Not long ago, I found myself substitute teaching in a 9th grade English class when a lively debate broke out over what constitutes good coaching.

Alright, that might be a bit too generous. Let me rephrase.

My attempt to start class was derailed by a group of athletes complaining about one of their coaches.  

Ever the opportunist, and eager to restore order to the chaos, I promised the students a chance to share during the “Attendance Game”.  The rules of the game are simple.  I pose a question to the class, and each person gets an opportunity to give an answer when their name is called for attendance.

The question of the day…

What makes a good coach anyway?

It quickly became apparent that few students had ever been asked that question before, and everyone had something to say about it.  Below are the top five answers from our discussion that continued throughout the day.

#1 – Good coaches are not hypocrites.

The top complaint was of coaches that demand one thing from their players, yet hold themselves to a different standard.  Whether that was related to coaches communicating honestly, being on-time, or using classroom appropriate language, nothing was more frustrating to this group of athletes than coaches that did not practice what they preached.

Nothing undermines a coach’s credibility faster than this.

#2 – Good coaches know how to teach (without yelling).

One by one, stories emerged of players being yelled at for not executing a play, making a stupid mistake, mishandling a ball, etc.  But yelling alone did not make them better.  What they really wanted from their coach was information.  I heard this phrase repeatedly, “Show me how to do it right.”  

As one athlete put it, “I get yelled at for not being able to do something I’ve never been taught how to do.  How does that make me a better player?”

As John Wooden often said, “You haven’t taught until they have learned.”  When players don’t know how to do something they want to be instructed not accosted.  

#3 – Good coaches create an enjoyable experience where players get better.

Good coaches are able to strike a balance between creating an experience that is enjoyable and competing at a high level.  Players complained in equal measure about coaches who were not focused enough on winning, “They don’t push us enough,” and coaches who pushed too hard.  “They don’t understand that sports are meant to be fun.”  

Every athlete wanted to improve and compete at a high level,  but they acknowledged that the best coaches find a way to do that while maintaining a positive environment where the journey matters as much as the destination.

#4 – Good coaches create relationships with ALL of their players.

If you want to get a group of student athletes fired up, ask them about coaches who have favorites.  This particular group ranted about coaches who don’t treat their players the same.  It was particularly insightful when I asked them, “How do you know when a coach has favorites?”

  • “The favorites aren’t held accountable like everyone else. They can do whatever they want without any consequences.”
  • “The favorites get all the coaching, and all the extra opportunities.”
  • “Coach only talks and jokes around with the ones he likes.”
  • “The coach has a relationship with the favorites outside the sport.”

How do you know when you’re not one of the favorites?

  • “My coach never looks me in the eye when he talks to me.”
  • “When the coach goes through a whole practice and never talks to me.”
  • “I can go through a whole practice without being coached by anyone.”
  • “I saw one of my former coaches the other day and he didn’t even remember my name.”

Truth be told, it’s hard to manage all the individual relationships we are responsible for within a team, but players quickly recognize when a coach’s effort to build those relationships varies from person to person.  Not every player may reciprocate the same, but good coaches do their best to treat each player as their favorite.

#5 – Good coaches are responsive to player input.

Good coaches seek and respond to player input.  This can take many different forms, but players appreciate when coaches include them in their decision-making process.  Common complaints ranged from coaches not recognizing when players were fatigued, to having practices going long past their scheduled time, to asking for suggestions and never following through with action.  Good coaches find a way to lead with their players for the benefit of the team.

As coaches, we speak often about what makes a good player, but how often do we ask players what makes a good coach?  

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson, TOC Mentor and Co-Host of the Coaching Culture Podcast
NSanderson@ThriveOnChallenge.com