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The Top 10 “Do Nots” for a Head Football Coach

1. Do not think you are the smartest person on every subject in the room

Learn to Delegate

“If you delegate tasks, you create followers. If you delegate authority, you create leaders.”

Craig Groeschel

Being the head coach or leader of any organization is a big deal. You must have confidence in yourself and you must be very well versed with many parts of the job. However, great leaders find what their assistants skill sets are and allow them to excel in very specific parts of the job. While you cannot ignore that area, using a good assistant to take ownership in a part of the program is key.

I’ve heard of the 80% rule. If an assistant can do this job 80% as good as the head coach can, allow them to take ownership and guide them as they get better. This will allow you to move your attention to other areas that need to be addressed. Learning to delegate can be a difficult thing for many coaches. You need to be sure you are doing a great job of explaining your vision and “non-negotiables” to the assistant you are putting in charge. After that allow them to take ownership and run with it. This may look different than “how you would do it”, but if it fits inside your non-negotiables allow them to be creative in how they coach.

Great leaders also do not feel threatened by those that are gifted. While everyone needs to display loyalty to the cause (and in the community), programs are great when each person has a voice and can talk freely. While there may be disagreement, it is the struggle that causes each to examine why things are being done the way they are. I find that those who are gifted and know that you recognize their strength will become more loyal as the trust builds. While each coach must recognize they are working for the program, and the head coach is the head of the program, they do not need to be stifled or the staff will not be utilized as well as possible.

2. Do not assume everyone knows what you want

Learn to Communicate

“The most important thing in coaching is communication. It’s not what you say as much as what they absorb.”

Red Auerbach

This is an area I constantly fail at as a husband, dad and coach. I often over-analyze situations in my head and have what I think should be done already figured out. The problem is I don’t often include those that matter in the thought process or even the solution I have come up with. This leads to frustration on my part and of course assistant coaches, players and even an upset wife at times. While in my head I have spent plenty of time on a decision, those around me feel as though it was just dropped on them or not thought all the way through.

We must understand that although the head coach makes the decision, it is best to include as many people (that are involved) in the process as possible. Listen to what they feel and then make the difficult decisions and be clear why you have chosen what the plan of action will be. Also, be sure to include in detail the expectations you have for the assistant coaches, players and others that need to make you plan work. Many people want to know why a decision was made, and even though they may disagree with the decision, understanding the thought process behind it will lead to much more buy-in from a staff.

Most head coaches do not fail in their plan because of the inability to have a plan. They fail in communicating that plan and the actions that must be taken to achieve it. It sounds overly simple, but those who succeed in leadership are often the best at communicating the expectations and the guide to their plan of action. Having a great plan is good, but the key is making sure everyone understands the how and why.

Another big mistake we make in this process is assuming. Assuming our players/coaches know things. This can be as simple as terminology of the game or it may be practical – like how to clean a locker room. Make sure that every step is laid out clearly and this will also help in communication.

3. Do not use people

Learn to Appreciate

“Feeling appreciated is one of the most important needs that people have. When you share with someone your appreciation and gratitude, they will not forget you. Appreciation will return to you many times.”

Steve Brunkhorst

One of the easiest lessons I learned as a head coach was to take care of those that help your program. It can be as simple as a hat, t-shirt or free tickets to the games, but make sure they know you recognized the effort they have given to make sure your program is taken care of. People want to help the program and will often give money and time to insure that the program has all it needs, but they should be valued and appreciated.

This lesson can be applied to each part of the program. Be sure to thank your administrators each season and always speak positively of their support for the program. Nothing bothers me more than to hear a coach speak ill of an administrator and then demand “loyalty” from those beneath him. It needs to be reflected both ways.

While at times a coach must drive and push his assistants, they must recognize that they are also valued. Coaches will work hard because of their own good character, but the true test to if they feel valued is how long they remain as an assistant. A clear sign that a coach does not appreciate his assistants is to see the turnover rate on his staff.

Players must also be recognized. I am not suggesting we need to not speak truth to players when they are under-performing or not doing what they are capable of, but they must be lifted up publicly when they are doing their best for the program. Creating an atmosphere of competition and not overlooking faults is important for all coaches, but be sure that fault finding is not what we are experts in at all times. Lift up the effort by players as much as possible. This generation is different than the one before and the one that will come next. Social media has become a great tool to recognize players and they will appreciate it.

4. Do not wait for something to change

Learn to Motivate

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Barack Obama

Not sure how many times I’ve heard the phrase (and even said it), “we can’t do that here because ___________”. It is truly a mindset change to turn around a culture. Often, we feel our success is dependent on something we cannot control and we simply give up control over areas we can make improvements. As a coach we must FIND A WAY to make things happen. I’d rather try and fail 80 times now than simply think I cannot accomplish something for whatever reason.

One of the quotes I have started to live by is “done is better than perfectly unfinished”. Not sure who said that or where it came from, but it has stuck with me. Often, we want everything to be exactly how we imagined it or hoped it would be. That isn’t how life works or football. We must be willing to jump in and do the best we can with what we have instead of waiting for the perfect moment.

When the mindset of trying and pushing through failure seeps into your athletes and coaches it is amazing what can happen. No longer will you hear excuses, but you will see a team full of problem solvers. But, it all must start with the head coach. If you simply wait for things to happen, they rarely do happen. Work to motivate your players and coaches that your program will push forward even through failure before simply “hoping” for something good to happen.

One sign you have not accomplished this is if you find yourself or players/ coaches saying phrases like: “we would have won, but _________ messed it up for us”. This must be eliminated for your program to be successful. Admitting failure when maximum effort was given is ok. Simply work to continue improving. When the program adopts the mentality, that everyone will do their part and not worry about outside circumstances, greatness can be achieved.

5. Do not fail to Communicate

Learn to Communicate

“No matter what job you have in life, your success will be determined 5% by your academic credentials, 15% by your professional experience and 80% by your communication skills.”

Anonymous

Most coaches know what they expect from players and they understand the time commitment it will take. What we often fail to do is to communicate this vision through all the available platforms. This became increasingly difficult through the Covid season of 2020. Communication with those around you will be key to all head coaches. The main focus of all leaders should be making sure those around us are “dialed-in” to our purpose and they cannot be fully dialed-in if they do not understand what the goal is or what is expected of them.

There is a reason many coaches do very well as a coordinator or as an assistant coach and then struggle with the leap to becoming a head coach. The main reason is communication. The ability to reach all those in an organization can be overwhelming. This must be done intentionally and you must know how to learn about your team, or people will be overlooked. It must also be done daily. Communication will be the key for a head coach to be successful.

A few major concepts that must be addressed:

  • Communication with Coaching Staff
  • Communication with Administration/Bosses
  • Communication with Parents
  • Communication with Leaders on the Team
  • Communication with Full Team
  •  Communication with Boosters
  • Communication with Volunteer/Paid Staff

Communication takes work and it takes a plan of action. In short, it must be intentional and important to a coach. With the technology available today, there is really no excuse for a coach to not be able to communicate with those involved in their program. All it takes is intent and organization for a coach to get their message out. 

What becomes as important is how you portray your message. Make sure that the tone of the communication represents what you want it to represent. Often emails or texts can be difficult to understand the “tone” of the message. Understand that often what you say can be used against you, but what you email/ text WILL be used against you. Make sure you are calm and in control before sending any communication.

Branding your program or even yourself is done intentionally. The best in the business understand how they are perceived and how to change how they are perceived. This is done through how you communicate your message. 

Those who do not care what others think are doomed to fail. Also, those who care too much what others think are doomed to fail. It is important to understand how your message is coming across. There will always be those who disagree and that is fine, but a leader must be aware at all times.

6. Do not think only winning a game is what makes you a great coach

Learn to Separate

“It’s more than just the game, it’s the little things. Being the leaders of this team both on and off the field. Being the first one out to practice and one of the last guys off the field. It’s the mentality, the work ethic, work rate and professionalism.”

Brian Dunseth

I want to be very careful in this section not to negate the importance of winning. It is very important and often will be what keeps or loses a job for many coaches. Ultimately, in the mind of many fans this is the most important part of coaching. Often in our own minds this is the ultimate mark of success.

However, this is written for coaches at the high school and college level. While winning is important, it should not be the only goal of a program. There are a multitude of coaches that have won for a variety of reasons as well as some coaches that have done a phenomenal job that have not found the same winning percentage. This does not negate or take away from honoring those that have had great winning percentages, it simply is meant to point out that many coaches are in a different circumstance than others. 

Regardless of the circumstance of a coach, those who understand that their main job in working with young people is to teach them how to become better people will always be the coaches I choose to work with and allow my own children to play for. Remember when our time has come to be called to account for our actions, I feel many coaches will feel the guilt they may have inside from cutting corners in the name of “winning”. 

Always work to improve athletes. It is easier said than done to actually hold your great athletes as accountable as the others. 

7. Do not blame everyone else

Learn to Accept

“You are not a failure until you start blaming others for your mistakes.”

John Wooden

When I was a second-year coach, somehow I was already a head junior high coach, our team got blasted one night. I felt we were completely out-matched physically and that I had given our athletes the best opportunity to be successful, but it was not enough. We simply couldn’t stop the other team and got beat 20 something to 40 something. I was staying late cleaning and getting laundry going and an older varsity coach was in the fieldhouse that evening. I was complaining about how this kid didn’t do this and that kid didn’t do that as is often normal around coaches.

The coach looked at me and simply said, “we don’t blame kids here.” I was shocked and embarrassed, but grateful that he called me out. At 24-years old, I learned a lesson that I still keep with me to this day. When you are the leader of a program, no matter the situation, the blame always comes (and rightfully so) to you.

Were we out matched that night physically? Absolutely! Had I done as good a job as I knew how at that point in my career? Also, yes. However, I was far from perfect and had plenty of points in the preparation for that game and during that game that I could have made better adjustments. When a coach assumes the head coaching role, it comes with a heavy responsibility to accept all blame for any failures in that program. 

What I failed to realize then, was that our players will follow our example. While none of them heard me complaining to another coach, they would hear me complaining about the officiating or other areas that were not favorable to our team. This would lead to them finding places to place blame. In our society today we see this everywhere. Blame is passed from person to person and very few people own up to their own responsibility. If our players or assistant coaches see us passing blame and not holding ourselves accountable, it will start a downhill cycle. 

One of my favorite slogans on a T-shirt say four words, “Nobody cares, work harder”. This has become a motto I attempt to use in my own life. While I will celebrate accomplishments and do realize people care, I understand that my goal is to simply work as hard as I can to do my job. Not worry about other factors, but find a way to become successful through hard work.

When a coach starts to say excuses will not be tolerated even in their own life, the players and assistants will adapt that same mentality. Accepting blame is what must be the starting point for all great programs and it must start at the top. While each program will face ups-and-downs, blaming others or outside circumstances must never be tolerated.

8. Do not lose the forest for the trees

Learn to Organize

“The purpose of an organization is to enable common men to do uncommon things.”

Peter Drucker

One of the most difficult things in all of life is to simply step back, see the big picture, and make decisions with that larger picture in view. Most of the time first-year head coaches are simply trying to get through each day and often are dealing with issues as they arise instead of having solutions before issues arise. Often, as a coach we never get to issues that need to be addressed because we are working on what we feel is a pressing issue.

By becoming more organized with your time and having a detailed plan of action and daily to do list. A coach must make sure they are taking control of their time and set up a priority list. Once this list is done, then work on additional issues. This ensures that what you feel is most important is done all the time. 

Another area this may be a struggle for younger coaches, is locking into a “system” on offense or defense without considering personnel or the ability of the opposition. Often what looks great on a whiteboard or in a playbook will not look as good if the system is not designed or tweaked to match the personnel of the team. Be sure to always be aware of what your players and assistant coaches can do before deciding on a system. Even the best organizations in the NFL will adjust week to-week based on their personnel.

9. Do not get priorities out of whack

Learn to Prioritize

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

Stephen Covey

If you have coached long enough, more than likely you have a few moments you wish you could have gone back and erased. I know I have a few moments I can look back at and it pains me to see my reaction. Almost all of those moments have nothing to do with winning and losing a football game. They have to deal with how I treated people in my program.

When we sign on to coach, we have instantly accepted the responsibility of being a role model for all those involved in our program. It is easy to say we care about all those in our program, but it becomes very difficult when the stress levels begin to rise to remember why we are employed. Remember that a rushed, angry response could be a very lasting impact for a player.

A few quick tips for handling difficult players:

  1. Take time to make large decisions. There may come a time that a player must be dismissed from the team, but it should never be a rushed, angry response. Send them to a locker room or away until emotions can subside. I have seen too many coaches have to back down from decisions they have made while they were angry.
  2. Know your players. This may sound cliché, but coaches need to know the background of each member of the team. It does not excuse the action, but it may give it some context.
  3. Write down your mission statement as a program. Spend the time thinking about what is truly important in your program and write it down. Go back and reflect on this often. Post it around your facilities. This statement should shape all decisions made for your program.

10. Do not fail to adapt

Learn to Improvise

“You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.”

Patti Smith

Learning to adapt to situations is key for any leader in any position, but it is essential for coaches. If I have learned anything through almost 20-years of coaching, it is that the plan will need to be revised multiple times to be successful. Those that stick to a fixed idea and do not consider the circumstances around them or modify to help those in need, will fail.

The goal and core beliefs should never change, but the method of arriving better have multiple paths if it is going to work. This not only applies in the overall structure of a program, but also in the day-to-day functioning. Changing a practice schedule, adjusting a route, adjusting a game plan are just a few items that successful teams will do to help the program.

This area is very difficult for many natural born organizers. Personally, I do not enjoy when plans change. Many coaches spend hours designing practice plans, workout plans and offseason agendas and do not like to make adjustments. Those who excel in this career are great at planning, but also great at seeing when changes must be made. 


This article was originally published as a series in Headsets, Volume 2.

Kenny Simpson

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