What Every New Coach Should Know
By Dan Steele
Keep it Fun
Above all else, keep sports fun. Hey Coach, this is just sports. It is supposed to be great fun! If you are a coach who thinks you motivate kids by yelling at them and offering lots of criticism with very little praise; please get out of coaching now. No great coaches teach this way. Reinvent yourself as a positive coach or go find another way to spend your free time.
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 age. Try to offer at least a 2-1 ratio of praise to criticism. There is a lot about training that isn’t fun. This fact should be balanced out by team camaraderie and 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, chances are the athletes are having fun too.
The Fundamentals of Training
One of the most important criteria 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
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 coaches 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 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 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 again. In most cases you just have to know your horses and pay attention to how they are moving and feeling after hard work days.
You should never train an athlete 100% when they are physically "off". Their body is talking to them and the coach should always listen. 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, what 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 horse, 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 – it will be the time you spent working with these kids that will come to mind. 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 and 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 above all else, keep it fun!
Now go be great!