A GREAT COACH IN THE MAKING: BEYOND THE CLIPBOARD!
By Rob Pichardo
West Nyack, N.Y.
What makes a good assistant coach? I have been asked this question a number of times over the years and have finally compiled information about some of my experiences with past and present assistant coaches. This article applies to most coaching levels, but may differ considerably between the youth and collegiate level. My hope is that this article will be a beneficial tool for new assistant coaches and that it may also serve as a refresher for more experienced assistants and even the entire coaching staff prior to the start of the season.
1. Lead by example
Players may not necessarily remember what they’ve been taught, but they will always remember what they see you do. Head coaches are not the only ones who are held to a higher standard; ALL coaches are expected to be leaders on and off the court. If you show up late or unprepared, use inappropriate language, or generally prove that you can’t manage your personal habits, it should be of no surprise to you if your athletes respond in the same manner. Nobody picks up on hypocritical actions faster than young people. We must always lead by example!
Dress, look and act professional at all times! One should always conduct themselves in a positive, friendly manner getting along with others and not being discourteous to opposing staff, players and fans. It is imperative that you are cordial to the officials, always demonstrate good sportsmanship to everyone involved and be on-time for all commitments (meetings, practices, games and any other events.). Be mindful, that as a staff member (paid or volunteer), you not only represent yourself, but you also represent the institution as well.
The sooner you establish an open line of communication with your head coach, the better. It is beneficial to communicate with your head coach on a regular basis to maintain a clear understanding of what he or she expects of you.
Discuss the following questions in detail:
• What are your specific roles and responsibilities within the coaching staff?
• What do you feel most comfortable contributing to the team (position-specific knowledge, administrative talents, recruiting, etc.)?
• What are your head coach’s pet peeves?
• Do you have a long-term goal of becoming a head coach?
Make yourself available before and after practices/games to communicate with your head coach. Although some head coaches will hardly ever change their own program and philosophy and will not seek input from assistant coaches, there are other head coaches that are open to the idea of wanting to talk about what improvements can be made, what’s working well/what’s not, line-up set ups or match ups, etc. Understand what type of head coach you’re working under, accept his/her coaching style and do your part to support. If you find through your discussions that you don’t agree with his/her philosophy, your role, and/or your level of input on the staff, you may determine that it’s not a win-win situation for both parties involved. If you find that you are unable to compromise or adapt, then it would be best that you seek another assistantship because the coaching staff should always appear unified, regardless of differences.
Have a clear understanding of your role
What is your job? What does your head coach want you to do? When I first started coaching, these were some of the main questions I had for my head coach. He basically told me, "Just listen, learn and teach." But be passionate with it.
Your role is defined by your head coach, and the number of assistants on staff. As time progresses, your role may evolve and you could be entrusted with more responsibility. Don't expect to step in on day one and start running the show or calling the shots from the bench. At first, be willing to spend most of your time listening and learning the system. Once you have learned things pretty well, you will be in a better position to teach and discuss things with the head coach or the coaching staff.
Your role as a coach will evolve at every practice. For example, if your expertise is back row defense, the head coach may want you to break down drills on one side teaching and working with defensive players, while he/she takes the attackers. In live drills, get on the opposite end to help spot things and teach.
3. Coach with a Winning Attitude
There is nothing worse than an assistant coach who runs his/her mouth behind the head coach’s back or pushes their own agenda with players, parents or other colleagues. Many times you may not agree with the decisions and/or philosophy set forth by the head coach. However, it is the assistant’s responsibility to stand behind and support his/her coach. Not only does it establish trust with the head coach and contribute to a positive working relationship, it reaffirms the strength and continuity of leadership of the coaching staff to the athletes and organization.
I once heard a story from a colleague who shared an unsettling story about a former assistant. He had a few players on his team who saw very limited playing time. Half-way through the season, one of the parents insisted on a meeting with him in regards to his daughter’s playing time. In the middle of this unpleasant discussion, the parent revealed what no head coach wants to hear: as it turned out his assistant coach had been convincing non-starters that they really deserved to be in the starting lineup. The parent continued to explain how his assistant coach held clandestine meetings with players to discuss their negative inputs regarding the head coach and differences in coaching decisions, among many other things. Needless to say, this caused a tremendous amount of mistrust and tension from which the team could not recover.
One of the most important characteristics of an assistant coach is to be loyal to the head coach. The reason why you are on the coaching staff is because of his/her invitation. This is a great privilege and an opportunity entrusted to you that will allow you to share your passion with the team. The moment you are given the green light, do everything you can to learn the head coach’s system. Once you agree to carry on with your role, help sell the program and beliefs to the current and prospective players, parents and fans. Do not become extra baggage. As a head coach there are already enough issues to deal with in addition to our responsibilities, which includes coaching staff, and it is best to keep things positive and beneficial.
We have seen examples of inexperienced or fairly new assistants trying to undermine the head coach in an attempt to advance his/her own coaching career. As a result, this usually ends in a disaster for the current team and players, and more often than not, is detrimental to the assistant as well. Remember that often times it is usually your head coach that can help you land that next position, and give you a much needed recommendation letter.
I am not trying to say that an assistant should just be a "yes man" and never give his/her own views and share disagreements with the head coach, but it should always be done at the appropriate time and place. You should always be looking for new, innovative ideas that can enhance the planning and team preparations, and present these ideas to the head coach for discussion. Sometimes the head coach will agree and adopt your idea, and often times he/she will not, but do not get discouraged and become disgruntled. Many times when I was coming through the ranks, I submitted what I thought might be a pretty good play, only to receive a simple “thank you” and/or “I’ll keep it mind.” You have to be able to hang your ego at the door and acknowledge that the head coach is in charge. Believe in your ideas and be willing to discuss them with the coach, but never behind his/her back, or with parents or players. A good number of assistant coaches embrace the idea of impressing other people by showing they are smarter than the head coach. Be Humble!
“PEOPLE DON’T CARE HOW MUCH YOU KNOW UNTIL THEY KNOW HOW MUCH YOU CARE”
-John C. Maxwell
4. Build positive environment with your players
Create an atmosphere where your players feel that you are approachable. Having a little fun and a few healthy laughs with them from time to time will go a long way in your relationship as you show them your lighter side. Develop a relationship with your players so that they feel they can confide in you during times of crisis or so that they feel compelled to share with you when something good happens in their lives. Even with all of this, remember that you are not their pal. There should always be a figurative line drawn between player and coach. If you become their pal, you will lose their respect as a coach and authoritative figure. Don’t always comment on the negative. Make sure you always reinforce the positive. This can be very difficult to do at times, but make sure you make an attempt. Showing a bad demeanor or expressing many negative comments often enough, will start to get disheartening and over a period of time will cause you to “lose” them and their trust.
5. Take initiative
Make sure you understand what the head coach wants to accomplish. Be proactive and use leadership to help get things done. It can be as simple as setting up practice stations, making sure athletes bring jump ropes or workout bands, and equipment at the beginning of practice/games. If you believe your head coach has forgotten something important, e.g., administrative tasks, remind him/her at an appropriate time.
“Failure to act is often the biggest failure of all.”
6. Improve your ability to lead and continue to further your learning.
Years ago I attended a coaches’ seminar: As I watched the clinician talk about offensive/defensive skills and drills, there was a very annoying collegiate coach sitting right behind me that acted as if he knew everything the clinician was talking about. “I had heard it all before,” the coach thought, and, in fact, I even disagreed with a few things the clinician was saying. In the midst of these non-welcoming comments from my neighbor, I recognized a very well-known, accomplished National coach (Miguel Cruz, Dominican Republic) sitting nearby. He was not only listening intently, he was tirelessly taking notes! What a humbling experience, and one that I will never forget. Before me was a coach who had won several International titles and had received numerous coaching accolades over his 40+ year career; he had coached many college and professional players, yet he remained dedicated to learning and improving his technical and tactical knowledge.
Sometimes assistant coaches feel that they have reached a point in their careers where there are very few things left to learn within the sport in their role.
Please consider the following two questions:
• Is there a different area within my role where I could become more proficient?
• Can I teach the skills in a more profound way, performing drills with a more team-oriented approach?
“We cannot become what we need by remaining what we are.”
Be a student of the game. Being an assistant is a perfect opportunity to learn about coaching hands-on... just like an internship. Don't bring a demeaning attitude, thinking that you already know everything there is to know about the game. If you keep an open mind, you can learn something new almost every day... not only the coach's general system, but how to teach and conduct practices, run drills, motivate, deal with players, parents and administration. It's not just about drawing plays on a clipboard. A good assistant coach is one who is open to listen more than to talk, and in return, will continue to increase his/her knowledge each year. Take the initiative to ask questions, and always keep a notepad handy and jot things down. As coaches we must challenge ourselves to be great technicians and tacticians. We improve by attending clinics, paying attention to other coaches, reading great books and articles, and of course through on-court experience. As we continue sharpening our skills, we must consider the process through which athletes learn.
• Wooden, J., & Jamison, S. (2005). Wooden on leadership. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
• Maxwell, John C., & Parrott, L. (2004). Winning with People. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.
• De Pree, Max., (2004). Leadership is an Art. New York, NY: Random House Inc.