Seven strategies to a long-term coaching career
Coaches that reach longevity in coaching have learned to deal with stress, obstacles and implement improvement strategies. Using Andy Carrier’s experience as the men’s basketball coach at a small liberal arts college for 25 years, these seven strategies offer insight into building a long-term coaching career.
1. Establish your identity. It’s common practice that many coaches begin their careers upon completion of their playing career. While they may have established an identity as an athlete, their identity as a coach is still developing. To establish your identify, make a deliberate attempt to be more self-aware and glean from a variety of experiences.
“I worked for three hall of fame basketball coaches,” Carrier said. “One was a ‘players coach,’ he was very close to his current and former players and involved in their lives beyond basketball. One used an authoritarian leadership style, the student-athletes basically felt challenged and even threatened at times. The third coach was businesslike. He was not very close to the players but challenged them, constantly evaluating them on performance and results.
“When I became a head coach I did not try to be any of them. You have to be authentic or players and people will see through you and you lose credibility. Strategically, I used bits and pieces from each of the coaches I worked for to fit my personality.”
To learn and evaluate your experiences as a coach, make time for reflective practice. Reflective practice is a deliberate attempt to question, evaluate and assess daily routines, practices and competitions. The process often involves detailed documentation or a conscious, consistent reflective period in the day.
“I would observe how players and constituents were responding to me,” Carrier said, “and each morning I would ask myself, ‘Who do I need to be today, to make a positive difference for them, to get the results we desire?’”
During the reflective process, coaches learns how their actions impact others and they gain a greater understanding of who they are.
2. Find your fit. While it’s common for coaches to gravitate to a level of sport they played at, opportunities present themselves at all levels. Each requires a unique skill set in dealing with the physical and mental developmental stages of student-athletes, administrative responsibilities, parents, team management and game strategy.
One approach in finding your fit is to examine how the current administration views athletics, what role athletics plays in the academic achievement, and the perception of athletics amongst faculty, staff, students and the community. Examine the differing goals, expectations, resources and additional job duties required of the coach at that institution.
“I knew the clientele and the type of student-athlete we serve and the type of student-athlete that thrives and is successful in schools like ours,” Carrier said. “I also knew the additional duties that coaches needed to take on at this level, including teaching and faculty responsibilities. I was committed to those responsibilities and enjoyed that part of the job. I have always believed athletics is an integral part of our total education process.”
Coaches that have established longevity focus on developing not only their expertise but growing their program. They take a long-term approach to building a career.
3. Define success. There are many benefits for participating in sport, including skill development and social interaction. Many coaches want to have a positive impact on the game and, more importantly, the young people they work with. However, in competitive sport, the scoreboard often measures the success of a coach. This makes it difficult to view success as anything other than winning, and that pressure may force a coach to lose focus and sacrifice longevity for immediate results.
Established coaches believe that there are standards greater than victory that should never be compromised. Some decisions might not lead to immediate success, but in the long run they allow the coach to reach greater heights.
“I would never compromise my integrity to win a basketball game,” Carrier said. “I would never cheat, break rules or play ineligible players. I always prided myself to learn the spirit and intent of rules and lead by example. Also, I would never risk the health or safety of our players. If they were hurt and participation might have long-term implications, there was no second-guessing — we didn’t play them.”
Reflection can be a powerful exercise in keeping you on track and in balance. Avoid the lure of short-range thinking by continually reminding yourself to look at the bigger picture. Consider what characteristics and traits you want student-athletes to demonstrate once they end their playing career. Whether the goals involve winning, academics or character development, provide a written template for student-athletes to follow.
“I told every player how sincere and committed I was to them earning a degree, as well as who they were as people,” Carrier said. “How they represented themselves, our program and our school were more important than anything they would ever do on the court. It was the first time for many of them that they understood they were a part of something bigger then themselves.”
4. Cultivate lasting relationships. How a coach perceives his or her role in leading student-athletes often dictates their approach in cultivating long-term relationships. If the coach believes the purpose is to assist student-athletes in growing all aspects of their lives, then the groundwork for strong coach-athlete relationships is established. If the coach views their primary role as winning games, then relationship development may be compromised.
Coaches must initiate the first step in learning what’s important and who’s important to each individual student-athlete to find opportunities to connect. Pay attention, listen and be observant to verbal and non-verbal cues. Take time to engage with student-athletes.
“You need to get to know them, talk to them and meet them where they are in their lives,” Carrier said. “Time is precious and you will have a lot of demands. Yet, you need to make this a priority and not compromise spending time getting to know your players. I always cared, but evolved. I realized as my career went along, it was never about me. It was always about them and the team. If they know you care, they will knock themselves out for you as their coach.”
Once a coach establishes a strong connection, he or she can ask for feedback. Feedback can be gathered in direct one-on-one conversation or in a group setting. Anonymous feedback also is an option.
“I always scheduled individual meetings with players before the season started, at least one during the season and at the end of the season,” Carrier said. “We talked basketball, classes, campus life and their families. I had each player fill out a postseason survey on their best and worst part of the season, their favorite and least favorite drills, what they would change, and what would make us more successful. We included their goals for the offseason and the actions they would take to accomplish them. They will talk to you in the meetings, but if you have them write things down, you will get much better feedback.”
Through the feedback process, you will strengthen the bond with student-athletes and create opportunities to help them achieve success.
5. Help others achieve success. Make a deliberate attempt to engage with student-athletes and identify what they want to achieve. Each student-athlete is motivated by different external and internal factors. The better a coach understands who they are coaching, the more likely they are to influence the student-athletes. It will be difficult for student-athletes to share with you if they do not feel comfortable in your presence.
“I often said, “Help others get what they want and you will get what you want,” Carrier said. “Be respectful of the development process of young adults. They are going to make mistakes. Step in and show your concern when someone is struggling or think they may need someone to pick them up. People will not always remember what you said to them, but they will always remember how you made them feel when they were with you. Be sincere, and care about them and their success.”
6. Establish work-life balance. Multiple responsibilities and family lives can quickly impact a coach’s ability to maintain a balanced lifestyle. A good exercise for coaches is to reflect on what they value. By clearly identifying values and prioritizing them in order of importance, coaches can recognize what areas of their lives receive precedence over others. It’s also important for coaches to find time to get away and develop work-life balance.
“I love the outdoors and love fishing,” Carrier said. “You could say it was my therapy. I could clear my mind and gain perspective. When I went back to work, I was refreshed and my perspective was much better. You can work hard but also need to work smart and balance your life. Do not be one-dimensional or you will burn out quick.”
7. Continue learning. The key to developing a long-term career is likely contingent on the coach’s ability to keep up with changes in his or her sport while staying true to what they believe in. Even though your efforts to learn are self-motivated, the end result of your training should be focused on the needs of the student-athletes and a long-term approach to improving in your craft.
“Coaches must find ways to adapt without changing who they are,” Carrier said. “Today, young people are playing more games than ever before and probably getting less instruction on the fundamentals. This changed the way I coached. I didn’t take anything for granted when they came into our program. We started with and spent more time in practice on the fundamentals.”
The path to a long-term career is filled with many challenges unique to each coach. Coaches can utilize a variety of methods and resources to meet the challenges they encounter. These seven strategies offer one perspective from a coach that found his own path to a long-term coaching career.