A friend of mine, a former professional baseball player, recently asked, “who is the best coach you ever had?” I played multiple sports growing up and baseball in college, and this question brought back a double-header of memories, from Coach White teaching us to shoot a basketball to Coach Williams on reading the outside linebacker to Coach Farber on when to throw a “high hard one” on the mound. I also remember guidance from trusted coaches on ways to prepare, practice, lead by example, and communicate.
Later, I applied these lessons when coaching middle school basketball and little league baseball, instructing at baseball camps, and teaching workshops on “how to throw a spiral.” Currently, one of my daughters plays tennis, and this has led to dozens of conversations with tennis professionals and parents about player improvement and working with coaches.
While my experiences, studies, and watching Ted Lasso do not comprise a coaching PhD or absolute answer, I do observe qualities that consistently correspond with effective coaching, which I define as helping individuals and teams improve and achieve pre-defined goals.
Effective coaches make and implement plans. This includes daily practice plans, weekly schedules, and well-communicated priorities and objectives for the season. All my most effective coaches, as with my best teachers and managers, were organized. All of them.
Disorganization frustrates players and parents. It wastes time and sends the message, “well, you aren’t important enough.” With an organized coach, every day has a focus; every drill has a purpose. After any lesson or practice, you or your child should be able to answer the question, “Hey, what did you work on today?”
Improvement, like greatness, is specific, not general or generic. Effective coaches improve the performance of athletes through sharing knowledge with concise instructions. This is about communication and the ability to demonstrate and teach specific skills and techniques.
Expansive explanations and non-stop talking dilute, distract, and irritate. The longer a coach talks and the more suggestions they hurl during a single drill, the less they seem to know about effective teaching and how players learn and improve. As Tim Gallwey writes, in his classic The Inner Game of Tennis, effective coaching professionals understand that “…showing [is] better than telling, too much instruction worse than none…”
Effective coaches communicate and reinforce lessons with specific feedback and positively worded instructions. For example, instead of staying “stop swinging at pitches over your head” they will say “swing at pitches in the strike zone.” The brain processes these instructions, which seek a similar result, differently. This means effective coaches are also…
A self-aware coach understands the extent of their knowledge and the effect of their style on the individual athlete. Confident, self-aware coaches listen and observe and know what they don’t know. The best ones know when to suggest a different coach, league, or resource to help the athlete get to the “next level.”
Both individual and team sports are cooperative endeavors involving coaches, parents, and players. Coaches don’t own their athletes and parents don’t control the lineup. The self-aware coach pre-empts conflict through organization and specific communications, not through politics or happy talk. [And the best coaches want self-awareness on the part of their parents and players, as well.]
Effective coaches consistently hold their athletes and themselves to account. As part of being organized and specific, effective coaches clearly communicate expectations for behavior and performance at practice and when competing on the court or in the field. Then they reliably reinforce and role model these same behaviors.
A less effective coach badmouths other coaches or talks about players and parents behind their backs. A less effective coach fails to enforce standards and expectations. If a coach has alternating “good days” and “bad days” to the extent where the team or athlete is left to wonder “what will practice be like today?” then performance, improvement, and trust suffer.
While Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” approach may resonate for some, my best coaches tended to explain up front why something was important and how it would help us improve and win. An organized and accountable coach supports athletes with specific, on-point training to improve and prepare physically, mentally, emotionally, and strategically. This, in turn, builds trust, respect, and lifelong relationships.