Staying in the game: Keys to longevity in coaching
Retaining qualified coaches is a constant battle for athletic directors, and turnover has become a regular part of the school year.
Each state, division or league has a dean of coaches who has been in their position for decades. However, this tends to be isolated to the varsity positions and serves as a statistical outlier in the world of coaching. Most sub-varsity positions are a revolving door and viewed as a stepping stone to a higher position.
Since 1992, the boys basketball program at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy (New Hampshire) has had three constants — head coach David Smith, junior varsity coach David Daigle and freshman coach Jamie Johnson. Smith has been coaching in New Hampshire since 1967 and took over the varsity position at our school in 1990. He has amassed more than 500 wins and a state championship with multiple finals appearances. He is an engaged, energetic coach who has an impeccable reputation among coaches and officials alike.
Daigle began coaching at the academy in 1987 and was named the JV coach in 1990. He has won hundreds of games and has maintained consistency in the program, reflected by the success at the varsity level. He is a blend of styles that compliments the other coaches while placing increased demands on student-athletes to be responsible for their own success.
Johnson was hired as the freshman coach in 1992. He is a graduate of Coe-Brown, and his ties to the community are long standing. He is a quiet coach who provides direct instruction and dedicates himself to the fundamentals of the game and player development.
It’s evident that there is something bigger than winning or losing at Coe-Brown. The coaches and the program have impressive chemistry, and when you examine what the school has built its success upon, it comes down to philosophy.
In 2016, Coe-Brown was named among Newsweek’s top high schools, placing it in the top 2 percent of America’s schools. Athletic Director Matthew Skidds shed some light on how the athletic program’s success is directly tied to the classroom.
“We utilize an educational approach that focuses on values that will make our student-athletes successful in anything they do in life,” he said. “Our goal is to help our student-athletes understand that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. The positive climate and culture within the school transfers consistently into our athletic programs.”
Coe-Brown has an excellent retention rate with 12 of its 24 varsity teams maintaining their coach for 10 years or more. The three basketball coaches are quick to credit each other and their athletes with the success and stability of the program. Here are five consistent themes that have led to their longevity.
1. Micromanaging leads to instability. “The coaches want to coach and teachers want to teach,” Smith said. “I think it’s important to let your coaches coach, without micromanaging. You want coaches who do it not just for the winning and losing aspects, because that usually does not work. It might work for a short time, but not for a long period of time.”
Smith’s fellow coaches agree.
“We don’t want each other’s jobs” Daigle said. “Coach Smith has always been flexible in allowing us to get to the goals in the way we see fit, and it’s never been a dictatorial style.”
“I feel like I can walk into JV or varsity practice and coach, and I have never been told by either (Daigle or Smith) you have to do this,” Johnson said. “There is a freedom and flexibility.”
Each coach talks about the collective responsibility they share in the program’s success. They understand that they work as a single unit, not as individuals. The confidence to coach and engage in the entire program is fostered through the culture. Micromanaging stifles the growth and development of both the student-athletes and the coach.
Johnson sees his role as impacting the players as seniors, not as freshmen. He tries to instill long-term goals in each player who joins his team. In New Hampshire, the state championships are played at the University of New Hampshire. That’s where Johnson and Daigle hope their efforts pay off.
“Listen, if you want to win at UNH and hold that trophy, and be a part of the ride, then I will do whatever I can to help you out,” Johnson said.
2. Coaching is teaching. Some believe there is no relationship between academics and athletics, but that’s not true. The program at Coe-Brown embraces athletics as an extension of the classroom. It helps that these three coaches are all professional educators who dedicate themselves to their students. Coaches must always approach their roles as teachers.
Johnson stresses the growth of his players just as he does his students.
“I don’t want any student in my class to not improve,” he said. “Same for my players. I want my players to be proud of what they are doing and have a genuine sense of pride.”
There is a clear understanding that the educational value of sports is at the heart of each program. Daigle feels that the culture of the school translates into the culture of the program.
“If the school does not value what you do as a teacher or coach, how dedicated are you going to be? I think the philosophy of the academy values us as both teacher and coach,” he said.
The philosophical approach for coaching is no different than an educator. The integrity of the learning experience is at the core of what coach Smith believes to be vital for a successful program.
“Retaining quality coaches requires coaches who genuinely love doing what they are doing,” he said. “If you don’t love the sport, maybe you shouldn’t be coaching it.”
3. Adaptability is key. “Adaptability to the times is key, because if you believe something to be important, the character of the game and the character of the kids has to stay the same,” Smith said. “How you do it, how you get there, what drills or activities you use have to be based on the times. A drill or activity you used 20 years ago was great 20 years ago but is no longer applicable to the game or players today.”
Smith’s coaches agree that today’s climate is different. Daigle has adopted modern approaches to his techniques over the years that stress the need for increased player input and ownership.
“You have to spin it sometimes and get the kids to buy into it,” Daigle said. “I have had to let go and give the players more ownership than I used to. We used to have a set of consequences for the kids in practice if we did not meet our goals. Now I have them set the consequences. We have used more rewards than before. If a player takes a charge, we have developed a system to recognize that where 20 years ago you just took a charge because you had to.”
Coaches have to be pragmatic contrarians to sustain longevity. You need to be pragmatic in understanding that today’s student-athlete is different in their way of thinking, their experiences and overall investment in their own success. At the same time, you need to be a contrarian in nature to maintain the character and values of the game if you want the experience to be meaningful and benefit the athletes long term.
4. Administrative support matters. The Coe-Brown boys basketball coaches agree that administrative support is key to longevity, consistency and sustainability.
The academy has a very clear and consistent evaluation and review process that encourages coaches to build their craft as a habit, just as the school requires teachers to grow as learners. Skidds emphasizes the need to retain quality coaches begins with the need to work with them as professionals, not just hired hands filling a spot as a coach.
“We encourage and support coaches in their efforts to stay current with the best practices in education-based athletics,” he said. “Yearly evaluations, end-of-season meetings to reflect on the season, and professional development opportunities.”
Smith said support from the administration has been very encouraging for coaches.
“We have been very fortunate because the three of us like each other and that is always a positive, but the athletic administration of the school is very important,” he said. “There is a certain amount of peripheral work the administration can pass on to the coaches, but allowing us to coach and handling some of those other things is important. Any administration in a school should support the coaches and try to cut down as much as possible what is delegated to them.”
5. Be genuine. Smith’s advice to coaches is to be yourself. Taking lessons or methods from other coaches might seem like a good idea, but if they don’t fit your style or philosophy, you are setting yourself up for failure. Coaching has to be a genuine reflection of who you are and what you hold to be valuable or important as it pertains to life beyond sports.
Too often coaches try to adopt a style of coaching that is not true to their personality.
“Same things apply in the classroom,” Smith said. “It is very easy to see success of another coach and try to model yourself after them. You take the good things from the coaches you see, and the bad. You have to sort through them and coach within yourself.”
Joshua Hils, M.Ed., is the head Girls Soccer Coach at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy in Northwood, New Hampshire, with 20 years of high school coaching experience as well as developing the coaches training program Picking Up The Whistle.