There isn't a polo shirt, a certification, or a hat with a badge that make someone into a good coach. Whether you're trying your hand at coaching yourself or you're a parent looking to find a good coach for your child to follow, here are 10 things that separate good coaches from bad ones.
Safety is a Coach's Primary Job
Before we get into any of the more nuanced or sophisticated things that make up a good coach, we have to acknowledge a youth coach's primary role. All other things can be mastered, but if we fail to provide a safe environment, we fail.
The safety envelope includes safety from sexual predation, safety from bullying, safety from environmental factors like weather or metal stakes poking up from the ground, emotional safety, and even safety from negligence. A soccer coach, for example, has a responsibility to get educated about header rules, ball sizes, concussion awareness and protocol, youth protection, first aid, and age appropriate activities. Coaches need to come prepared with parent phone numbers in their clipboard and an ability to activate emergency medial services and authorize care if a player gets hurt. Clubs should have medical treatment waivers signed and on file. Coaches should carry these in their clipboards or otherwise have them handy (like in the car).
At no time should a coach knowingly expose a child to risk. This means not leaving them at the field alone when mom or dad is late for pickup. It means ensuring two adults are around for youth protection purposes and kids don't wander off to porta-potties or off the filed without a buddy or responsible adult who remains within visual range.
Coaches should be required to have background investigations on file, and a minimal education in coaching fundamentals, concussions, and youth protection. And they should be expected to keep their training up to date on an annual basis.
Clubs should be enforcing safety rules and parents should be paying attention to club policies, helping out where necessary (as in when two adults should be present) and holding coaches accountable for keeping safety at the top of their priorities.
Care About Your Players
This one may seem obvious, but unfortunately, it's not always. First, when someone is new to coaching, there is a lot to think about. Session planning, work/life balance, how and when to use the various pieces of equipment, etc. It can be overwhelming. Coaches must remind themselves often - especially in the beginning - that they are there to support and develop players and their families.
Caring about players means remembering to say hello when they come on the field and say goodbye when they leave. It means asking how they are doing and getting to know a little about the off-field lives they lead. It means making an effort to get to know the parents and understanding the dynamic that forged each young player's spirit. It means taking an interest in their lives.
Caring about players means doing everything possible to make yourself the best coach you can be.It means embracing the idea that they deserve the best version of yourself. In pursuing the best version of yourself, you're giving them a powerful example to follow - so they will pursue the best version of themselves as well. I'll talk more about this later, but I can't emphasize it enough.
Learn and Develop Faster Than Your Players
"A river rises only to the level of the lake that feeds it."
- Author Unknown
Kids are growing and evolving - usually pretty quickly. If you're with a team for a while, you need to be growing along with them. That means reading, taking courses, attending live training, finding a mentor, watching other games - generally, it means making an effort to understand the coaching craft and to become the best coach you can be.
Kids are watching. They pay attention to the actions of the adults around them. These adults provide blueprints for living that kids try on for size. They absorb pieces from all adults around them. As they get older, they start absorbing more from their peers than from their adults, but a coach will always hold a special place. Not a parent, they are free from the natural struggle for freedom. Being focused on player success on and off the pitch, they are respected and trusted as a source for advice and wisdom.
The skill of coaching is never mastered. It must be pursued every season and between seasons. Coaches must reflect on each performance and ask themselves how it could have gone better. What did they do well? What could they do better? Who do I need to be or become in order to do better? This, by the way, is exactly the model we want our athletes to follow. Show them how it's done!
When coaches stop learning and developing, players will quickly catch up and pass them. When this eventually does happen, it may be time to hand them off to another coach who can continue their journey.
I pick up at least one book or one course between each season. Its a habit I started when I first got into coaching (though I consumed a lot more than one book or course at a time), and it's something I continue and believe all coaches should continue to this day. Whatever I've done to improve myself between seasons is typically part of my season opening talk with my players. I ask them to go around and tell me what they did to improve as well. The idea is: we're all improving together.
Get Out of The Way
Coaching is not about you. It's not about your record or how many game you won or lost. It's about the kids. It's about skills transfer and empowerment. Kids can lose a game and grow tremendously as an athlete.
It might be safe to say that the job of a youth coach is to work themselves out of a job. Coaches are in the business of empowering and developing youth into the best versions of themselves. At some point, all kids move on. A good coach prepares him or herself for this inevitability, embraces it as a sign of success, and practices the art of letting go often.
Getting out of the way often means getting out of the way of our own egos. Ego has crippled more coaches than any of us would like to admit. Getting too caught up in game outcomes. Taking scoreboard results personally. I even know a coach who would not let other coaches coach her kids because she was afraid that her kids would like the other coach better. That particular coach lost not just games, but literally all of her players - who either went off to other teams on their own or left the sport all together.
Game times are great times to practice. Someone who has studied how to be a good coach will eventually internalize the lessons we are talking about here. They will have come prepared to training. They would have transferred skills and empowered kids the best way they know how. On game day, it's time to let them put what they learned to work. Sure, gentle reminders or code words that bring back lessons from the practice sessions might be useful as training wheels, but the sooner a coach can take his or her hand off the seat and let kids balance and ride on their own, the better.
Be a Good Example
"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."
Author and Activist
We've already talked about the example we set in developing ourselves as coaches, but to take it one step deeper, the way we handle criticism, success, and failure are equally important.
- How do we manage when our team wins or loses?
- How do we manage when our practice doesn't go as we envisioned?
- How do we manage when our kids do well, or when they fail to do as well as we know they can?
Coaches that use the cattle prod technique - jabbing their players to get into position, wake up out there, or follow the herd; coaches that use the joystick technique and imagine their players as little bits of computer code they can direct around the field like characters in a video game; or coaches that sit back, scan their email on their mobile phone while kids practice or play are all sending loud and clear examples of what we value in adults. It takes intention to be a good coach - with care given to tone, being on time, being prepared, being flexible, and managing victory, defeat, frustrations, and communication.
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
Chief of the German General Staff , 1871 - 1888
"No plan survives first contact with the enemy."
Flexibility begins with a level of comfort in one's own core abilities. If we're focused on the right objectives, there are a lot of routes we can take to get there.
If we get dropped in the mountains with a map and a compass, it's our map and compass skills combined with our fitness level and the environmental conditions that will dictate the route we use to get to our objective. Our plans change if our bodies are weak. They change if storms or mud slides stand in our way. They change if the weight we are carrying is light or heavy. There are many reasons why they change, but our navigation skills come into play in every case.
Coaches rarely know the players they will have to work with before a season starts. They may not know the competition they're up against. They don't know what kind of issues each player is dealing with, if there will e injuries, if they themselves might get sick, or if the rules will change and a former centerpiece of a strategy is no longer viable.
There are as many reasons for us to be flexible as there are moving parts on an 8-22 person squad with 8 - 44 parents, in a multi-team age bracket, in a rule system that changes, and in a game that has thousands of tactics, 800+ first touches per game, and unpredictable weather. As a coach, adapting to what's in front of you is not only an important skill to have, but also an important lesson to telegraph to players. We adapt and overcome in the game of soccer as we do in the game of life. Embrace flexibility as strength that keeps things from breaking when the going gets tough.
Progress Over Perfection
Much better is it to focus on progress made than on the outcomes of individual games or seasons. Players can develop in some astonishing ways when they play on teams that lose - as they can when they play on teams that win. Winning or losing youth games is a temporary thing. It's forgotten by just about everybody within a couple of days. Youth coaches are not here to win games. Youth coaches are here to develop players and teach important life lessons so that kids can go on to win in other areas of life.
Sometimes kids go on to win in higher levels of soccer. Sometimes (most often), kids go on to win in other important endeavors like working, playing, being a parent, becoming a coach themselves for a new generation, or just enjoying life more by making lemonade out of lemons.
Learning how to be a good coach means learning how to value progress over perfection. Coaches much learn how to spot progress (or lack of progress) and find new and creative ways to inspire it. Note that I used the word "inspire" here as opposed to direct it. Kids who learn to value progress on their own will carry that value with them in life longer than if they are forced into it.
Valuing progress over perfection starts with self. It's good, but it's not enough to value progress in our youth athletes. We must also learn to value progress over perfection in our own lives. Coaches make mistakes and don't achieve the goals they set out to accomplish as much as any other human does. Coaches that acknowledge that perfection is a fantasy and progress is the real goal will not only go farther in their careers (on and off the pitch), but will show their players how to do the same.
Good communication is one of a coach's most powerful tools. Communicating with parents, with players, with other coaches and even with themselves is central to the job. Good communication is a learned skill and it only comes about through lots of practice, but it is an important skill to master.
Communicating with parents is ongoing and critical to success. Parents who get left out of things are not able to support their players. Parents who get left out feel left out. They watch their kids - in all likelihood, the most valuable and loved people in their lives - going off and doing something with a coach and other team mates, often with little more than hope that they are getting what they want or need from the experience.
- If my kid comes home and says they're not having a good time, do my parents know if their complaint is because of a bad experience or because you're drawing them out of their shell and practices are uncomfortable?
- How supportive are my parents after a hard game during the car ride home? Do they know how to help or will they cast doubt on the development process?
- Do my parents see the great things my player is doing on the defense or do they just see their child being kept 50 yards from the opponent's goal with no chance of scoring?
These are just a few questions that good coaches will ask themselves when considering communication with parents. Of course, logistics like game times and locations are important too, but there are deeper questions like the ones above that fall into the realm of "should ask" questions vs "frequently asked" questions that good coaches will address.
Communicating with players starts with being prepared. Knowing the vocabulary, the flow of your session, the objectives, and the relevant coaching points are important. Delivering them with good timing, tone, and appropriate volume is important too.
- Are you talking to one player, to all players, or to both?
- Are your questions empowering players to think for themselves or telling them how they should think and making them reliant on you for further guidance?
Bring Out the Best in People
In commercial real estate, there is a term "highest and best use." This refers to the act of looking at a property and deciding whether it's better to develop residential homes, a new retail space, office space, industrial space, etc. The question we ask ourselves in this context is: in which configuration will this piece of property perform the best (or produce the most income)? We can transform a property only so much given the resources (time, money, skills, etc) that we have. We are careful to chose the best option in context.
As a coach, you get maybe 10 weeks with a group of players. If you're coaching a new team or there are players you don't know from previous seasons, you've got your work cut out for you! Your objective is to get the highest and best use from your team and from each individual player. There are some things that you can affect given the time you have, the skills you have, how coachable your players are, etc. And there are some things you simply won't be able to affect given the time, skills, and resources you have.
One of the first keys to success for a coach is to make an initial judgment about what can be affected and what can't be. A retail developer isn't going to try to move a river or a mountain if he or she has barely enough money and talent available to build a small strip mall.
A good coach isn't going to try to implement complex game tactics with a group of 5 year olds who are still parallel playing. A good coach isn't going to put together corner set plays involving headers in a 9v9 scenario with 10-year-olds when US Youth Soccer Rules clearly say kids can't start practicing headers until they turn 12 years old.
Bringing out the best in players involves first, a sober assessment of what a coach has to work with in terms of time, talent, ages, rules, personalities, skills, and resources. It's followed by thoughtful look at each player and the group of players as a whole. Judgments from the first two steps lead to formulation of a plan. The plan then gets executed with a clear focus on flexibility. It will certainly change.
When I coach, I tend to start with a general season plan, adjust for players, add what I see in the first game and adjust again. It's an iterative process throughout the entire season.
Bringing out the best also includes action by team members and families. When it's clear, for example, that a new player has barely touched the ball before, homework may include some work with the ball against a wall. Without that wall work at home, there may be little chance a player can keep up with the rest of the team or will be able to progress to more advanced tactical work a coach has planned further in the season.
Finally, a discussion about bringing out the best is not complete without mentioning that coaches need to be intentional about bringing out the best in themselves. Continuing education and self reflection is a critical part of learning how to be a good coach.
Good coaching isn't done in a vacuum. Good coaches rely on mentorship, on peer development, on parents to bring in key elements on the home front, and on the community in general. Fundraising, field provisioning, referee contracts, Club partnerships... all of it factors into how far a team can go in the United States. Good coaches understand that they are one part of a larger ecosystem of like-minded people - all working together to help young people grow into the best versions of themselves.
Developing and/or contributing to a community means communicating plans early so others can get things into place. It means asking for help when help is needed. It means attending training when it's offered and going to meetings when meetings are called. Being part of and developing community means exercising good communication skills on and off the pitch. It means flexibility, getting along with others, and keeping an eye on the things that matter.
It's important for a good coach to be fiscally responsible and ensure that scant resources are applied in the most meaningful ways in support of the development environment. It's also important to spend some time recruiting and grooming other volunteers to help manage other tasks or replace you when you can't be there.
Developing community means getting out of the way when it's time to get out of the way. It means either organizing yourself, or delegating the organization of pizza parties and off-the-pitch gatherings and games.
Good coaches are leaders. Good coaches build community around them. And good coaches join with other good coaches in the Club to support and promote the culture of the community.
How to Be a Good Coach - Summary
Everybody starts somewhere. Being a good coach is a work in progress and we're all somewhere on the spectrum. The good ones are continually focusing on improvement and not suffering from the illusion that there is an end point or a state of perfection.
I help to develop coaches every day - which used to be pretty scary because I'm still developing myself. The truth, I've discovered, is that we're all developing no matter how long we've been coaching.
There are some really great additional resources down below for you if you're interested in continuing to read on this subject. Each item is highly recommended and continues the discussion - just as all good coaches continue this discussion on the soccer sidelines.
- Photo of James Baldwin by Allan warren - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22305867
- “The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Coaches.” WG COACHING, 26 Mar. 2018, wgcoaching.com/ten-habits-highly-effective-coaches/.
- “What Makes a Good Coach? (for Teens).” Edited by D'Arcy Lyness, KidsHealth, The Nemours Foundation, Nov. 2015, kidshealth.org/en/teens/good-coach.html.
- “5 Qualities of a Great Coach.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Aug. 2014, youtu.be/ZjqYGkNh5KA.
- “SPECIAL: What Makes a GOOD COACH?” Competitive Advantage: Mental Toughness, 5 Jan. 2017, www.competitivedge.com/special-what-makes-good-coach.