Letter to a coach starting out
This is an updated version of a post that wrote 6 years ago. I think it particularly timely today based on some conversions I have had recently.
Congratulations on beginning an exciting journey of discovery. You have checked all the boxes in terms of your preparation, you have interned with three pro teams, you are certified, and you have your degree in sports science. Those are the keys that unlock the door. Now the fun starts, the real work begins, you get to apply what you have learned. Be prepared to pay your dues, 90% of coaching is grunt work. Not much science, just a whole lot of detail work that no one ever teaches you in school. Now you have to practice and learn the art of coaching, to become skilled at your craft. You will learn by doing, by making mistakes and correcting them and moving forward.
Find a real live in person mentor as soon as you can. Preferably it should be someone who has been there before, someone with gray hair or no hair who has had successes and failures and is willing to share both. Honor and respect those who have blazed the path for you. Know your sports history and study the great coaches who have gone before you.
Practice self-refection. Keep learning! Don’t follow fads. Be an informed skeptic. Beware of Internet training porn and slick marketing. Define yourself by developing a clear philosophy. Your philosophy is your guiding light. Maintain your principles and ethics. Winning is not everything. There are no gray areas – there are very strict moral guideline in regard to PED’s and personal behavior.
Remember you coach people, not the sport. It is not the technique, training methods, the offense or defense that matters most, it is how you relate to and communicate with athletes you coach as people. Be sure to have a life. Take time for yourself and your family. Be an example to those you coach.
There will be tremendous highs full of elation and celebration where you think you have it all figured out. There will also be tremendous disappointments where you will wonder why you chose this path. Maintain an even keel, a level steady approach that doesn’t allow the highs to be too high and lows too low. If you are steady and consistent this will be reflected in your athletes.
Sharpen your communication skills. Remember it is not what you say it what they hear that matters most. Talk less and say more. Listen carefully and observe. You can see a lot by watching. Be willing to say you were wrong. Be honest with yourself and your athletes. Lead by example. Empower your athletes – you don’t have be in control all the time. Be yourself. Develop your own coaching style that reflects who you are.
Stress fundamentals and you will grow adaptable athletes. Don’t stray far from fundamentals. Good fundamentals are robust and will serve your athletes well under the pressure of competition. Never lose sight of the ultimate goal – Competition. Develop adaptable athletes who are not dependent on your coaching. Give the athlete control of the game. The competition is your final exam that is when you find out if you have done your job.
Recognize that change is constant. Learn to manage and lead change. Be proactive. Be a generalist, don’t become so specialized that you lose sight of the big picture of preparing the complete athlete.
Coaching is a special calling. Be thankful for that calling and treat it as a special opportunity every day. I will close with an email I received from one of my former athletes after a visit with him after not seeing him for thirty years. Words like this are better than any championship!
“I was thinking about what you said about the bunch of athletes from SBHS that you felt were a great part of your career. As I look back, I believe a coach can have a significant influence on a young person’s life in terms of lessons to take forward. Although none of us at SBHS achieved Olympic or world-class athletic status, I think that many of us have been very successful in other aspects of our lives. I believe that your influence on us included such attributes as the understanding of perseverance, importance of character, the development of self-confidence, maintaining a life balance and the love of physical conditioning. I know that the life lessons you taught me led to my work in physical therapy, the perseverance to obtain a PhD, and the love of a life filled with running, cycling and swimming. Thank you for enriching my life Vern. I would not be where I am today without your early guidance.”
Yours in coaching,
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