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How to be a Student of the Game Part 1

Find a Mentor

Today’s technology has made it possible to connect with many people. Unfortunately, it has made it so easy to connect with a lot of people, but at times it can be hard to really “connect” with a mentor. As a young coach, I felt I knew about everything there was to know about pretty much everything. But even back then I would always seek out an older coach and attempt to see what they were doing, then work to see if it is something I wanted in my program.

If you are blessed to coach long enough in this sport, there will be times you need a coach to help you through a difficult time or situation. Having a mentor who you can trust has become vital to me. I will call and talk with 3-4 people (in different fields of work also) to bounce ideas off and to talk through situations. These must be people you can trust and usually people that are not directly involved with your situation. Usually, the best are older or even retired coaches that are willing to listen and offer advice.

Most coaches will be flattered to even be asked to work in this role and will gladly give of their time to mentor a young coach. There is nothing that can help you more than talking with a coach who has lived through many of the situations that will come up for coaches. Having the ability to have honest and open conversations with another coach is invaluable. Choose wisely, but even learning what not to do is also valuable. 

If at all possible, I’ve always attempted to hire an older coach on my staff that has already been there and done that and not looking to become a head coach. This coach becomes someone that I can go to with issues and be a good sounding board. If you cannot do this, I’d suggest searching for a retired coach in your area. While phone calls are great, nothing is better than going to eat and forming a real relationship with a mentor. This will give you a chance to vent frustrations and be open and honest with someone that can help. While talent and ability is important, having an example that has experience is priceless. Often as a young coach, or even older coach, we learn the “hard way”. Those that seem to have earlier success are those that learn from the lessons of the generation before them. Be unique and make your own decisions, but understand that experience can be helpful.

Visit Other Staffs

It has amazed me how willing coaches are to share with each other. Many times, I have been nervous to ask for things, but rarely am I ever told “no”. Find the time to ask those you respect at ANY level to see if you can simply sit in or watch their practices. College coaches are usually very gracious to allow this. However, I feel most knowledge is gained through watching a practice and the preparation leading up to that practice. Learning how others organize, structure, and perform a practice can help any coach. With all of the online resources it is easier than ever to connect with coaches across the country. And while I’d suggest going to the campus, using a videoconferencing source is better than not connecting. 

While going to watch colleges can be fun and exciting, I’d highly recommend finding a program that has similar demographics as your program and is very successful and going to spend some time with that staff. This can help as you evaluate areas your program needs to improve upon as well as see some scheme that may help your athletes. Most of the time these visits will be the most effective for a coach. Seeing how other coaches motivate and seeing that most are dealing with the same problems you are dealing with helps.

Learn why something works for a program. Anyone can get a playbook or find something online, but to be able to see the inner workings of a successful program you must see it up close. Watch how the team practices, how the coaches meet, the structure of the organization and more. Seeing this in-person will be the best way to learn any type of offense/ defense or culture.

Go to Clinics

Since I first started coaching, I have always loved going to clinics. There are now 100’s of options to learn more about your craft. Hearing different perspectives from multiple coaches is one of the best ways to learn and grow as a coach. While many coaches have a specific style, it is always good to hear how other coaches run their program or position group.

Networking is also key as coaches work to grow in the profession. The ability to know coaches from your own area and other areas of the country is key. While some of this can be done through social media, nothing beats face-to-face. At many clinics you can start those important relationships that may ultimately help you land a job. 

One thing I started doing a few years ago was to look up the speakers at the clinic I was going to attend. I then would reach out a few weeks before the clinic and work to set up a time to meet with them. Most of the time this was easily done and granted me the opportunity to make a strong connection. It also helped me to learn more than I would have by simply going to a session or two.

There are now multiple ways to reach out to coaches or watch clinics online. While I do believe the networking is not the same, it has given each coach more opportunities to reach out to others to begin a relationship. It has also allowed for clinics to become much more specialized on subjects that may help coaches.

Learn about more than just “your position” or “your system” if possible. As a younger coach I just wanted to learn the game. The goal was to see what other people were doing so that one day I could choose what I thought would be successful for me when I had my own program. I’d suggest you search for as much football knowledge as possible and file it away. While you may be a defensive line coach now, one day you may have the opportunity to move up and it will help if you can prepare as you go. As your players change each year it may require running another scheme to be successful. If you have learned along the way, it will be much easier.


This article was originally published in Headsets: Volume 2, Issue 5.

Kenny Simpson

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