The Coach: What to Look For

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How Important Are Coaches?

Anyone who knows sports and who is honest will tell you that it is the athlete, not the coach, who is the most important element. Without talent to work with, even the best coach cannot produce champions.

“… great athletes make their coaches look good. I give myself maybe 20% of the credit for my team’s success in a good year, and 10% in an ordinary year,” said James “Doc” Counsilman, former swimming coach at Indiana University, whose teams won 23 Big Ten championships and six NCAA championships and who coached Mark Spitz (winner of seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics) while he was a student there. (1) In all, Counsilman coached 48 Olympians from nine countries and they won a total of 46 medals (26 gold).

Coaches are a necessary and valuable resource, but because they are not the only key to success, athletes should avoid sacrificing too much to train with a particular coach. To do so may not be worth the cost.

Then Are All Coaches About the Same?

Of course not. There are good ones, adequate ones, and bad ones. Good ones will enhance an athlete’s career, adequate ones will do no harm, and bad ones can end it. Picking the right coach is very important, but many athletes don’t really know what they should be looking for. As a rule, they tend to flock to those who’ve produced the most champions, but this isn’t necessary or even advisable in every case.

What Should You Look for in a Coach?

So much of the decision-making depends on the level at which you are training. What you need or want in your early years is often not what you want later on.

An athlete’s first coach is usually whoever is most convenient (e.g., a relative, a teacher at school, a park-and-rec instructor). Most parents do not start their children out in high-caliber programs. Only when a child demonstrates either exceptional talent or strong interest or both does a parent pay serious attention to the quality of coaching.

At this stage, it is usually the parent, rather than the athlete, who makes the decisions about coaches. Children become very attached to the coaches who first encourage them; therefore, they are not usually the ones who initiate any coaching changes. When children do run into problems, they are more likely to quit the sport than to ask to switch coaches.

Mistakes in coaching at this level are fairly easy to spot because beginning athletes do not thrive under poor coaching. If they are in a program that is too stringent, they will become intimidated and refuse to try anything challenging. If the program is too easy, they will become bored and sometimes disruptive. In an ideal situation, they will enjoy working with their coaches while at the same time not becoming dependent upon them.


Some things to look for in a coach at this level:

1. Appropriate pace.

Outstanding coaches know how much to push a beginning athlete. They will introduce enough new skills to maintain interest without expecting too much too soon. At the same time, they will not employ too many shortcuts (which may produce encouraging results in the short-term, but which may leave a legacy of bad habits and techniques). They will create a fun atmosphere while at the same time introducing the value of training and discipline.

2. Appropriate goals.

Outstanding coaches realize that a beginning athlete may never advance beyond the basics. Therefore, they should teach skills which can reward even low-level athletes. Rather than just offering random activities, they should package their instruction as a series of little achievements in order to give their pupils a continuous sense of accomplishment.

3. Respect.

Outstanding coaches will respect all their pupils, no matter what the level or age. Unfortunately, this quality is found in fewer coaches than we’d like to think. Many times very young or very inexperienced athletes are given short shrift unless the coach senses a payoff. Coaches often have little interest in novice athletes unless they see a) the possibility of collecting significant coaching fees, b) signs of great talent in the athlete, or c) the opportunity to collect favors from the athlete’s family.

Swim coach Counsilman speaks for all good coaches when he said: “I let my kids know that we’re a unit and share the same goal, which is their improvement. I try to give them what everybody needs, which is attention, affection, a sense of belonging and a feeling of accomplishment.” (2)

4. Trust.

Outstanding coaches will encourage trust without dependence. Trust is the basis of all successful coach-athlete relationships. To perform at their optimum level, athletes must believe that their coaches want what’s best for them. But, unfortunately, this need also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.

Many athletes at all levels are motivated to perform to please their coaches. As a result, an unhealthy dependency can develop. It can be tempting for coaches to reinforce the idea that their athletes cannot reach their potential without them. Yet there often comes a time when an athlete needs to move on. According to John Nicks (an ice skating coach whose athletes have won world and Olympic medals), “… a coach’s job is to ensure that, as the years go on, the athlete gets more and more independent of the coach, of the parents, of everybody else, until they are an entity in and of themselves. When they get to that stage, they are the complete competitor.” (3)

Some General Guidelines for Parents

According to the book, “Who’s Coaching Your Kids?” (by Gene Hochevar, Mark Koenig, and Ted Layne), parents should look for the following qualities in a coach:

“A natural personality the players can relate to.
A firm, fair way of handling mistakes.
Ability to create a team concept.
The application of fair and equal discipline.
The strength, skill and compassion needed to instill mental toughness.
Knowledge of proper care of injuries.”

The National Association for Sports and Physical Education has developed a set of coaching benchmarks. There are eight areas where a coach should have expertise:

  1. Safety (including an awareness of playing conditions, equipment, conditioning, and emergency care).
  2. Child development (including an understanding of physical, emotional, and learning stages).
  3. Psychologically and socially appropriate behavior (on the part of the coach and to be taught to the athletes).
  4. Health awareness (including training, conditioning, and nutrition).
  5. Sports understanding (including age appropriate skills, tactics, and strategies).
  6. Teaching skills (an awareness of different approaches and the ability to evaluate talent).
  7. Risk management (including an awareness of legal situations and the obligation to inform athletes and parents).
  8. Administrative skills (including event, facility, and budget management). (5)


Author: Suzanne Lainson; Licensed content of Jobs In Sports.

(1) The Wall Street Journal, March 2, 1990.

(2) The Wall Street Journal, March 2, 1990.

(3) Beverley Smith. Talking Figure Skating. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1997).

(4) This excerpt published in USA Today, April 26, 1990.

(5) Sports Illustrated For Kids, May, 1996.


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