By Bruce Brown, CMAA, AIC
During my days as a basketball coach, I crisscrossed Ohio with several high school and college coaching stops. The status of each basketball program I inherited ranged from “barely a pulse” to “retrofit” in terms of where we were starting. The common denominator in every situation, though, was a desire on the part of the community and school administration to infuse the basketball program with a winning atmosphere and generate increased enthusiasm for the stakeholders.
Like many excited, young head coaches, I often found myself more focused on outcomes rather than the process of teaching. As I matured and received valuable input from more veteran coaches, I gradually started to realize a broader understanding of what it meant to become engaged with many things beyond just the basketball court.
One of the areas that became more apparent the longer I coached was the importance of studying and trying to understand the unique culture of the school. Not only the culture of the existing basketball program, but also the intricate factors, traditions and values that impacted and shaped the atmosphere that was present within that particular school and community.
One of the mistakes I’ve observed that some coaches make (and I certainly was guilty of this at times) is to minimize or brush-off influences that directly and indirectly create an existing culture. All customs, traditions and ethos of a particular group take time periods to develop. Some of those very customs are temporary or are phases (cycles of minimally skilled athletes, behavior issues, etc.), while some habits and responses have become norms based upon a wide range of accepted influences within the school/community. The popular description of that today would be that some things “are in the community’s DNA.”
In looking back over those nearly 30 years of coaching, I’ve come up with a short list of items I would advise any coach new to a school to consider in assessing and getting a grip on their current setting.
- Be sure to include the most recent coach(es) in talking through your questions about the school and community. This can be a tenuous circumstance if the prior coach’s tenure ended in a negative or awkward manner. I’ve found, however, it is always better to attempt to reach-out to your predecessor and try to gain insight before jumping to conclusions about your current staff, players and other stakeholders. You may not need to agree or “side” with the previous coach; just listen and gather data.
- Local media members often are eager to provide you feedback or opinion. Like most views, you as the coach should be moderate in your reaction to any solicited or unsolicited advice. However, as you attempt to better understand what makes your players, your administrators and your parents “tick,” you will want to be a much better listener than a reactor as you are provided opinions of the situation.
- The teaching staff of the school is often a great barometer to reading the culture of the students and community. Whether the coach is a classroom teacher or a lay coach, finding ways to connect and have discourse with faculty and staff members will be a valuable source of information in working with your student-athletes.
- Investigate by attending: other sporting events, community events, band/choir/arts performances and other activities that your students, parents and community gravitate toward. Not only does this provide you more opportunities to talk and gather information, but it serves as a tremendous public relations maneuver in letting your stakeholders know you are more than just a coach!
- Get in the hallways! The late Ohio State football coach, Woody Hayes, told a wonderful story about Glen “Tiger” Ellison, the legendary football coach at Middletown High School (he invented the “Run and Shoot” offense). Coach Hayes, on a recruiting trip to Middletown one day, was walking down a busy, student-filled hallway with Coach Ellison. As they were walking, “Tiger” abruptly paused the conversation, walked over, picked up a couple small pieces of notebook paper that were on the floor, placed them in his pocket and then continued walking and talking with Coach Hayes. Woody would later comment what an impression it made upon him that “Coach Ellison was conscientious enough to pick up those scraps of paper without anyone suggesting it . . . talk about a guy with great pride! And everyone in that school embodied that same attitude.” The point is this: Whether you want to just learn about your school culture, or whether you want to be a “change agent” within that culture, get out among the troops!
- Study and investigate the community. Whether it is your first coaching position or you’ve just picked up stakes and moved on to the “next great opportunity,” know what is going on outside the walls of your school. There are plenty of sites available that can provide you critical community data like median income, range of income, demographics and school test scores and educational background of your stakeholders. Knowing those types of detail will help you connect with the issues, concerns and aspirations of your students BEFORE they walk into your practice each day.
- Learn to ask “What do you think?” with those you are in constant contact. Make that statement a part of your everyday language. Again, this is a dual opportunity for you. First, you are clear that you value someone else’s thoughts and input. Secondly, you send the message that you have an openness in your own thoughts and are willing to collect valuable information to help form your own opinion. As the coach, you are always able to make the final call on many important choices you will be faced with. Developing a quiet confidence among those you can influence best provides a potential stage to influence culture change or enhancement.
Although this list is not a panacea or a “soup-to-nuts” coverage of options, it does provide the coach an opportunity to consider some strategies that may impact how he or she attempts to learn about the unique culture of their school. Not all school cultures are necessary to change, nor will some be able to change. For the coach to thrive and create the greatest potential for success, grasping an understanding of their school and community beliefs and aspirations will go a long way to that end.
About the Author: Bruce Brown, CMAA, is athletic director at Lake High School in Uniontown, Ohio. He has been involved in educational athletics for more than 35 years, including the past 11 years as athletic director at Lake High School. Prior to becoming an administrator, Brown coached baseball and basketball at several Ohio schools and won more than 200 games as basketball coach. Brown is chair of the NFHS Coaches Publications Committee.