Some of you may have been fortunate in your lives to be coached by someone whose face still creeps into your thoughts when the topic of playing sports comes up in conversation. We remember the championships or the races won, the heartbreak of losing a final and of course the great friendships made along the way.
Behind these moments, all of them, is a coach. Much like teachers, they - outside of parents - have the greatest impact in a child’s life. A coach can simply ‘make’ or ‘break’ the potential of a child.
I look back on my time playing soccer in England and to be honest I never really had a coach that I can talk about. I think my parents filled that role. My mother knew nothing about the game of soccer, but instilled in me a moral value, integrity and work ethic. My father, who did know a great deal about soccer, helped me deal more with success and failure and the process of learning the game—to think and reflect about it, both good and bad. I actually don’t ever remember him telling me why I didn’t do something on the field or remark ‘what was I thinking?’ or, for that matter, question a coach’s decision. He allowed me to figure it out and maybe that’s one reason why I still love the game today as much as I did back then as a 5 year-old putting on my first pair of “football boots”.
As a parent of two very young children I have started to review, reflect and adapt my own coaching philosophy. Along the way, I stumbled across probably one of the best books written on coaching, entitled The Little Book of Coaching by Ken Blanchard and Don Shula.
It is good for parents to know what to look out for as your child experiences a coach for the first time, or as they move onto new teams with a new coach. What qualities distinguish a coach that represents a person you want your child to learn from? What differentiates the bad from the average, the good from the great?
The next time you are at a practice, hang around a bit longer. Observe the coach and the interactions with the players, look at the body language and demeanor. You’ll come away with a better sense of the person coaching your child.Below are my own key indicators of what you can look for in a great coach:
1. Values, Principles and Philosophy
A coach must have these in order to guide the behavior of the group. Shula states, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” A coach must have a set of beliefs and convictions to provide boundaries and direction for the individuals to perform within, and they must be articulated clearly, consistently and with fairness to each individual.
These must be aligned so that what the organization states as its mission is echoed by the philosophy of the coach. If they deviate, this will lead to confusion, mistrust and skepticism. A coach that is clear in his/her belief system often forms a team dynamic that provides adhesion during the tough times.
2. Dealing with Success and Failure
Does the coach treat failure as an opportunity? Success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal - it’s simply life.
Players, just as coaches, must be able to handle both defeat and success. A coach needs to encourage his/her players to experience through carefully crafted questions that place those moments in the appropriate perspective.
In Blanchard’s book, he notes that “life is unpredictable and that what makes a winner is that when something happens that person’s belief system brings forth attitudes that can take good events and make them better, likewise, it transforms bad events into opportunities to learn and grow.”
For parents and coaches alike, it’s hard to balance the teachable moments of adversity while protecting and supporting the individuals’ feelings. Substance and emotional strength is developed over time from these opportunities, so knowing how to handle them is a critical part of a child’s long-term development.
3. Intentional Preparation
There is no shortcut to excellence; results are built on a foundation of practice. A team and its individuals should practice the way they intend to play. Just as success becomes a habit, so too can sloppiness, tardiness and a lack of effort and focus.
A coach has to focus on the mental, emotional and physical preparation for competition that flows through his/her philosophy to how the team intends to improve. A coach needs to create an environment and master the point at which he/she places their team just on the edge of the “comfort zone,” since here is the point of challenge and growth.
Shula and Blanchard remark that, “When the team is at the level of intensity it needs to be, synergy kicks in, making the team much more than the sum of its parts.” A great coach observes the players, allows for mistakes and finds those teachable moments using individual and specific references. Let this not be confused with the coach that shouts meaningless words or phrases to the players. They may exude a passion but they are dictating that the environment be very coach-centered rather than player-centered.
4. Willingness and Ability To Change
A coach needs to demonstrate the confidence in being able to adapt to changing circumstances and to know when, how and why. A coach is responsible for keeping up with new methodologies and the science behind coaching. There should be little fear of change or failure, since if this is the case then old ways and thoughts will translate into individuals unable to change within the moments of the game. Players need to feel empowered and trusted to make decisions and adjust their actions on the field free from retribution and criticism.
5. Consistency and Predictability
It must be clearly understood that no two players are the same and there is no one rule that fits all. The treatment of a player’s performance and behavior needs to be consistent from the captain of the team to the rest of the team, as does his/her interaction with parents. Reacting and communicating in the same way to similar circumstances allows players to understand a coaches predictability that furthers the development of trust and respect. It may mean a different approach, but it does not mean different treatment.
High in integrity, work ethic and passion, a great coach is sincere, genuine and true to their own character. A great coach often redirects focus, behavior and effort back to the standards of good performance and expectations. There are 4 possible response traits that a coach can use with his/her players; none, negative, redirect and positive; the use of all of the them have very different accompanying effects on developing individual confidence and team building.
Everything starts with the individual. If sufficient time is given to growing the parts (player), and an attention to detail, on technical, functional, emotional and physical development, then the team will start to take care of itself.