’ family. Work hard to educate everyone about the positive benefits of the athletic program. Communicate with these different groups on a regular basis and keep them informed of what’s going on. Strive to make them your ally. Demonstrate that you are an integral part of the school and a team player. Show them you are as interested in academic performance as you are athletic performance.
Continue the learning process through yearly professional development. Knowledgeable and well-trained coaches are the key to a successful sports program. Attend camps and clinics to keep current on the latest techniques and strategies. Study successful coaches. Find a mentor as early in your career as possible. Join and become an active member of a professional organization
Develop a cutting-edge conditioning and training program. To build a successful program, the coach must focus on developing the athletes to completely maximize their potential. Learn the latest techniques for developing speed, quickness, agility, jumping ability, explosiveness, reaction time, and strength. Set individual goals with each athlete and work with them to achieve their goals. Develop a feeder program that will provide program consistency. Spend the majority of practice time teaching and reinforcing the fundamentals.
Create a smooth-running organization with good administration skills. Beginning coaches must be aware of their wide range of duties. They are responsible for developing policies, scheduling practice and game times, planning budgets, ordering equipment, coordinate facility use, evaluating talent, record keeping and paperwork, arranging travel plans, scouting opponents, and arranging for medical care at events. They must develop a personal philosophy and create a system that will aid them in accomplishing all of their tasks. They must surround themselves with good people and learn how to delegate.
Schedule for success. Most new coaches underestimate the importance of scheduling. Creating a good schedule is extremely important for a coach’s success. Not many coaches get fired for who they played. They get fired for wins and losses. Set realistic goals based on the team’s ability. Contrary to public opinion, coaches should not always try to play the best teams. Sometimes they may need to play a few tune-up games. Every conference has at least four tough games (rivals). Always playing the best teams can quickly put the new coach on the path to becoming a loser. Scheduling is part art and part science. Where possible, work closely with the athletic director to create a favorable schedule.
Place academics first. It is vital that new coaches understand the big picture — the proper role of sports as a part of the total educational program of the school. The athletic program should function as a part of the whole curriculum and strive for the development of a well-rounded individual, capable of taking his or her place in modern society. At no time should the coach place the educational curriculum secondary in emphasis to the athletic program. New coaches should set academic goals, monitor student grades, and conduct an academic support program (i.e., study hall). They should push each student to attend college, regardless of the level. They should demonstrate their commitment to education by continuing their own education.
Increase attendance and revenue through promotions and fundraising. Coaches can get fans to focus on the sport program (i.e., attend more events) by first focus on them. Get their attention and get them involved by creating exciting promotions. Promotions and spirit activities help draw more people to the events. Incorporate fun things that meet the needs of the fans or target audience. Food or cash prizes work well. Conduct contest at half time and during intermissions to eliminate idle time. Make the contest as interactive as possible. Give-aways are a good way to grab attention and boost attendance. Develop a strong booster club to generate revenue and ideas. Have coaches, team members, and booster club members promote and/or participate in activities.
Improve facilities to improve performance. Experienced coaches know that state-of-the-art facilities and equipment can help them take their teams sport performances to the next level. New coaches should be knowledgeable about the latest in facility design and equipment for their sport. They should get involved in the planning of any new athletic facilities or renovations. Give input about weight rooms, showers, locker rooms, equipment rooms, training/therapy rooms, team meeting rooms, multi-purpose rooms, and athletic playing and practice fields and courts. It is especially important for them to attend construction meetings and review drafts and blue prints.
Be proactive in making job choices. New coaches should consider all of the possibilities or alternatives before taking a job. They should not make career decisions hastily, but instead should plan for the future. Look into the future and determine what you want to be doing in 5, 10, 20, and 30 years and set goals. Then prepare for potential opportunities. Several possibilities and alternatives to consider are:
- Do you want to be an assistant coach or head coach?
- Do you want to coach at the high school level forever or coach at the college level one day?
- How long do you want to stay at one location?
- Do you have a good network and know the right people?
- What type of athletes do you want to coach?
- Do you have the support of the administration?
- Do you want to teach and coach?
The main point is for a new coach to be aware of all the career coaching possibilities and then to determine priorities.
Don’t have a lot of rules. Most coaches have too many rules. Some coaches don’t like long hair. Some coaches don’t like earrings. Some coaches don’t like tattoos. Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski (2000) says “Too many rules get in the way of leadership and box you in. I think people sometimes set rules to keep from making decisions.” The most important thing a coach can do early in a season, or when they first take a new job is to establish basic ground rules for what is acceptable and non-acceptable behavior. Don’t have too many rules. Three rules a coach should have are:
- be good people,
- be on time, and
- practice hard and give your best effort
When coaches establish a rule, they must stick to it. On championship level teams, players recognize that the “team” is more important than the “individual”.
- Krzyzewski, M. (2000). Leading with the heart: Coach K’s successful strategies for basketball, business, and life. New York, NY: Warner Books.
- Lynch, J. (2001). Creative coaching. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Martens, R. (2004). Successful coaching. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- National Sporting Goods Association. (2002). Sports Participation in 2002: State-By-State. Mt. Prospect, IL: Author.
- O’Donnell, C. (1998, April). So you want to be a college coach . make sure you are good enough and then become the best coach you can be. Scholastic Coach & Athletic Director, 67 (9), p. 45.
- Wolcott, H. (1994). Transforming qualitative data: Description, analysis, and interpretation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Figure 1. What Coaches Would Do Differently
Figure 2. What Coaches Would Do the Same
_____ Asian/Pacific Islander
_____ Other (specify) _________________
_____ 18 – 29 years
_____ 30 – 49 years
_____ 50 and over
_____ Some college
_____ High School
_____ $50,000 and over
_____ $40,000 – $49,999
_____ $30,000 – $39,999
_____ $20,000 – $29,999
_____ $10,000 – 19,999
_____ $5,000 – $9,999
_____ $2,500 – $4,999
_____ Under $2,500
School Community Size
Years in your current coaching position
_____ Under 5 years
_____ 5 – 9 years
_____ 10 – 19 years
_____ 20 – 29 years
_____ Over 30 years
Years coaching (any level)
_____ Under 5 years
_____ 5 – 9 years
_____ 10 – 19 years
_____ 20 – 29 years
_____ Over 30 years
_____ Teach and coach at the same school
_____ Teach and coach at different schools
_____ Work in the private sector and coach
Who is your major coaching influence?
If you could start your coaching career over from the beginning, what three things would you repeat or do exactly the same?
What three things would you not repeat if given a chance to begin again as a new coach?
What are the five biggest challenges coaches face today? Please rank order your answers.