Becoming an Effective Coach: It’s a Developmental Process

In any professional career, people frequently strive to achieve a level of excellence where they’re considered experts or at least highly effective in their chosen field of work (Nunn, 2008). The world of sport is no different, although determining whether or not coaches are effective and their subsequent hiring or firing is frequently assessed by win-loss records.

But being considered an effective coach should not only be defined solely or even predominantly by a head coach’s win-loss record. Becoming effective is a developmental process that takes time and involves much more than just game scores. Watching 10-time national champion, legendary Hall of Fame, and former UCLA men’s basketball head coach John Wooden during practices, Tharp and Gallimore (1976) found that he spent 50.3% of his time teaching his athletes the fundamental skills of basketball. Consistent with the concept of pursuing teaching & coaching mastery, Wooden spent half his time instructing his athletes (Nater & Gallimore, 2010).

A Coaching Case Study
This article highlights the complex experiences and thoughts of an effective female NCAA Division III (DIII) head women’s volleyball coach as her career developed. The information comes from a larger study on the development of effective coaches at the DIII level. The effective coaches in the study were identified as those who currently serve as head coaches of a DIII team sport, five-plus years of experience as a head coach at his or her current DIII institution, a career winning percentage of .500-plus, and peer recognition such as coach of the year (Gilbert, Côté, & Mallett, 2006).

Coach McLean (pseudonym) has coached for 35-plus years most notably at the NCAA Division I and Division III levels with more than 30 of those years serving as a head coach. Her teams have succeeded in earning multiple conference championships and NCAA Division III tournament bids, including reaching the Elite Eight four time and a trip to the NCAA Division III Final Four. Even with what her team has accomplished, Coach McLean reported during interviews that she has faced challenges in her coaching career but through experience she learned how to improve.

Lessons Learned
When explaining the difference between Divisions I and III in the NCAA, Coach McLean described the lesson she learned regarding the concept of “less is more:”

…I don’t think rest and Division 1 go hand-in-hand in many ways because less is more. It took me a long time to figure that one out. I used to have them do plyometrics in pre-season camp and all those Catholic girls (i.e., when a high school coach) couldn’t genuflect, they just fell into the pew because they were all so sore. Oh, it was just, it was like a badge of honor. ‘How many people can I get so sore that they can’t walk? Ready, go.’ You know, and that’s the difference.

Even throughout her career, Coach McLean explained that one of the aspects she continues to work on is communication with her student-athletes and how to communicate effectively with “Millennials:”

…you really, really have to be honest and straightforward with them. Because, push comes to shove, even the Millennials today, if push came to shove, really want to know the truth. Some of them don’t want to hear it, but at least they know where they stand.

Overcoming the Slide
What most people remember about Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach John Wooden, is his teams’ 10 national championships in 12 years. They forget it took 15 years at UCLA before his team won its first NCAA national title during the 1963-1964 season (Nater & Gallimore, 2010). With that came learning curves and the unpredictable ups-and-downs that all coaches go through (e.g., moving as a coach to a new program/team, athlete and coach turnover, admissions standards change, academic ineligibility of athletes, budget cuts, experience, etc.).

Coach McLean’s experience was no different. She explained that there was about a decade in which her teams won several consecutive conference championships and earned many NCAA postseason appearances. But things didn’t always go so smoothly:

This program struggled for about four years. We didn’t win a conference, we didn’t go to the NCAA. We had a group of kids with some bad seeds and we kind of compromised our integrity of selecting kids that were maybe marginal kids who were good athletes but marginal students and it didn’t work well.

 In one of those four years, Coach McLean’s team finished with a record below .500; this remains the only season of her career this happened. Coach McLean defined this four-year time period as a “slide” for her women’s volleyball program. Then she learned the importance of self-reflection after reading a quote from the Hall of Fame women’s basketball head coach Pat Summitt:

That slide is the most humbling thing that ever happened to me as a coach because I made it, I read a great quote, it was from Pat Summitt who was a tremendous human being. She said that, sometimes when you have stumbles or you have adversity, it allows you to self-reflect and look at the mirror. This will make you stronger and better.

As she and her staff came together, Coach McLean honestly reflected and identified that the downfall began when she and her coaching staff recruited and brought students who were marginal academically into their program. On the flip side, Coach McLean explained that by the coaching staff working together they were able to right the ship of the program. They returned to their roots and focused on identifying and recruiting the right type of student-athletes. Most importantly, they concentrated on reaching out to recruits they felt would excel academically.

‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ and neither are effective coaches. Henry “Hank” Bias, a high school varsity boys’ basketball coach in Ohio, observed there are no standard coaching methods that can be applied uniformly across the wide and diverse range of coaching contexts. Effective coaching rests on a coach’s ability to continue to reflect, adapt and innovate (Gallimore, Gilbert, & Nater, p. 2).

For Coach McLean, she thought that her DIII women’s volleyball program was moving right along when the slide unexpectedly occurred. It led to self-reflection and recognition that she needed to return to her roots in her recruiting efforts and philosophy. Finally, to keep everything in perspective, it’s vital that coaches remember why they devote so many hours working with athletes. Coach McLean emphasized that she tries to develop champions not only in volleyball, but also academically and in life:

I think that my goal really is to develop young women into champions. I want them to grow as a human-beings both on and off the court. I have more pride in every player that has stayed and has graduated.  

Gallimore, R., Gilbert, W., & Nater, S. (2014). Reflective practice and ongoing learning: A coach’s ten-year journey. Reflective Practice, 15(2), 268-288.
Gilbert, W., Côté, J., & Mallett, C. (2006). Developmental paths and activities of successful sport coaches. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 1(1), 69-76.
Nater, S., & Gallimore, R. (2010). You haven’t taught until they have learned: John Wooden’s teaching principles and practices. Fitness Information Technology: Morgantown, WV.
Nunn, R. (2008). A network model of expertise. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 28(5), 414-427.
Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1976). What a coach can teach a teacher. Psychology Today, 9,75-78.


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1 Comment
  1. Great insight from a proven coach. So many excellent coaches at all levels, with information to share. Thanks for sharing, Sean!

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