I have enjoyed connecting the dots on my young coaching career. A few of these dots are:
- Dad buys me a used bench and concrete weights at age 12-13. We have to keep a training log for karate promotions, so I begin journaling my training as my middle school best friend and I do endless variations of bench press and arms exercises. I get bit by “the iron bug” and build the early habit of the training log.
- Despite no real experience, knowledge, or accomplishments, I become “the guy” in high school writing training programs for himself and anyone who wants one. I latch on to my high school strength and conditioning class teacher and coach. He supervises my senior project after I change interests from sociology/criminal justice to “undecided,” and I do my presentation on strength training for rowing.
- I play club lacrosse in college and become the de facto team strength and conditioning coach, organizing weight-room and agility and conditioning sessions.
- I work with a few rowers at my student job and run into them in the weight-room during a lacrosse session. They jump in and I start working with a few of them individually. I decide to major in kinesiology because I enjoy sports and training.
- Because I’m in the weight-room so much, actual coaches and athletes start assuming I know what I’m doing. The undergrad kinesiology program is backed up, so thanks to one of these connections, I fulfill my year-long internship requirement with the varsity track and field team before I actually begin coursework.
- I’m giving advice and coaching to 5-6 rowers at this point, and a few of them become team captains/cabinet members. They talk to their coach about strength training and I officially become the team strength coach.
- I overhear my former lacrosse teammate and then-roommate talking on the phone with the head coach of a new lacrosse program he’s coaching, lamenting their struggles to find a JV assistant coach. I sign my coaching contract the next week.
- I have a job at a local gym after I graduate. I work it for a while and things don’t work out, so I take a desk job. I have a lot of time, so I start a website so that my high school lacrosse players and college rowers can find technique videos and training resources.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve said things to athletes that I’ve regretted, missed plenty of opportunities, skipped on readings that I should’ve read in school, called plays that didn’t work out, and done some dumb things in the weight-room. I’ve learned a lot from these, and I know I’ll make more and learn from those too.
I’ve also done a few things right that I think would help a new coach.
#1: Find Some Mentors
Who do you learn from? Who do you trust, who do you follow, and who do you look to for inspiration? One of the biggest dots in my coaching career was the great fortune to learn from Westminster lacrosse coach Mason Goodhand in a Level 1 US-Lacrosse course. We kept in touch after the clinic, he offered advice during a particularly tough part of one season, and one of my rising seniors may be playing for him next year. I learned from every coach for whom I played, worked, or interned. Sometimes, this was a lesson in what NOT to do. No coach can be perfect 100% of the time–paying attention to their mistakes allowed me to learn without making the same mistake myself.
#2: Build Your Coaching Network
There are mentors, there are colleagues, there are athletes, and this forms your coaching network. Networking gets a bad rap thanks to some smarmy characters, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Networking is a matter of finding ways that you can help someone, and then staying in touch with them. Sometimes, they come back around to help you. Sometimes, they don’t. If you don’t expect anything in return, you shouldn’t be disappointed. Usually, once you stop expecting things in return, people become much more willing to stay in touch with you. I’ve loved working with Blake Gourley and Joe Deleo over the last few months on the Strength Coach Roundtable and have learned a lot from them.
#3: You Still Have Practice
One of the biggest things that I do and recommend to new coaches is treat being a coach just like being an athlete. Put all of the energy you once put into practice and training into your athletes’ practice and learning. This also means rigorous planning. My co-coaches and I spend at least 30-60 minutes a day thinking and talking via email, text, or phone, about our weekly goals, daily practice plan, and player development. In our first year, we had practice plans generally sketched out, and we noticed a big difference in the smoothness of practice and player attention when we changed to having practices planned out in 10-minute intervals. I like to write mine on a 3×5 card, but there are apps out there that can help this too (US Lacrosse Mobile Coach) if you can handle having your phone at practice without it becoming a distraction. I still like the 3rds System of practice planning as outlined in #4.
In the off-season, as my athletes put in miles of cross-training and repetitions in the weight-room, I’m putting in my own miles of traveling to attend clinics and learn from people, and doing repetitions of books, articles, and podcasts. Some of my favorite and recommended resources are:
- Strength Training
- Coaching Philosophy
- Rowperfect UK’s Rowing Chat Podcast
- “Skillful Rowing” by Marlene Royle
- US Rowing Level 2 was a great certification course
- Human Behavior
Through these resources and attending other events and talking with other coaches, I’ve made gains on my coaching ability year after year and season after season, prolonging the time to which my athletes’ improvement will outpace my own ability to coach them.
This could also mean literally still having practice. I didn’t lose my athletic identity when I started coaching, I just shifted it. Many of my lacrosse co-coaches do men’s league club lacrosse, and I know rowing coaches who still do erg competitions. I succumbed to the iron bug and compete in the sport of strongman instead. I think maintaining some athletic identity, no matter how modest, is key to keep that part of you alive and relatable to your athletes. It becomes much easier to espouse the benefits of work ethic, accountability, and health when we model those values ourselves.
#4: Develop YOUR Philosophy…
…and be willing to modify it! If you follow everything everyone says, you’ll be pulled in too many directions to ever accomplish anything. As a young coach, draw on some principles from your own experience that you already know to be successful, and don’t stray too far from these at first. Revisit your philosophy every so often and make small changes and additions as necessary. Changing the Game has a great resource to start you off–“What Is Your Club’s DNA?”
#5: Learn Some Coaching Styles
By no means should you feel locked in to coaching exactly how you were coached or exactly how you think a coach “should” behave. One great thing I did in the last year was taking a DISC Profile from Pat Rufo of Rufo Optimal Workouts. The DISC Profile looks at personal and communication characteristics to provide insight to your natural style and adapted coaching style, and how you can find your personal best coaching and communication style. This was a really interesting experience for me and something I would highly recommend if you’re interested in going beyond the X’s and O’s of coaching and into the wonderful world of communication. DISC isn’t the only way to do this, as you can research the other main categories of coaching styles: Autocratic, Democratic, and Laissez-Faire. Understand that these are on a continuum and try to think about when one style might be more suitable than another.