I was recently asked by a coach who was starting a new role what they should focus on in the initial stages. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance at a first impression, so how you begin your role is as, if not more, important as any other phase. You’ll hear coaches say things like “setting the tone” and “building the right culture”, but frequently that has little meaning and even less noticeable implementation. Here are the points that come to mind immediately. I’d love to hear your thoughts on additions (or subtractions) to my list below as well!
1. Do nothing. Watch. Listen. Ask questions. Watch some more. Listen some more. DO NOT make any decisions until you are satisfied you have all the information you need.
2. Your players and staff will mirror your energy, enthusiasm and actions. Be who you want them to be – professional, organised and resilient. Have a thirst for knowledge and improvement and a hunger for hard work. Athletes also love performing for coaches who are energetic as it motivates them. They’ll step up their energy levels and practice and compete hard for you. Keep the energy positive and, furthermore, maintain positive optimism in all that you do.
3. Don’t knock the old coach, in any way. This is the sign of a rookie operator and inexperience. If you just put your head down, you know who you are. Most athletes and other coaching staff have both a personal and professional relationship with your predecessor and it’s just not necessary to drag them through the mud. If you need to say anything use the phrase, “We’re going to do things differently.” Promote your plan and your staff and focus on the future not the past.
Be who you want them to be
4. It is more common for a coach to begin a role where a great deal of losing has preceded them. Getting back to the basics and fundamentals with your athletes will be critical. Solidify good technique, tactics, strength and conditioning, nutrition and scheduling. Create your simple non-negotiables immediately. I’ve always liked:
Be on time; Finish what you start; Do what you say you’re going to do; Use your manners.
5. In the first few hours or weeks, you will learn more about each of your athletes by what they do, not by what they say. How did they handle the adversity of the coaching transition? Are they late, prepared, energetic? Do they compete, lead, follow? Are they resilient? Their body language and attitude will tell you more than their words.
“We’re going to do things differently”
6. Gauge commitment from everyone who has any influence on your environment. I had the good fortune of working with Leadership Coach Jeff Janssen during my years at Stanford and he created a commitment continuum for the measurement and tracking of commitment within your team. With Jeff’s permission, we modified it at the time to include example behaviours for our athletes, specific to our program. Check it out here.
7. Coach your way. The best coaches are the ones who are confident in their own skin. Repeat, repeat, repeat your key points, your plan, your mission statement. What is your identity? Build your intended reputation from day one. Stay patient! Just as your athletes need to build a solid foundation over time, it may take some time to get things running the way you want them to run.
Be on time; Finish what you start; Do what you say you’re going to do; Use your manners
8. If there is true dead weight in your program – get rid of it. I say true because I certainly believe there is a role for almost everyone. But if not, you must remove anyone that is resistant, reluctant or simply existent (i.e. just filling a space) in your environment. If you operate at a high level, then these people will typically choose to go elsewhere. Let them. Being in a high performance program isn’t for everyone.
9. Always follow through with what you say, especially with regard to disciplinary situations and accountability. Period. Athletes can see right through coaches when they know they won’t be held accountable for their actions and they will quickly lose respect for you. As much as they may resist it at first, most athletes respect coaches who hold them to high expectations. Never let your key athletes get away with a different set of rules, or you will be forever trying to dig yourself out of a hole.
Being in a high performance program isn’t for everyone
10. Create a level playing field and encourage competition to squash any apathy, entitlement or complacency. If you coach a junior team sport, never entertain selection conversations with parents. If possible, create objective components to your selection criteria that require constant improvement from each individual.
11. Use simple, clear communication, especially with regard to your expectations. Keep simple goals and constantly emphasize and refer to them.
Squash any apathy, entitlement or complacency
12. Don’t test for testings sake, but know where you are so you know where you’re going. Having some numbers can be a useful tool to get players on board with your training programs quickly. Yes, you can prove anything with statistics…even the truth! Create a battery of tests you are sure you can use for a long period of time, so your numbers are relevant not just throughout your current athletes’ career but also as a reference and competition for your future stars.
13. Take the time to sit down and meet with each athlete individually. Make the first meeting professional but informal. Take time to get to know your new people personally by asking them questions and listening to their answers. Eat meals with them and talk to them about life outside of sports. Find out about the important people in their lives and their life goals. Athletes will play hard for you when they know you care about them as people. You have to invest that time to get to know them. Come prepared with video, records and as much objective material as possible for the second conversation. Be direct and honest with them. Reiterate your expectations, plan and goals. Give it to them in writing—post copies wherever they can see them!
Build your intended reputation from day one
David Hodge has been given the responsibility of igniting teams and organisations both in Australia and overseas. He enjoys sparking sporting programs so they perform at their potential. Email him at Dave@propelperform.com or follow him on twitter @CoachDavidHodge