Coaching for the Long-Term: Staying in the Game

The retention rate for high school coaches is reportedly declining.  After the 2015 high school football season, 116 of the 601 head football coaching positions in Southern California were open, and in Florida 129 of 560 high schools were looking for a new football coach (Rohrbach, 2016).  Administrators often feel forced to select, evaluate, and retain or remove coaches based on external pressures (i.e. a losing season, unhappy parents, etc.). Sadly, this urgency to produce winning programs coupled with dwindling administrative support, is putting coaches in a constant survival mode.

To endure this win-at-all cost mentality, coaches first need a short-term action plan. Reassuring parents that all is well, convincing athletes that your strategies and tactics are working, and minimizing any conflicts your athletic director might face with parents and athletes are ongoing demands. But it’s not easy to handle day-to-day and often unanticipated non-game issues and still coach effectively. For an increasing number of coaches, the stress experienced proves to be unsustainable.  So for coaches to “stay in the game” and enjoy extended careers, a recommended strategy is to adopt a long-term action plan.  This involves three key elements: 1) become a life-long learner, 2) implement deliberate practice techniques, and 3) pursue coaching mastery.

Become a Lifelong Learner

Engaging in lifelong learning activities is the key to finding long-term coaching success (Nater & Gallimore, 2010).  Lifelong learning activities engage and sustain the enthusiasm and energy of learners.  Regularly attending coaching clinics and workshops is a great lifelong learning endeavor.  Enrolling in coaching courses, becoming certified through a coaching organization, reading books or articles by fellow coaches, and seeking out information via online resources are also effective activities. And coaches frequently report that working as apprentices, informal chatting with other coaches, and seeking advice from mentors are among the most impactful ways to obtain new coaching knowledge (Mallett, Trudel, Lyle, & Rynne, 2009; Nelson, Cushion, & Potrac, 2006).  Finally, in addition to engaging in life-long learning activities, your long-term action plan needs to include purposeful techniques to apply the new information you learn into everyday practice.

Deliberate Practice Techniques

Using lifelong learning activities to intentionally attempt to improve your sport-specific teaching skills will help you develop the coaching skills experts display. Expertise is demonstrated in coaching when “…the coach’s actions (strategies, behaviors) are aligned, adapted and applied to the needs of the coaching context” (Lyle & Cushion, 2017, p. 104).  However, while purposeful practice can be the driving force to reach expert status, be sure that the coaching tasks you are spending time on are based on correct information and ideally occur under the guidance of a more knowledgeable colleague.  In other words, check that you are engaged in deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is more than just gaining experience and putting your time in.  Deliberate practice requires full attention, conscious action, a willingness to operate outside one’s comfort zone, and desire to seek feedback from knowledgeable sources (Ericsson & Pool, 2016).  Coaches engaged in deliberate practice develop a plan for long-term improvement by establishing specific goals, setting aside time for learning activities and identifying key experts in the field for mentoring and feedback.  Coaches can learn more about how to implement deliberate practice techniques in the pursuit of expertise in Ericsson and Pool’s book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.

Pursuing Coaching Mastery

When you engage in lifelong learning activities and adopt deliberate practice techniques, you are actively pursuing coaching mastery.  Mastery in coaching is demonstrated when coaches with expert knowledge effectively communicate with student-athletes and realize success over a period of time (Kreber, 2002). The pursuit of mastery as a coach was described by author, former collegiate basketball player and coach, Swen Nater:

The pursuit of mastery needs to become something that you are as a person.  Continuous improvement in trying to become the best that you can be…I think we have had successful coaches…But, if you asked the greatest coaches of all time if they mastered coaching, what would they say? ‘No, I’m still trying.” You go for perfection and never reach it (Van Mullem & Dahlin, 2017, p. 251).

Coaches identified as a master teachers are not only effective in teaching sport skills, but are able to find success by motivating athletes to perform at a high level or come together as a team.  Hall of fame college basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski is often considered a master teacher based on his success leading and developing student-athletes.

While the number of wins does not define a master teacher in sport, it certainly is an indicator of effectiveness and expertise. Along his journey to 1,000 wins, Coach K unquestionably acquired expert knowledge about the technical and tactical aspects of coaching. More importantly, he developed the ability to effectively apply this knowledge when teaching and leading his team (Van Mullem, 2015, para 3).

Coach Krzyzewski is known for his relentless pursuit to continually get better as a coach, demonstrating that he operates with a long-term coaching perspective while role-modeling the characteristics of someone who has mastered his craft (Greene, 2012).

In sum, pursuing long-term development is challenging in the face of short-term coaching pressures. As a coach you need to recognize that the purpose of a long-term action plan is to help you find balance and withstand the challenges associated with today’s win-now culture of athletics, while simultaneously making progress in developing as a coach. Doing so will help you to create a more sustainable and enjoyable lifetime journey teaching and leading in sport.


Ericsson A. & Pool, R. (2016).  Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York: Penguin Books.

Kreber, C. (2002).  Teaching excellence, teaching expertise, and the scholarship of teaching.  Innovative Higher Education, 27(1), p. 5-23.  http://dx.doi:10.1023/A:1020464222360

Lyle, J. & Cushion, C. (2017). Sport coaching concepts: A framework for coaching practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Mallett, C.J., Trudel, P., Lyle, J., & Rynne, S.B.  (2009). Formal vs. informal coach education.  International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 4(3), 325-364.

Nater, S. & Gallimore, R. (2010). You haven’t taught until they have learned: John Wooden’s teaching principles and practices. Morgantown, WV: Fitness International Technology.

Nelson, L.J., Cushion, C.J., & Potrac, P. (2006). Formal, nonformal and informal coach learning: A holistic conceptualization. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 1, 247-259.

Rohrbach, B. (2016, June 28th). High school football coaching turnover rates soar in Florida, California.

Van Mullem, P. (2015, March 1). The master teacher: A lesson in learning from coach K. PHE America, March, 17(3). Retrieved from

Van Mullem, P. & Dahlin, S. (2017). Five perspectives on pursuing mastery in coaching. International Sport Coaching Journal, 4(2), 246-253.


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