What are the characteristics of great coaches?

In every talk I do I ask coaches the following question:

What are the top 3 characteristics of the greatest coach/teacher/boss you ever had (or still may have)?

In hindsight, if I had kept track of the responses from every talk I would have had a 10 Year + Longitudinal study so this fall I started to keep track of the responses in an excel sheet. By no means is this a formal research study, and although the order may be different from 1-9, these are the top characteristics of great coaches from the next generation of coaches;

No matter what group answered this question, whether it be coaches just starting to coach 5-6 year olds in hockey or High performance coaches I have asked in conferences or everything in between the top characteristics of great coaches is they truly care about their players.

Not only do they care about helping them develop into the best athletes they can be, but the best people.

This is the #1 characteristic of John Wooden, Clare Drake, Phil Jackson in past and current coaches like Pete Carroll, Mike Kryzyzewski, not all the wins, national titles but the legacy developing youth into adults – that’s how coaches make a difference.

Coaches that care, not only teach the skills of the game, but the skills of life.

Many misinterpret that I am not competitive because my philosophy of coaching is “FUNdamentals, not winning, at all costs”. Like all the great coaches who worked on the process of developing all players on their teams that lead to results on the scoreboard, I know how important it is for players to have fun, even on the most competitive teams. I also am totally against Participation Trophies, check out prior blog on the subject HERE.

Mike Babcock, now the highest paid NHL coach with Stanley Cup, World Championship and Olympic Gold achievements on his resume is another one of those great coaches. When he became the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he shared that his main role was to develop all the players into great young men. Prior to the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal game, when he was coaching some of the best players in the WORLD at the time, when asked by the media what he told the team before the game he said “I just told them to go out there and have fun.”

Many people think when kids they just want to have fun that it means goofing off, but kids actually don’t want their team mates to do so they want to play, the want to compete, they want play for the love of the game. That is what fun is.

When Amanda Visek did her groundbreaking study and identified the 81 characteristics of what is fun in youth sports, the number 2 reason, second only to having the opportunity to try your best was when coaches treated players with respect

Although I would NEVER consider myself to be in the same company as John Wooden, his three rules are very similar to mine and his third was “Never criticize your team mates”, mine is Respect. Respect yourself, teammates, coaches, officials, other teams, parents, class mates, parents and so on.

I believe respect is a two-way street, if coaches respect their players then they players will in turn respect their coaches and vice versa.

Sadly, although there as many great coaches in youth sports who do respect their players, there are coaches that think nothing of screaming at a player, singling them out in front of the teams, criticizing their mistakes over and over again and other ways that are not only disrespectful but crossing the fine line from demanding (pushing players to be their best) to demeaning (belittling players).

 Notice where winning was in terms of fun, bottom ½ of the list, 47 other reasons why sports were fun. Others also in the bottom 1/3, playing in tournaments, practicing with speciality trainers, earning medals/trophies and traveling to other place to play.

Why then has youth sports evolved to a $15 Billion Industry in the USA?

Because adults either have not asked the kids or think they have the best interests of the kids at heart because they are “the adults.” If you thought the great recession in 2008-9 or the .com bust prior was bad … I can hardly wait for parents, coaches and players to realize the insanity has to end.

It is no wonder why 70% are quitting by the age of 13 of those that can afford youth sports to begin with as youth sport organizations have not identified with their customer and their true reasons for participating or recognizing that 33% in Canada can’t afford to play any youth sports and that number continues to rise due to “elitism” of youth sports.

In this day and age with today’s generation having an 8 second attention span, have grown up in the digital era it is refreshing to find out Generation Z prefers face to face communication over texting, so you have the players attention COMMUNICATE.

Ask them what they want – Ask them if they understand – Ask them what they learned after practice – Ask them if they had fun.

This is a skill that coaches not only need to connect with their players, but engage parents as today’s generation Z are very close to their parents.

Yes we have had to deal with helicopter/snowplow and lawnmower parents, but the best way I have found to engage parents is by communicating well and communicating often.

Don’t be the coach that a parent shared with me last year who walked into the team parent meeting at the beginning of the season and say;

I don’t deal with F**&^^T& Parents, deal with the manager if you have any issues.

PS – I can’t make this stuff up, there are coaches out there that refuse to deal with parents and think nothing of using inappropriate langue when/IF they do so

Like Caring, great coaches support their players to become the best they can be and achieve their goals. I will never forget when I got a call from a goalie who has been on many of my teams last year and he thanked me for helping him get to Junior Hockey.

I was very proud of him and many of the other players that have achieved that milestone that I had coached over the years.

Coaches can also fill the gap for kids like me who lost their father at a young age.

All of the coaches I had over the years were my second father in a sense, they took me under their wing and supported me in my goals each and every year.

Great teachers do the same, if it had not been for my Grade 12 French Teacher who took me aside one day and said “you can do better” after I acted up in class for the umpteenth time.

She was the one that motivated me to pursue post secondary education and as a result I was the first of all my cousins to graduate from University.

Passion does overlap with fun in part, so although as a % was 6th when reviewed this fall it is the second top characteristic that coaches have shared with me over the years.

Passionate coaches OOZE passion for the game, the tradition, the respect and as a result make their players love the game the same way.

Due to the current winning at all costs environment in youth sports that has evolved, I have seen passion by coaches, but moreso temper tantrums because games did not go their way.

Think back when you grew up, did you ever take a class in school and thought you would HATE it like calculus, accounting, history, literature? Then to you surprise you ending up loving the course – Why? Because your teacher was so passionate about the subject.

Same holds true for youth sports … if coaches are passionate about all aspects of the game they will instill that same passion in their players so they play For the Love of the Game.

An analogy that one my colleagues shared with me that I relay in talks is coaches must focus on P&R – that came from Terry Crisp, former NHL coach.

P = Patience
R = Repetitions

In order for players to develop, it make years for them to develop some of the core skills in the game and while doing so do numerous repetitions which requires a considerable amount of patience on the coaches part (as well as parents)

But when that light bulb goes on – Man is it worth it.

The biggest challenge that coaches face today is being patient to adhere to the LTAD/LTPD and other models and also getting parental support.

Too many parents are trying to fast track their kids development via early sport specialization and is the wrong pathway to follow “Early Sport Specialization does more harm than good”

We could have lumped this into supportive or caring, but encouragement also pertains to how coaches provide praise to their players.

Thanks to the great work by Carol Dweck and he ground breaking book “Growth Mindset”, many in the sport and even business spaces are recognizing there are two types of mindsets

The Fixed Mindset – those feel that effort is not important as their skills are part of their DNA and they are not that good

Or – they focus on proving their ability

The mistake coaches make all the time is telling kids how smart, how good they are and this becomes fixed

The Growth Mindset – those that welcome taking on tasks that become more challenging each time, belive they can continue to improve and believe the harder they work (effort) the better they will become.

Or – they focus on “im”proving their ability

Coaches that reinforce the growth mindset encourage effort and God Forbid to make mistakes, the uglier the better. Players develop confidence when doing so, more creativity and continue to improve vs. those with the fixed mindset

Other words that coaches have come up with that fall in this category – approachable, open, thinking back on all my coaches they were friendly.

They would have your back when you made a mistake vs. screaming at your for doing so.

They would welcome you into their “office” whenever you needed to speak to them

They would be your friend (or father/Mother) whenever you needed a friend.

Other – the list of other responses were endless but included characteristics like calm, challenging, committed, confident, consistent, disciplined, energetic, enthusiastic, fair, firm, forgiving, genuine, trustful, inspiring, integrity, invested, kind, listens, motivator, organized, personable, positive, role model, teacher and leader

I plan to revisit the results at the end of each year now that I have the template in place to share in future.

Remember …

Make it Fun – Make it Safe – Teach Skills – Care Passionately


Don’t Be A Kid’s Last Coach