“Good” coach

The other day I asked for reader comment on what defines a good coach. I really liked what two readers had to say:

Different levels of coaching have different skills attached in addition to some of the basic necessities. A good coach at any level has to recognize what their players bring to the table and come up with ways to use those skills effectively. They should also be able to change their game plan when circumstances change. Sitting in the stands, I should be able to figure out what that coach has in mind- why they’re doing what they’re doing. Their moves shouldn’t seem random. A good coach should also be able to communicate effectively with their team so those strategies get put into place, and understand that communication takes different forms.

A professional coach has to be a people person- they’re dealing with people who are pretty well set in their ways, and are adults in their own right. They have to be good at explaining themselves, because their players have the background to question their ideas.

A college coach has to be a little more nurturing. I hate that word, but it’s the only one coming to mind for what I want to say. You’ve got people who maybe are far from home, maybe for the first time, and in a prime position to do really stupid things…..I think force of personality is more important here than it is on the pro level.

A high school coach has to balance the two- be diplomatic enough to deal with parents, principals, and other official-type people (while at the same time maintaining a backbone to tell any of the above to fuck off as necessary), while being a good influence on their players, who are in prime years for influencing.

If you prefer “answer by example”, Mike Thibault is one of my favorites for his strategizing. Pat Summitt is the queen of changing her game plan to adjust to circumstances. Geno Auriemma is one of the best communicators I’ve ever seen. Ron Rothstein was incredibly skilled at fitting the right players into the right places. I could watch any of them coach and know why they make the moves they’re making, which is my most basic criterion.

– Rebecca

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I guess to keep it simple I’d say the following:

a) developing a strategy that b) maximizes player talent and c) being able to communicate and build relationships in ways that d) allow individuals to put faith in each other and function as a unit within the system.

At different levels the need to be a PR rep/player development expert/recruiter obviously effort vary…

And I know people say we cannot judge coaches because there is so much going on behind the scenes, but I think you can tell when a team is just completely uncoordinated simply by whether there are patterns in what they do.

It’s what impresses me so much about the Sun. Even when they are missing Whalen or Jones, they are sticking to the same plan and everybody seems to buy into the system. You see patterns in what’s occurring play to play, even if you don’t know exactly what’s occurring..

-QMcCall

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I like the way Rebecca defined good coaching per level of play, and she’s right on the money. Being a good coach on the high school level is a completely different bag than being effective on the college and/or pro level. High school and college coaching does require more nurturing, for lack of a better word, which includes motivation. If a high school or college team gives up at the end of games or finds themselves in a slump, their coach better get in there and pump them up as well as give them the X’s and O’s. When motivational issues happen on the pro level, adult athletes need to take it upon themselves to regroup and elevate. What the Sparks are doing right now is a prime example of that.

QMcCall’s example of the Connecticut Sun is outstanding. Even when missing two of their top players, they still play the same way, and according to the same system. This underscores his point D, having faith in teammates and functioning as a unit. That is key to a successful team, and of course it begins with the coach. This relates back to Rebecca’s criterion of preferring to know why a coach is doing what she/he is doing, aka that the team seems to have some sort of scheme in mind during play.

Now for my own “good” coach hypothesis:

The first definition of a good coach is competence. That’s an obvious one, because what’s the first thing fans say when their team is on a losing streak? That the coach is an idiot and/or needs to go. A coach must have the faith of her/his players, or there will be no team upon which to build. Example: In June I was talking to a young woman I know who is playing for a major conference team that had a new coach last year. She said the coach is “dumb” and that she will leave the school after this year, and that other players felt the same way. If this is true, and the community feels the same way, this coach is in trouble.

Part of a coach’s competence involves having a solid, working system that is also flexible. It’s not enough to just have a team of athletes well-versed in the fundamentals that the coach has taught them; they must all be put together into a functional unit. Part of that depends upon the available personnel, and the coach must adjust every year. For example, are the players fast and can they run? Or are there a lot of tall athletes that can easily clog the lane? If there is a mixture of talent, how best to put them together? Whatever the case, the coach needs to get the team on the same page, and she needs to get atletes to buy into the system. When athletes believe in what they’re doing, they execute.

Good communication is another essential component of effective coaches. A good coach needs to communicate well both with the team as a whole, and with individual players. The coach also needs to facilitate good communication between players on the high school and college levels. Studies (including my own Master’s Thesis a few years ago) have shown that relationships with coaches and teammates effect female basketball playere more than their male counterparts. So effective coaches need to refrain from taking good relationships for granted, jump in and do some team-building exercises with their crew. Pat Summitt has been doing this for years, and young women who didn’t know each other at all coming into Tennessee leave as good friends. Not to mention those eight large trophies.

Motivation is something else good coaches don’t leave to chance. Particularly with younger athletes, it is not safe to assume that they will become or stay motivated on their own. I have seen many a good team have a bad few minutes, get discouraged and give up, and the game spiral downward. While this is happening, the coach isn’t doing anything but providing game strategies and/or chewing them out.

Good coaches set goals with their athletes, both individually and as a team. And the coach keeps reminding her charges of those goals all season long. An effective coach also displays a positive attitude that she believes in her athletes. A counter-example of that is former Oregon Coach Bev Smith, who always looked like she needed severe doses of Prozac, and barely raised her voice at her team in any way. Why did Rutgers players ask Coach Vivian Stringer to stand up more during games last year? They probably wanted to feel like she was there for them instead of sitting on the bench shaking her head. Enthusiastic, interested coaches that quickly come to mind are Joanne Boyle, Geno Auriemma, Nikki Caldwell, Mike Thibault, Dawn Staley and Summitt.

Finally, there’s caring. Kids consider their best teachers the ones who care about them, and the same is true of coaches. A good coach cares about the player both as a person and an athlete, and is willing to go to extra effort to help her, if necessary. Athletes who feel supported by their coach will play harder and be more loyal to her.

I have one more question for readers about coaching: is it possible to be a good coach at one school and a bad coach at another? Let me know what you think.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I have one more question for readers about coaching: is it possible to be a good coach at one school and a bad coach at another?

    It all depends on a lot of things at that other school. The amount of support at that other school. Location, history, and competition.

    Some coaches have been successful in the WCC but don't do well in the Pac-10. Why? Well I think it is "easier" to be successul at the mid to low major schools, quickly. They can build a strong program in the WCC or BW. But then they move to the Pac-10 and they have to get Top 10 recruiting classes to compete. It is a lot harder to get those players because there aren't that many program changing players year in and year out, in the upper conferences.

    I do think Trakh would have been successful if his Top 10 recruiting classes didn't suffer all those injuries.

  2. Great question about whether is possible to be a good coach at one school and a bad coach at another.

    I think you can take that across levels of play (high school vs. college vs. pro) but also definitely within one level.

    I think in the NBA, the classic example to me is comparing Phil Jackson to Larry Brown. Brown has (with some recent exceptions) been amazing as a coach to move teams forward and maximize their talent and is a very good teacher of the game. Jackson is great at managing superstar egos to bring them together.

    I don't know if this directly answers the question of good vs. bad in different contexts, but moreso that I think good coaches have different strengths and will succeed/fail depending on the context.

  3. Anonymous, I can't disagree on anything you've said.

    NewDiner, I might. The conference records in 06-07 and 07-08 going from winning to losing concern me. I'd have to consider the coach's entire career.

    QMcCall, good example. When I was asking the question, I had two coaches in mind: Lin Dunn, who was horrible for the Storm but is finding success with the Fever; and Joan Bonvicini, who had a storied career at Arizona until Shawntinice Polk died, and now has a chance to rebuild her career.

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