Guidelines for the Rookie Head Coach

By Jeff Walters on April 09, 2015 coaches Print

Many coaches dream of guiding a program to glory. The condition of programs runs the gamut of one’s imagination – from the storied winners to the downtrodden “Bad News Bears.”  When tabbed to lead a program, many coaches feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment. For all those people who find themselves in this position, the jubilation is quickly replaced with a stark realization: “Where do I start? What is my first move? How do I take this program where I want it to go?”

Having just completed my first season at Liberty High School (Brentwood, California), these feelings and experiences lay fresh in my mind and serve as a constant reminder that you never have all the answers. The most important lesson any head coach, especially a rookie, can learn is that the constant pursuit of knowledge and information, added to a spirit of experimentation and adaptation, leads to growth and positive experience for athletes, coaches and the community at large.

Begin with the End in Mind

Stephen R. Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tells us that visualizing an end goal can lead to a clearer plan. For most coaches, success is measured by wins and losses. But coaches who have been in the game long enough can tell you that most of the time games are won not by X’s and O’s, but by who has the better Billy(s) and Joe(s).

The first question the rookie coach must ask is, “What will my program look like in 10 years.” Those who have clearly defined and attainable goals seem to succeed more than those who simply say, “We’re going to win football games.”

The most effective way to accomplish this is by making your athletes shareholders in this goal. Have attainable goals that provide for immediate positive feedback, or when an attempt is unsuccessful, ask the athlete, coach, parent, administration or yourself, “Why was this the case and can we change something to produce a more desirable outcome.”

If you set out to build athletes of character – then focus on character. If you hope to be academically motivated – make academics a priority. But if it is wins that you seek, then pray for good players. The fact is that the only thing that is in your control is what the athletes gain from the experience.

Make Accountability Your Priority, Not Discipline

Somewhere along the way it was drilled into the football world that the football coach needs to intimidate in order to control and instill discipline in his players. This drill sergeant mentality is rampant within football and other sports. But the question must be asked, “How many kids signed up to get yelled at?” The reality is that kids accept this as a hazard of the sport rather than something they embrace. The truth is that yelling will only make the kids work hard enough to not get yelled at. So how to build accountability?

First the head coach should identify standard norms that should be followed by all persons associated with the program. For example, don't accept profanity from players or coaches; there should be zero tolerance for foul language in educational athletic settings. Of course, we all see infractions arise and we need to create suitable corrections. If a violation occurs, the offending party must do 25 air squats (this includes coaches) – regardless of the time the infraction occurred, e.g., football field, in class, walking in the community, social media, etc.

Most importantly, make these norms known and don’t make exceptions. If you allow one to get away with it – no amount of wind-sprints or up-downs will correct it. The more proactive the coach, the fewer discipline issues arise.  If these norms are applied fairly and without regard to who the offender is your program will benefit and gain collective respect from teammates, opponents, administration, and community.

Be Organized

Have a plan and follow it. The players want to buy into the program, but they have to believe in the product. So it is imperative that all practice plans and team activities allow for maximum gains with 100% efficiency. Even if there are hiccups along the way, the players must know that the coach is not simply winging it. Have everything written down and scripted to ensure that your assistant coaches are on board and mirroring your organizational behavior. The head coach sets the standard for the rest of the staff. If the head coach is organized and dedicated, then so is the rest of the staff.

Teach the Game

The ultimate compliment to a coach is to have a former player become a coach. It illustrates that not only did the individual enjoy the experience, but that he or she is able to pass those lessons on to another player. However, beginning coaches may feel intimidated by players who know as much as they do. It is true that arrogance and ignorance among players can be a problem, but only if they are not guided properly.

If it was a classroom, would you chastise a student for asking a question or berate the student in front of his or her classmates for being incorrect? It is essential that an environment that fosters learning allows for greater understanding and a deeper level of thinking by players.

Coaches can and do make mistakes; they have to have faith in their athletes and listen to their points of view. Use consistent language among all levels and allow for players to take ownership by naming plays or contributing in other fashions. They know you’re the boss, so don’t be intimidated.

Beg, Borrow, and Steal – Then make it your own

Most head coaches don’t simply stumble into the varsity head coach position. The usual path tends to have multiple stops with different experiences. Learn something from everyone you meet. One coach may have excellent practice organization while another may have a strength in inspiration. Unfortunately, most coaches feel that the play calling is the most important aspect, but the truly successful programs invest their time in all facets of the game.  Take things others have done and put your own spin on it.

Your Way is the Right Way

The fact of the matter is there is no absolute formula for success; it largely depends on your interpretation of success. There are more than 14,000 high school football programs in the United States and each has its own definition. The head coach should have his goals in mind and not compromise his morals regardless of the mounting pressure to win. If you believe strong enough in the plan, success will follow. Don’t be deterred by perception and stay true to your beliefs of making your athletes better. Enjoy the ride and make notes as you go, because you only get one shot at a rookie season.