Coach development, not coach education

An article titled “Who’s scouting the ‘talented’ coaches” by Karl O’Shaughnessy sparked my interest. O’Shaughnessy is a soccer coach from Ireland, so the coach education system is very different than our (non) system in the U.S. O’Shaughnessy made the argument for coach development, not coach education. As he wrote:

What’s the difference you might ask? It’s most easily explained by the old adage ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ – simply put, education for all it’s benefits does not always guarantee development. Does it help? Of course but it’s often wrongly viewed solely as the only golden pathway to coaching excellence.

I have an online coach-education program and teach coaching courses to undergraduates, but I admit that coach education is limited. Education helps, but nothing is as valuable as coaching. A perfect program would combine both practical opportunities, mentoring, and education.

I learned to coach by coaching. I started early (19-years-old), and coached often. I was fortunate to have some amazing experiences early in my coaching career: I coached a team of recent immigrants who spoke little English while living in Sweden; I coached Special Olympics throughout college; I coached beginner volleyball despite never having played organized volleyball; I coached at dozens of camps; and more. Before I finished college, I had coached numerous ethnicities, multiple religions, non-English speakers, athletes who were mute, private and public schools, and urban and suburban schools.

I started as a head coach. I had coached several seasons before I was an assistant coach. There were far fewer DVDs then, and blogs hadn’t been invented. I coached based on what I saw on television and by trying to avoid the things that I disliked about my coaches. There was no coach development program of which I was aware. To learn, I worked summer camps, talked to different coaches, and coached different players. I did not take a class related to coaching (psychology, biomechanics, coaching, physical education, physiology, etc.) until after I had coached a professional European club (women), and I was enrolled in a Master’s degree program.

Despite my learn-by-doing background, which I tend to think is best, I do believe knowledge positively affects one’s coaching. A lot of outdated approaches – static stretching, long-distance running – persist because traditions die hard, especially in a profession that does not require any education in the field to get ahead. A coach does not need to know everything about physiology, biomechanics, or psychology, but I think a book like Mindset by Carol Dweck affected my coaching by helping me to see how important feedback is to a child’s self-perceptions and motivations. The exposure to some basic research and education can only help a coach.

To create better coach development opportunities, a system needs to include both. As O’Shaughnessy wrote, educating coaches was phase 1; developing coaching talent is phase 2. Education cannot be seen as the end; it should be viewed as the beginning.

O’Shaughnessy offers some ideas for a coach development program:

  • Introduction of an effective transparent Coach ID system.
  • Use a network of experienced coaches to monitor & develop coaches at club level, not just educate and move on.
  • Pool the best young coaches together regionally & develop coaching centres of excellence.
  • Provide regular seminars and access to the most experienced coaches at all levels of the game.
  • Provide opportunities to coach talented players and continuously assess the coach’s development.
  • A written clear document stating the steps to bring Ireland into elite level in terms of coach production & development.

Could some of these ideas work in the U.S.? I don’t know. Certainly there could be a clear document written to elucidate the steps required to be considered an advanced or elite coach, but would a document change anything in the U.S.? I doubt it. How would a coach ID system work? Do we know what makes a talented coach? The NFL held a symposium for young assistant coaches and prospective coaches, and VCU sponsors the Villa7 consortium. The Villa7 consortium seems to be geared more to figuring out how to get hired, as opposed to developing as a coach, but at least it is a start.

The problem is that college coaches reach a fraction of the children playing basketball. Everyone points to the statistics that 3% of high-school players will play college basketball; well, that means that college coaches reach roughly 3% of high school players. If coach development programs focus on college coaches, these programs fail to enrich the experiences of 97% of players (more if you factor in those who quit prior to high school). Should resources be devoted to the elite or to the masses? Could college coaches be used to mentor youth and high school coaches or would the conflict of interest in recruiting be too pervasive?

It would be great to have a network of experienced high-school or youth coaches to mentor novice coaches, but how could that work? Coaches are competitive; are they going to assist a potential competitor? I once proposed that a youth recreation league should share coaches; if a league has six teams, and one coach is great at teaching shooting, and another is great at teaching defense, why not have each coach work with all the teams so all the players have the benefits of learning from the best coaches (like summer camps)? Most thought that this idea was preposterous – why would a coach help another coach who he competes against? Further, I have offered to meet and talk basketball or assist or work with (basically anything) less experienced coaches, and they are almost always resistant to the idea that they might need help or could learn something (even though I am looking to learn as much as I am looking to help them).

Essentially, I love O’Shaughnessy’s ideas, and I hope that a country like Ireland adopts his ideas and has success. Unfortunately, I don’t know if any are practical in the U.S.

The best environment for coach development, in my eyes, is similar to my development: Coach a lot. After I graduated from college, I was a college assistant coach. As soon as the season ended, I moved to coach AAU. The program director’s son was on our team. I co-coached with Ahmad Clayton and learned a lot from him; we brought very different things and came from different backgrounds, and he helped me to see things differently. Our program director, Jerome Green, assisted with our practices, but was hands off. He was more like an advisor. He is the one who told me that we needed to spend less time doing drills and more time playing games. Having someone at our practices and games to offer advice and another viewpoint and to ask insightful questions that forces me to think really helped me with my coaching. During that season, I went to South Africa for a month and did clinics or ran practices every day. After the season ended, I worked a bunch of camps. I coached a lot in a lot of situations with all levels of players. That type of work can only help one’s development, especially if aided by a mentor like Jerome or if coupled with the experience of spending time with someone like Josh Pastner.

Unfortunately, unlike in Europe, there are few established clubs that have this type of structure that could serve to train and nurture coaches. Most club programs have 1-2 teams and coaches who do everything; most tend to be focused on the short term, not the long term development of their coaches. Many worry that if they develop a good coach, the coach will leave to start his or her own club program: I have seen this happen repeatedly, again with more short-term success. More established clubs with teams from u10-u18 would have a greater need to find and nurture coaches and more incentive to create a coach development program.

One issue with coach development is that as a society we tend to respect coaches at the highest levels: We view an average college coach as a better coach than an exceptional youth coach. If we could create a class of “Master Coaches” for different age groups, these coaches could mentor other coaches, and there would be an incentive for a great youth coach to stay with youths as opposed to moving up to the high school or college levels to gain more prestige, money, and respect.

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