January/February 2016
The seven signs of a struggling coach From Josh Hils, Coe-Brown Northwood Academy, Northwood, New Hampshire

I recently read an article about the seven characteristics of unhappy people. It made me think about my teaching and coaching, and the happy and unhappy coaches I compete against.

I began to consider the seven signs of an unhappy coach, which translates into a struggling team or program. Those same ideas about unhappy people can relate to coaching, where many struggle to find their way.

Here are seven signs that a coach in your program may be having trouble with their responsibilities.

1. Unwillingness to adapt their coaching philosophy.

Coaching in today’s climate is a bigger challenge than most coaches are willing to accept. Athletes are much different than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

We have student-athletes in our programs who receive immediate feedback on what they wear to school, how their hair looks or what they ate for lunch by posting messages or videos on social media. In a matter of seconds, they get “likes,” comments and replies that initiate the dopamine response of reward and stimulation.

As coaches, we must understand and accept this new reality as we communicate and develop our expectations for athletes. We need to know what we are saying, when to say it and how to say it. Our feedback has to match the level of accomplishment our student-athletes have achieved. Phrases like “nice job” and “well done” are generic at best but can be useful in some circumstances.

When teaching a new skill or concept, constant positive feedback is a must. As you move forward, there needs to be more constructive and corrective feedback. If mastery is ever going to happen, then more feedback is needed.

The end result of what we say, when we say it and how it was said should lead to a more confident, capable and productive student-athlete who solves problems in games, matches and meets without us micromanaging their every move.

2. Believing the schedule is too tough or unfair.

We all look at our schedules and look for key contests or opponents that may prove easier or more difficult for our team. But we can’t use our schedule as the backbone for successes or failures.

We have all seen teams or programs benefit or lose out due to the competitive balance, or lack thereof. Complaining about who you do or don’t play is a telltale sign of a coach in crisis. I have seen teams play a weak schedule and make the playoffs, only to be humiliated by a lower seed. They made it to the playoffs but lost to an “underdog,” because the competitive balance of the schedule provided them with a false perception of self.

In contrast, you might miss the playoffs with a talented team that played well against tough programs. It’s all about being honest and self-aware regarding your team, not your schedule.

The schedule is determined with a laundry list of factors, such as travel, rivalries, school size and state requirements for divisional alignment. The only things you can control are practices, goals, philosophies and preparation.

Your record is typically an accurate reflection of the team chemistry, talent, ability and skill level. We can mistakenly use the excuse of our schedule being too hard as a form of denial that our program needs to adapt and changes need to take place.

3. Concentrating on what’s wrong versus what’s right.

Focusing on the negatives often interferes with your ability to turn your program around. Identifying what’s wrong is needed, but maximizing what goes right is essential to success and changing the tides in your favor.

Too many times coaches dwell on their team’s inability to score or play effective defense. Sometimes the makeup, chemistry and skill set of our student-athletes dictates their strengths or weaknesses. Our job as the coach is to identify those strengths or weaknesses.

We need to improve on the weaker areas, but why not maximize the strongest parts of your team to promote an air of success and accomplishment?

You have to envision yourself as a sales person when it comes to your team. Exude confidence, trust and belief in your athletes. Focusing on what’s going wrong only promotes a lack of confidence, trust and faith in your athletes.

You must sell your team and program by looking at its strengths and maximizing them. Legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski once said, “Celebrate success at every opportunity.” This can only help to motivate and inspire your team.

4. Harboring jealousy for other teams and their success.

Struggling coaches believe someone else’s accomplishments steal from their program’s visibility or success. They often complain about another school or they harbor jealousy for another program within their very own institution. Coaches who find fault, flaws or become jealous over the success of another program send clear messages of victimization to their student-athletes.

This is a dangerous practice because it presents contempt, resentment and excuses as acceptable methods of dealing with losses. Coaches are charged with teaching positive values of sportsmanship, respect and handling adversity. Allowing jealousy to become a theme in your program undermines the very essence at the heart of teaching and coaching.

If we want athletes to reach their potential, we can’t allow jealousy and negativity to drive our feelings about other programs. Embrace the success of all programs in your school and strive to be more successful. Find the positive comparisons and qualities of those programs and work toward embracing those characteristics.

5. Too much micromanaging.

There’s a difference between being in control and being controlling. Finding the line between the two can be difficult, but giving ownership of the program to players and assistants is vital to making everyone feel invested in the common goal.

Being in control means you have identified clear standards, expectations and organization. Being controlling is micromanaging too many peripheral aspects of the program that minimizes involvement of the student-athletes, assistants and parents. The less invested they become, the more you have to take on, and the vicious cycle only gets worse.

Let your student-athletes take on responsibilities and hold them accountable. Even the little things can go a long way in helping build ownership or your program and provide a sense of pride for your team.

6. Refusing to adapt to your team’s skills.

Many coaches have a philosophical base for how they want their teams to play. You might be an up-tempo basketball team, or maybe you prefer a 2-3 zone defense. The key is identifying whether your student-athletes have the skills, ability and focus to fit your system.

Good coaches adapt to the strengths and abilities of the student-athletes who come to them. I cringe when I hear middle school or high school coaches talk about implementing something they see or heard at a clinic. Colleges can look for kids who fit their systems through recruiting. High school and middle school coaches have to play the hand they’re dealt.

Without the ability to recruit the components of a specific system, you have to go with what you have. This means we need to be able to fit a system to our players, rather than fit players to our system.

It’s hard to be a fast-break basketball team if you can’t rebound. Locate your team’s core abilities and strengths and adapt accordingly. You’ll increase your chances for success.

7. Dwelling on the past.

I use something called “The Midnight Rule,” which I learned from one of my college coaches. It’s simple; win or lose, you have until midnight to think about it. Once the clock strikes midnight, we only look forward.

I do my best not to bring up the previous day, win or lose. Sometimes I slip and my players remind me by yelling “Midnight Rule!” I want my players to forget about mistakes they made and not allow it to affect their performances moving forward.

The concept is born from the idea that dwelling on the past does not allow you to grow and move forward. Players know when they make a mistake. Reminding them of that only causes them to focus on their mistakes, rather than playing their best on every play. Instead of thinking about what they will do right, they could become accustomed to thinking about what they don’t want to do wrong.

The psychology in this is paramount. If the last thing that a student-athlete thought about was “don’t make a mistake,” they are playing to not screw up rather than playing to be successful.

All coaches have the ability to change course and move in different directions. It takes a certain level of vulnerability and courage, but it’s worth it. Evaluate where you are and locate areas where you might be contributing to the struggles. Then, be the catalyst for change.

It’s never too late to implement changes. Remember, if you don’t make the change, your school and administration will.





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