Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Coaching Compass

I originally started writing this article as a helpful guide for the young coaches I worked with. It is the kind of guide I wish I had been given when I started out. But once I started putting these ideas down on paper, I realized they could benefit not only my direct reports, but probably many other beginning coaches. And while I do not consider myself a leading authority on coaching, I do feel I have learned – both instinctively and experientially, some fundamental teaching principles. This coaching guide is my attempt to share those principles.

Keep it Fun
Above all else, keep sports fun. This isn’t life and death here. It’s just sports and sports are supposed to be fun! If you are a coach who thinks you motivate kids by yelling at them and offering frequent and harsh criticism with very little praise; please get out of coaching now. No great coaches teach this way. Great should be in coaching.
coaches LOVE kids. They love the teaching process. If you experience great joy when a pupil finally "gets" what you are teaching, then you are probably the kind of person who
Find the positives. Build on their strengths and encourage them at every opportunity. Be rigid in your expectations, but compassionate to their ability level and training age. Try to offer at least a 5-1 ratio of praise to criticism. Let’s face it; there is a lot about training and learning that isn’t fun. This truth should be balanced out by celebrating the improvements, cultivating team camaraderie and sharing loads of laughs. Get creative and figure it out or you’ll turn some good kids off and lose them before you even find out they were the kinds of kids you’ve always dreamed of working with. Remember, if the coach is having fun, you can bet the athletes are having fun too.

The Fundamentals of Training
One of the most important criterion for being a good coach is having a rock-solid command of the fundamentals of the sport you coach. It sounds simple, I know, but you would be surprised by the number of coaches who don’t have a solid grasp on the fundamentals of the sport or event area they are teaching. There is no excuse for this, as it is merely a matter of effort. There are numerous publications and clinics available and easily accessible for improving knowledge in any sport you coach. If you teach kids the basics, they will be far ahead of the game. Very few beginning coaches or athletes need to work beyond the basics because it takes considerable time and commitment to become fundamentally sound in any sport. Most athletes actually never get there. Fundamentals can and should be worked into all areas of training. The warm-up routine is a wonderful opportunity to work on fundamentals and should be based on actively working through them. This takes discipline from the coaches and athletes but pays big dividends.
Note: Even with a solid understanding of fundamentals, there are going to be some things you will be unclear on as a new coach. That is normal. When in doubt, keep it fun and model the best in the world (not the best on your team or in your conference).

Coaching is Teaching
This is really the essence of what we do. Conversely, if you can’t teach, you can’t coach. It doesn’t matter what you know if you can’t convey it to someone trying to learn it. All good coaches are creative problem solvers. This is a critical point because many of the problems you’ll face as a coach will not be found in a textbook or clinic. Remember, these aren’t computers we are programming. They are young people who learn and apply their skills in unique ways. There is a pervasive myth within our profession that most good or great athletes will also make good coaches. There is absolutely no empirical evidence to support this. Bei
ng a former athlete gives you many wonderful tools for the coaching toolbox, but you still have to know how and when to apply them. A great mechanic isn’t great because of his mastery of tools. He is great because of his mastery of problem solving.
The problems of bad technique, little ability, poor fitness, lack of confidence and countless others are all yours to solve. Having a clear picture of proper technique means nothing without the ability to help an athlete overcome the myriad obstacles hindering their mastery of that technique. It isn’t enough for a coach to have an understanding of the fundamentals or even to have world-class experience as an athlete. You also have to understand (among countless other things) the prioritization of skill acquisition and application, the role of fear, physical limits and opportunities for improvement of an athlete – and then apply creative problem solving skills to that understanding.
Unfortunately, there are many examples of terrible coaches who are rarely – if ever, held accountable. They stand above criticism simply because they were good or great athletes. Most of us have experienced a brilliant teacher or professor who simply couldn’t teach. You know they know their stuff, so it is extremely frustrating. You know they know how to do it. But you also figure out pretty quickly, this individual- credentialed or not, can’t teach you what they know, or more importantly, what you desire to learn. We seem to live in a society that incorrectly equates subject knowledge and technical expertise with teaching ability. And while subject knowledge is extremely important, it is only one piece of the coaching puzzle.

Competing on Fresh Legs
Over-training is one of the most common mistakes we all make at ALL levels. As long as the kids are fit, err on the side of rest and recovery. This is particularly effective with speed/power athletes (fast twitch athletes). A really hard practice or competition can exhaust the nervous system. It takes about 48 hours for the nervous system to fully recover, so two days of active rest is often necessary. When the speed athletes I work with compete on Saturday, I will rest them on Sunday and give them a light day on Monday. By Tuesday they are ready to go hard again. On the other hand, the slower twitch athletes usually feel flat after two days of rest. In most cases you just have to know your athletes and pay attention to how they are moving and feeling after competitions and/or hard work days. Some go flat with rest and some thrive.
You should never train an athlete hard when they are physically "off". Their body is talking to them and the coach should always listen. These are moments that athlete is very susceptible to injury. Never be afraid to throw out the play book. You can write the perfect training program, but the kids might not respond the way you expect. We never really know how much sleep they’re getting, what they’ve eaten, how their boyfriend or girlfriend made them feel or countless other variables that can have major affects on their training and performance. All we can really do is pay close attention and make appropriate adjustments as needed.

Know Your Horse
All good coaches study the athletes they work with individually to better understand what makes them tick. It is how we connect with them. Motivating athletes is an essential part of the coaching job. If you don’t know what drives them, how can you best motivate them? Remember, an athlete will rarely succeed beyond the level they believe themselves to be. Raising that level is our job. Helping an athlete redefine himself as something better is not always easy, but it is part of the job. Once you’ve connected with an athlete, the coaching becomes a lot easier. Work together for a common goal, and that goal not only becomes more attainable, it also becomes more meaningful. Once you know your athlete, you’ll better understand when to over-coach (for example; when they’re freaking out and their brain stops working) and when to get out of their way and let them achieve their athletic destiny.

Make a Difference
If you are a coach worth your salt, your life is better for the experience. When you’re old and gray and looking back on what you left behind – one thing that will come to mind will be the time you spent working with these kids. So make a meaningful difference. We serve as role models for our athletes- most likely having one of the largest influences of any adult in their lives. So present the value of fun and the lessons of a battle well-fought and a life well-lived. Teach and coach in ways that will make you proud when you’re old enough to have proper perspective on winning and losing. Promote good sportsmanship, character and resilience. Produce better athletes, better citizens and better people. Let them know you care about them and you will make a positive impact on their lives. That should make you very proud. And above all else, keep it fun!