Developing a Coaching Philosophy

(adapted from Sport Club Management by Matthew J. Robinson)

When formulating your personal coaching philosophy, the most important thing is to be honest with yourself.  You may find that you may have some beliefs that are unpopular or out of alignment with current rules or your organization’s culture.  To use an extreme example, let’s say that you are an “old school” coach who grew up in the era of hazing, and you feel that it was an important part of team building for you.  Of course, hazing is strictly against the rules and your parents would certainly not stand for it.  Your team rules contain a statement against hazing as per your organization’s requirements, but you look the other way when some of your senior players step over the line at your first tournament.  You can bet you are going to get an earful when your parents catch wind of what happened, and even if it never goes beyond the team you have lost trust and respect that you will never be able to earn back.

Now let’s say that in your heart of hearts, you are really a win-at-all-costs kind of coach.  The thrill of victory is what keeps you coming back to the rink day after day.  If you are coaching a Bantam AAA team, your objectives might align with those of the players and parents on your team.  On the other hand, this philosophy will probably not align well with the needs of your team if you are coaching Mites.  Your options at this point are to share your outlook with the parents and let the chips fall where thy may, to request reassignment to a more advanced team, or operate the team in a way that is at odds with your fundamental goals as a coach.  Whatever the solution, it is important to know this about yourself before you start.

There is no judgement as you go through this exercise.  The goal is to figure out what makes you tick as a coach so you can bring your behavior into alignment with your general philosophy, the culture of your organization, and the needs of your team.

Exercise 1 – Setting Priorities

How important to you are the following aspects of youth sports?  Rate each one on a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being “not at all important” and 10 being “critically important”.

  • Fun
  • General fitness
  • Mastery
  • Development
  • Winning
  • Equal playing time
  • Friendships/relationships
  • Being part of a team
  • Respect, players for coaches
  • Respect, coaches for players
  • Overcoming challenges
  • Learning something new
  • Love of the sport
  • Potential scholarships and professional opportunities for players
  • Character-building
  • Sportsmanship
  • Commitment
  • Confidence
  • Technical skills
  • Discipline
  • Work ethic
  • Leadership
  • Toughness
  • Reputation
  • Professional recognition
  • “Bragging Rights”
  • Other _____________________________

Exercise 2 – Defining Your Terms

Now, select your top 3-5 priorities and create a specific, tangible definition for each of them including the behavior you associate with that characteristic.  For example, you may place a high value on “toughness,” but what does that word actually mean to you?  How would you explain what “toughness” looks like to a young player?  Not only can coaches define these terms differently, but players – especially young ones – may need some concrete examples in order to understand what you are looking for.  For example, a young player may think that he is being tough when he points out his teammates’ mistakes and challenges them to do better, while you think a tough player is one who supports his teammates under all circumstances and deals with frustration by challenging himself to do better.  In order for your players to live up to your standards, both you and they need to understand exactly what those standards are.

One thing to be careful about when dealing with young children is setting rigid expectations in areas over which they have little or no control.  Two big areas where this issue comes up are attendance and timeliness.  Obviously, a player’s presence at practices and games is an important indicator of commitment, discipline, and leadership, and a prerequisite for development and relationship-building.  If you have a rule that players must be at the rink one hour before each game for your off-ice warmup and one child consistently rushes into the rink, fully dressed, ten minutes before the puck drops you will question his respect and work ethic.  You may feel that a player who doesn’t show up on time and fully prepared has not earned the right to play as much as his teammates who follow the rules.  However, since children obviously don’t drive themselves to the rink you are most likely benching them for the misdeeds of the adult in charge of getting them to the rink.  It might be more fair to reinforce your expectations with the parents and let them know what the consequences will be if the attendance issues continue.

Exercise 3 – Creating Your Elevator Speech

Once you think you have a good handle on your personal philosophy, it is time to create your “elevator speech” – a clear, brief message that states who you are, what you are looking for, and how you plan to benefit your players.  An elevator speech is typically about 30 seconds (the amount of time it takes to ride an elevator from the bottom of a building to the top), but if you can come up with something more pithy then by all means do!

There is no reason to start from scratch here.  If you’ve seen a quote that really encapsulates your philosophy, use it.  If you’re read a book or seen a TED talk that really inspires you, use it.  As you gain more experience and knowledge, your elevator speech will change and improve.  When that happens, embrace it.  The idea isn’t to create a slogan and stick to it no matter what, even if it no longer suits you.  The idea is to have a quick answer at the tip of your tongue when a parent asks you to describe yourself as a coach, and a guiding principle to help you make the best day-to-day decisions possible for your team.

Adapted from Robinson, Matthew J. Sport club management. Human Kinetics, 2010.