How do I become a coach?
Experienced coaches and athletic directors offer their tips for getting started
So, you want to become a coach?Ask those with experience leading teams, and they’ll tell you it’s one of the most rewarding jobs available. Billy Graham once said, “A coach will impact more people in one year than the average person will in an entire lifetime.” Most coaches would agree.
The biggest question is this: “Where do I start?” For former athletes, especially those who competed at a high level, the path is much clearer. But for sports enthusiasts looking to begin their journey, it can be difficult to get a foot in the door.
Coach & Athletic Director wanted to provide a resource for aspiring coaches, so we asked the experts to offer their best tips. After surveying coaches and athletic administrators at the college and high school levels, these are the six pieces of advice that came up time and time again.
1. Start small.
One of the biggest mistakes is fooling yourself into believing you’ll get your start with a varsity program. Unless you know someone who can afford you the opportunity, you need to think smaller.
“Start small at the youth level,” said one coach. “There are always kids who want to play organized basketball, for example, in grades three through six. But, there are not always parents who want to coach them. Also, ask to be an unpaid assistant at something like the junior high level. These will lead to greater opportunities and valuable learning.”
“Be ready to start at the bottom,” said another coach. “Be humble and patient. If you can handle long hours and time away from family, then good things come to those who work hard and want to learn. Remember, it’s about the kids — not you. You must love giving back.”
Chances are, your community has a recreation program offering a number of sports. It can be difficult for those programs to find coaches and, though your paychecks won’t be very big, you can get your feet wet. This is a rookie coach’s chance to learn about program structure, teaching fundamentals and organizing practices.
If rec programs are not an option, a simple Google search can help you identify non-profit youth programs or travel teams in your area. Reach out and see if they’re looking for volunteer coaches for the upcoming season. If not, ask if they could use some help running drills during practices. The idea here is to get your foot in the door and learn the ropes.
“Start small. Volunteer in a local youth organization, and make sure the leaders of that organization prioritizes development and fundamentals above wins,” one coach said in our survey. “Be a sponge and soak up everything they have to offer.”
National organizations/associations can be a great resource for getting your start. For example, aspiring football coaches can look to USA Football’s program directory to find a team in their area.
2. Find mentors, build relationships.
“Find a mentor who loves the sport and sharing their passion for it with others. It’s always helpful to know someone who can help you get your foot in the door. It might be at the youth level, or even at the high school level, but make those connections.”
Coaches who are committed to their craft love talking about it. They’ll talk about the kids, the memorable games and how it all came together off the field or court. Do what you can to be in their shadow.
Make sure you find someone who doesn’t just gloat about wins and championships. Take time to learn about their reputation in the community. You want to learn the right way, so don’t get involved with a program or mentor who breaks rules or constantly displays unprofessional behavior.
“Volunteer, gain experience and learn as much as you can,” one coach said. “Know that there’s always more to learn, no matter how much you already know.”
3. Develop your philosophy — Why do I want to do this?
What’s your guiding principle? If it’s wins, most coaches will say you’re already headed down the wrong path. Coaching is teaching, and the best leaders understand that what shows up on the scoreboard is a byproduct of the program they’ve created away from competition.
Developing your personal philosophy involves a series of questions about what you want to do and how you’re going to do it. For example:
- What do I want to accomplish?
- What are my annual/season goals?
- How will I structure my practices?
- What system will I use to choose team leaders/captains?
- How will I evaluate players, determine playing time?
- What will I do to motivate players?
- How will I encourage players to bond?
- How will I become a mentor for these kids and earn their respect?
“Have a plan and stick with it,” said one coach. “Develop your program from top to bottom and know what you will allow and what you will not tolerate. You can always adjust your game play systems for your talent or personnel, but knowing what to expect from players and parents is a must and cannot change.”
“Make sure you want to coach for the right reasons,” said another coach. “Not for fame, glory or money, but to mold athletes into honorable people.”
4. Exercise patience.
This applies to both your coaching career and your athletes. As far as coaching, understand that it might take years to move up the ranks and run a team of your own. However, if you treat kids fairly and broaden your knowledge of the sport, your time will come.
When it comes to kids, they’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to make you angry, and there will be times when you question whether it’s all worth it. Those who have done this long enough will urge you to stay the course, and understand that there will be bumps in the road. “Patience, positivity, passion,” as one coach put it.
5. Never quit learning.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “When you’re through learning, you’re through.”
Schemes evolve, player personalities change, and technology continues to create new and innovative ways to explore the game. Whether you’re coming off a winless season or a state championship, you’re never bigger than the sport. And if you take off time to bask in what you’ve done, others will catch up.
The best coaches in your respective sport will offer the same advice. They’ll tell you to attend clinics and conferences to learn from your peers. Read books and magazines about leadership, strategy and team management. Use your fellow coaches as a sounding board, and pick their brains for fresh ideas.
“Be open to learning anything and everything,” one coach said, “then assess for yourself if it’s good or bad. That’s how you build a great career.”
6. Develop thick skin.
Whether it’s a youth league or high school varsity, you’re going to face criticism. Especially from parents who feel their child is not getting the attention he or she deserves.
Nearly every coach carries their own scars from the criticism they’ve faced over the years. Some parents might simply want to be heard, but it’s not uncommon for some to lobby to have a coach removed from their petition. When that fails, they might go after your reputation.
“Be prepared to take a beating on social media and deal with helicopter parents,” said one coach. “Coaching is rewarding if you can deal with the internet and crazy parents in today’s world.”
“Be prepared to deal with parents,” said another. “That can be one of the most challenging and draining aspects of coaching. Having thick skin is important, because you will likely be questioned by parents about a variety of things, especially playing time for their kids. Try not to take it personally, but this is easier said than done.”
Here are some resources to help resolve issues with combative parents:
- Handling the parent problem.
- Dealing with parental interference in coaching.
- Protecting coaches from combative, malicious parents.
Here are some additional suggestions from coaches and athletic directors who completed our survey:
- Find a day job that allows you to manage the hectic schedule that comes with coaching.
- Love the kids, but hold them accountable to the standards of your team.
- Don’t be afraid to vent your frustrations to other coaches. There’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone in your struggles.
- Don’t become a coach if you’re concerned with being everyone’s friend. You need to stand up for your culture and what you believe in.
- Find new ways to motivate people. And you need to be able to push people beyond their limits and make them love you for it.
- Character and integrity matter. Never forget that.
- Start by becoming a referee. Learn the rules and their perspective on the game.
- Keep your foot down and don’t cave when dealing with a difficult player. Be strict when necessary.
- If you want to coach, make sure you want to teach. The two go hand in hand.