November 6, 2013 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Eight sure-fire strategies for building a thriving program

Transforming a declining or problematic program into a rising program is definitely a challenge. There will be many weeks when it feels like you are taking two steps forward and sometimes just as many backward as the negative gravity of the situation pulls you back down to Earth.

Use these eight strategies to begin your program’s ascent today. 

1. A burning passion.

The absolute first thing you need is the passion to take on the challenge of building a program. You must have a high level of energy and passion to overcome the negative gravity holding down a declining or problematic program. You must have the necessary energy and enthusiasm to achieve escape velocity with your team. Your passion and optimism must be palpable and contagious with the rest of the team, who are likely stuck in a state of pessimism and learned helplessness. To enlist their commitment, share your vision of what is possible for your program if people are willing to put in the necessary work.

Further, building a program requires long hours and a full commitment. If the sheer passion for the challenge isn’t driving you, you will make very little progress. As Credibility author Jim Kouzes said, “You can’t lead others to a place you don’t want to go yourself.”

2. A strategic plan. 

Once you have the passion firmly in place, the next critical step is to develop an effective plan. You need to have a clear understanding of what you are getting yourself into—the history, politics, challenges, key players, resources, expectations and the administrators’ anticipated turnaround timetable. You need to develop a realistic and specific plan that helps you progress from where the program is now to where you would like it to be.

Dartmouth volleyball coach Erin Lindsey put together a comprehensive 17-page master plan for where she wanted to take the program and, specifically, what it would take to get there. It included her plan for recruiting, training, academics, leadership and marketing the program. Not only was the plan instrumental in helping her get the Dartmouth job, it also helped her team finish 8-6 in the Ivy League in her first season after going 5-9 the previous season.

3. Program core values. 

You also need to establish a clear set of core values for your program. You must determine what your program will be about and what it will stand for both on and off the playing field. These core values will serve as your guiding principles in developing your team. They help you choose your staff, select your athletes and make the daily decisions that dictate your program’s success.

For example, North Carolina men’s lacrosse coach Joe Breschi got tested early by his team. The coaches had established a very clear rule with the team about not drinking. Within a couple of weeks of taking over the program, every guy but five on the team broke the rule one weekend.

After getting the full story, Breschi confronted the team about it. He said that his program was going to be about making a complete commitment to the team and that he was disappointed that the team choose not to live up to it. Because their social life was more important to the team, he had all but the five committed players take their NC logos off their helmets. He also banned them from using the locker room. He reminded them that if they wanted to treat the program like a run-of-the-mill intramural team rather than a respected Division I program, they would be treated as intramural players and not have the privilege of representing the NC logo or use of the locker room.

After a few of weeks of this, the players got the message that nothing less than their full commitment to the core values of the program on and off the field was expected and enforced.

Establishing a strong but realistic level of discipline, responsibility and accountability is a critical part of building a successful program. Details and discipline do matter. The little things are often the big things. You must get your players to understand, accept, live and embrace your team’s core values. This almost always takes time but through regular communication, repetition, reinforcement, rewards and reprimands, you too will be able to eventually instill your values into your team.

4. Promote a positive culture. 

In addition to outlining your core values, you also have to create a strong positive culture and vibe around the program. You have to get your athletes to expect and eventually demand success. You have to create a positive culture of success.

This obviously starts with you and your coaching staff but should also extend through your captains and leaders. Find and develop the athletes who believe in what you are doing and have the respect of their teammates. Call out your players in a positive way when they exhibit the kind of attitude and effort you expect from your team.

5. Purge the chronic negativity and naysayers. 

As part of promoting a positive culture, you must also purge the chronic negativity and the naysayers. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Odds are you will encounter some players and parents who are not on board with your program. Not only are they not on board, but they voice their displeasure with you and your methods to anyone and everyone who will listen and actively recruit others to share their sentiments.

You cannot let these people tear down your program and infect the rest of your fragile team. You must confront these people directly and let them know you need their full effort and support to make this work. If they can’t genuinely give you the kind of commitment you need then you likely need to part ways, even if their son or daughter is clearly the most talented athlete on the team.

6. Develop a pipeline. 

When building your program, you continually need to think about ways of how you can upgrade your talent. If you are a college coach, you need to focus intently on recruiting. You must hit the recruiting trail hard and develop strong relationships with key coaches to gain in roads with the best talent. If you are a high school or club coach, you must create, develop, and/or or improve the current feeder system you have in place.

By building relationships, interest and support with key players and coaches, you will be able to develop and strengthen a reliable and much-needed pipeline of talent to your program.

7. Maintain persistence. 

As part of the process, you will run into numerous obstacles and adversities in building your program. You must have the persistence to see yourself and your team through the tough times. You must stick with your plan, adjust when necessary and believe in the long-term viability of your vision.

A great book to read to inspire you through the process is Seth Godin’s The Dip. Godin reminds us that the successful people in life are the ones who make it through the inevitable dips in life where it seems like success is not only improbable but impossible. By being patient, passionate and persistent, success usually comes to those who stick to it longer than most others who give up their dreams along the way.

Godin writes, “If you haven’t already realized it, the dip is the secret to your success. The people who set out to make it through the dip—the people who invest the time and the energy and the effort to power through the dip—those are the ones who become the best in the world. They are breaking the system because instead of moving on to the next thing, instead of doing slightly above average and settling for what they’ve got, they embrace the challenge. For whatever reason, they refuse to abandon the quest and they push through the dip all the way to the next level.”

Where there is a strong enough will and a belief in your mission, there is almost always a way to power and persevere through the dips of life.

8. Patience and perspective. 

Understand that progress with your program is made in stages; it’s far from a linear progression. Most programs are a continual work in progress and take typically three to five years to build. Many weeks along the way you will take two steps forward, then the next week, take a step backwards.

Understand the big picture and realize that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, so too will not be your program. Envision each step you are taking as an investment and another brick in the foundation of your program’s long-term success. With time and the right people, processes, and culture in place, you too will eventually take your program to a higher level.

This patience and perspective must also extend to administrators. Athletic directors today seem to have a much quicker hook, especially at the college level. Some are firing coaches after only two years on the job.

It’s nearly impossible to build a respectable program in two years, especially if the cupboard is practically bare. Keep in mind that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would have never reached more than 900 wins in today’s climate because he almost surely would have been fired. His first three seasons with Duke, his teams went 17-13, 10-17 and 11-17 with many clamoring for his head after the third year. Athletic director Tom Butters stuck by him.

Butters reflected on the dire situation as he spoke with a beleaguered Krzyzewski after his third season.

“I told him, ‘We’ve got a public who doesn’t know how good you are. We’ve got press who are too stupid to tell them how good you are. And the biggest problem right now is I’m not sure you know how good you are.’ With that, I opened up my desk and tossed a new five-year contract to him. He sat there, and he had tears in his eyes. This was a constant flow — one tear after the next — for several seconds. Then I recall him saying, ‘Tom, you don’t need to do this.’ I said, Mike, on the contrary, I not only have to do it. I need to do it right now. You make the announcement today. I’m not making it. You tell them you’ve been extended five more years and let’s let the people know.’”

My advice to athletic administrators: Do an amazingly thorough job on the front end hiring your coaches so you get highly talented people who are the right fit for your program. Then give them your full support, sufficient resources in alignment with your expectations and enough time to get the job done and get through the dip.

Building a program is grueling work. However, the payoff and pride in successfully building a program is also extremely gratifying. Use the eight strategies outlined above and you too will power through the dip and soon position your program to breakthrough to the elite level. 

For more practical tips and articles from Jeff Janssen, visit

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