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
The complicated life of sports’ coaches is well documented in biographies and the media. Additionally, it plays out every day across America, on college campuses, in high school athletics, and in the club sport system. Coaches who dedicate themselves to leading a team and developing student-athletes are repeatedly forced to walk a fine line between family and work commitments. To balance this dynamic, coaches frequently integrate family life into team functions. Children will attend practice sessions, teams come to the coach’s house for pre-game meals, and family members are recruited to assist with fundraising events such as off-season sport camps or tournaments.
(photo courtesy of Dan Pambianco)
Done successfully, student-athletes and coaching staffs become extended families, creating a support system for all those involved. Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s daughter described her family’s involvement in the Blue Devil basketball program as follows:
Expertise in coaching can be achieved by acquiring specific knowledge related to a particular sport (Côté & Gilbert, 2009). To be an effective coach, one must match his or her expertise within the context of the learning environment, focusing on learner outcomes (Boardley, Kavussanu, & Ring, 2008). Coaches that have achieved this level of effectiveness are often referred to as master teachers. Key characteristics have been demonstrated by master teachers in the context of sport coaching, such as the ability to teach the learner, to provide tactical instruction, and a desire to pursue personal mastery (Gallimore, Gilbert, & Nater, 2014).
During the 2016 National Coaching Conference in Seattle, WA, a panel of five experts in their respected fields shared insight on pursuing mastery as a coach. Based on their role on the panel (educator, ethicist, athletic administrator, researcher, and coach), each panel member shared 1) strategies for coaches to grow personally and professionally, 2) self-assessment methods to evaluate their progress in pursuing mastery, and 3) insight on what coaches can do to maintain a level of expertise?
The panel members included Dr. Steve Jefferies (Educator), Dr. Sharon Stoll (Ethicist), Erin O’Connell (Athletic Administrator), Dr. Wade Gilbert (Researcher), and Swen Nater (Coach). Dr. Pete Van Mullem (Lewis-Clark State College) and Sean Dahlin (Ohio State University) facilitated the panel session.
Recent news of a cover-up at Baylor University where campus leadership failed to act legally and ethically to sexual assault allegations recently dominated media headlines. The situation at Baylor is an unfortunate reminder of misguided leadership at Penn State where institutional leaders (i.e. coaches, athletic directors, and administrators) failed to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual misconduct by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
What happened at Penn State was beyond shocking, but the Baylor saga suggests a similarly troubling dark reality of an environment often shaped by athletics within educational institutions: An environment built on intense loyalty to protect the interests of athletic programs. Penn State is just one example where institutional leaders struggled to make ethical decisions amidst the lure of achieving athletic success on the field. Educational leaders at Florida State University, the University of Montana, and the University of Oregon have in recent years chosen to remain loyal to their athletic programs in the pursuit of victory.
This challenge is not unique to the NCAA Division I level of competition. Institutions competing at lower levels of athletics are also greatly influenced by what occurs in the athletic department. For example, at Belmont Abby College, administrators added college football to increase student enrollment. The commonality at all levels is the pursuit of financial gain, where winning brings more money either through television contracts, donations, ticket sales, merchandise sales, or increased enrollment (i.e. tuition dollars).
Learning how to teach is an ongoing process. Often teachers receive formal training in pedagogical methods while attending an educational institution. They then continue to develop their teaching talents through a variety of methods, including discussion with teachers, resources on best practice (i.e. books, videos, websites), observation of teaching styles, and hands-on experience (Cassidy, Jones, & Potrac, 2016).
In the world of athletics, coaches are teachers. The playing field is the classroom for instruction, where coaches teach technical and tactical skills (Martens, 2012). Interestingly, the process of becoming a coach does not always provide much training on how to teach. Coaches are left to learn on the job, frequently through trial and error (Van Mullem & Van Mullem, 2014).
When I accepted my first college teaching position, the only knowledge I had about how to teach came from my own classroom experiences as a student and working as an assistant coach. Having to learn on the job, I began to grasp that many of the same principles I had been using as a coach applied in the classroom. I also began to appreciate some of the lessons about teaching I gleaned from working with great teachers of sport. In this essay, I’m going to share three lessons I learned from coaches on how to work with and teach students. They include: 1) caring, 2) being consistent, and 3) believing in people.