How to turn around a failing program
Losing happens. Sometimes, losing happens too often and for too long, whether it’s over the course of a season or several years. Overcoming a losing season or a losing program can be a tremendous challenge for some coaches. If you have been charged with the responsibility of fixing a losing program, here are a few steps that you can utilize to be successful.
1. Set the tone. As the head coach, you must understand that the success of the team and the season starts and ends with you. All of the subsequent steps discussed here will prove futile if you do not find them important, and strive to achieve each one. By setting the standards high, the team will follow and improvement can take place. Start the first day of each offseason with the same level of intention that you will have the first day of practice through the end of the season.
2. Focus forward, glance back. Last year can loom over you if you let it, but forgetting it altogether is not wise. There will likely be critiques of last year’s performance, of which the team and coach have little control. Results from the previous season can be motivation to improve, or a distraction towards impotence, if not kept in perspective.
The previous season should not be the main motivation or the most crippling distraction. Use what you can from the prior season to build on, but it should only be a piece of the puzzle, not the landscape of the picture. Watch game film, learn and overcome the past, but do not let it define this year’s team through motivation or distraction.
3. Change what you can control. Focus on the basics and strengthen the fundamentals. Work on fundamentals during the offseason and build on those through the competition phase. If there is any suspicion that you and your players might not be on the same page with skills, vocabulary and expectations, strip back the layers and make sure that the fundamentals are acceptable before moving on to something more complex.
4. Keep concepts simple. Allowing athletes to compete and play is key to helping a team coalesce. If coaches try to teach too much too quickly, performance will suffer. Focus on the basics — training and conditioning included — so that a strong foundation is secure. Maintain a simple, consistent and concentrated approach to practice strategies. Simple concepts allow athletes to play without overthinking and gives them the opportunity to build confidence.
5. Set realistic goals. Goals set by both players and coaches can provide the maximum amount of buy-in for the team. Create both individual and team goals, including daily goals, short-term goals and season-long goals. It’s important to make sure that each goal is realistic and achievable within its timed period. Meeting daily practice goals increases confidence, self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation. Short-term goals help improve performance, and season-long goals help conclude a season.
A breakdown in practice goals creates a catastrophic domino effect of goal failure. Ensure that goals are specific, measurable and have an action plan. Goals that are not specific, measurable, planned or realistic are difficult to achieve and provide little positive effect.
6. Work to improve your talent. Realistic expectations based on skill are important, but coaches should work to improve their program’s overall level of talent. Shake things up where you can. Recruiting athletes from other sports at your school can help bolster numbers and nurture a competitive environment. An increase in overall talent (if possible) can be the biggest contributor to team success.
7. Prepare for setbacks. Setbacks can be overcome more easily if they are envisioned as possibilities before they occur. Injuries, losses and attrition are all moments that come with competition, and preparing ahead of time can minimize their effect. Build depth on the team whenever possible to overcome injuries and attrition. Keep goals in perspective as they are met or missed.
8. Mentor coaches; lead captains. Remember that even the most driven members of the team have to be motivated and led. Hold coaches and captains meetings throughout the year, and provide opportunities for leadership growth and development. If players and assistants believe in the plan that you set forth as the head coach, leaders are more likely to succeed in meeting the goals of the program.
9. Stay grounded and hungry. As the head coach, you have to find a different source of motivation, especially as the grind of the season begins to take its toll. Reach out to other coaching mentors, and talk to former players. Stay active in coaching development, and educate yourself by reading books. Be a fan of the sport you coach. Remember, expectations and intention start and end with you. The coaches and players are looking up to you, so stay grounded during success, and hungry during failure.
The work after a losing season begins immediately, and overcoming the failures can seem overwhelming. Through experience, these nine steps have provided coaches with a more successful journey of changing the culture of a losing program. Enjoy the process, not just the outcome.
Robert H. Brimmer is an elementary school PE teacher, middle-school soccer coach, and second-year graduate student in the Sport & Fitness Administration program at Winthrop University. Joni Boyd, PhD, CSCS, is an assistant professor of exercise science and the coaching minor advisor at Winthrop.