Have you ever been a coach who felt like they were finding their footing on the fly? Perhaps you are a young new coach who is desperately trying to solidify your coaching philosophy. Oh, and you’re doing that while navigating the tricky waters of having student-athletes who are very close to you in age and who share many of the same interests. It’s hard – there’s no way around that fact. This article will share five things that I wish I could go back and share with my first-year new coach self. The twenty-four year old version of me who could have benefitted greatly from her own advice – shared now seven years later.
My first head coaching job came at the age of twenty-four. There was a senior on our team who was just eighteen months younger than me. Let that sink in for a minute – I was coaching a student-athlete who was less than two years younger than I was. I inherited a squad who previously had a part-time head coach. That coach did a wonderful job, but split time between two different areas on campus. The team, as a byproduct, had gotten used to a seemingly part-time commitment. Now, a full-time coach (I hate to spoil the ending – but that’s me y’all) was coming in and demanding full-time commitments. Those current student-athletes, however, had been recruited under and signed on to play for the previous coach under vastly different circumstances.
**Cue suspenseful music**
I made mistakes. Daily. This team witnessed a new coach who was still very much finding her footing, her philosophy, and her way. These mistakes proved to be incredibly difficult to course correct as I went along.
Hmmm…Where to begin and how much time ya got?
Let’s see, I messed up tournament scheduling and thus we ended up playing an event with snow on the ground and sleet coming down. I went in with a rule book that had to have claimed as its victims at least a thousand trees – to the point where even I didn’t know how or what to enforce. I wanted everybody to like me and I wanted everybody to be happy all of the time (this is an ongoing struggle of mine that I’m continually working on). I thought I had all of the answers, and finally, I scored a giant goose egg in the area of work-life balance. Praise God for an Athletic Director who extended plenty of grace during that first season (well for five seasons really – but that’s a post for next week).
Five Things To Tell My New Coach Self:
1. SEEK GRACE
…instead of being hyper-critical. I was incredibly hard on myself in that first year as a new coach. I wanted everything to be perfect right out of the gate, and I didn’t allow myself an ounce of grace in the transition process. I should have focused on being more authentic. At one point, the lone senior mentioned in passing, “Lighten up on yourself, Coach, you’re doing just fine.”
That comment was the turning point for me! This job is hard – and it’s dynamic, and messy sometimes, and infuriating, and “oh my gosh I should have just taken an 8-5 desk job somewhere.” Lucky for us, it’s also the most rewarding, fulfilling and downright amazing experience all at the same time.
Cut yourself some slack and remember Jimmy Dugan’s advice in A League Of Their Own “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great.”
2. SEEK RESPECT
…not friendship. I made this critical mistake as a new coach and worked the entire next season to fix it. Culture is like that – it is not easily created, and once established, is even harder to change. If you seek to earn respect, you will in turn, earn friendship once a student-athlete becomes an alumna. Seek friendship, however, and you’ll end up losing out on respect….and probably the friendship once their playing career is over anyway.
It’s easier to begin by being stern and loosening up as you go along, then to begin by being too easy and trying to get more stern as you go. Strike the right balance in the beginning, and you will, in turn, make it much easier on yourself in the long run.
3. SEEK OUT AND LEAN ON
…veteran coaches. Said differently – there is no shame in not having all of the answers. Rely on those coaches who have been in the game longer than you. Pick their brain! Ask situational questions and dig deep into their responses. Take notes.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel, especially in the beginning. Read about the legendary coaches and emulate the parts of their philosophy that align with your own.
4. SEEK TO FIRST UNDERSTAND
…then worry about being understood. This one is so important I almost listed it twice. Put yourself in the metaphorical shoes of your student-athletes as often as possible. Consider the demands on their schedules, the interpersonal relationships that are always at play in their lives, and that for many, this is the first time away from the comfortable protection of their parents.
By seeking to understand and then modeling your coaching strategies accordingly, you will be much more easily understood. If you want your student-athletes to be “bought in” to the direction you want to take them, then take the time to understand what makes them come alive outside of your respective sport. Invest in them as people first – for there are no limits to what empowered student-athletes can accomplish.
5. SEEK BALANCE
…in the area of work-life. Coaching can become a vacuum that sucks you in to a nearly 24/7 time commitment. Certainly, there are times of the year when this is almost necessary. In those other times, however, make a concerted effort to find balance.
Prioritize family time, down time, and opportunities to focus on your own health and wellness. James Clear wrote an article about these natural “seasons” in everybody’s life and he used a kitchen stove as an analogy. It’s called the Four Burners Theory. The article is REALLY GOOD. Click HERE to read it – it’s worth your time.
Also, it is perfectly fine to schedule this time just like you would a strength and conditioning session or team meeting. Carving out time for you, your family and friends, or a social life is imperative to prevent burn-out.
Eight years in to coaching and I still am working on these same five opportunities for growth. I’m closer than when I started and I suppose that’s the beauty in all of this, that you cannot possibly know the lessons until you live and work through them. Wouldn’t it be nice though, if we could have the hindsight BEFORE the experience (Somebody get on making that happen).
As Vala Afshar says, “You win some. You learn some.”
What are a few things you wish you could go back and tell your first-year coaching self?
If you’re a student-athlete – what are a few things you’d love to go back and tell your freshman self?
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