Defining a Good Coach

I taught an undergraduate class titled “Coaching Basketball” in the fall semester with a curriculum based on the Level 1 Youth Basketball Coaching Association certification.

On the final exam, one question asked the students to describe the qualities and characteristics of a good coach. While not a scientific study, and possibly influenced by what the students felt the professor wanted to hear, the most common responses were:

  • Knowledge of sport
  • Willingness to listen
  • Honest
  • Understanding

The students included college football and basketball players as well as general students with years of playing experience at the youth and high school levels in a variety of sports.

The next group of most frequent responses were:

  • Experience
  • Motivator
  • Confident
  • Love for the game

These students were looking back at their coaches or thinking about their current experiences as college athletes, so the answers may differ if we asked 10 – 14 year olds about the most important qualities and characteristics of a good coach.

However, even for youth coaches, these eight characteristics offer some insight. The students remarked that it was important that the coach know what he or she is talking about or the players quickly lose respect. Of course, this also becomes more important at higher levels when the players know a lot about the sport. When coaching 9-year-old beginners, knowledge is less important, as 9-year-olds do not know much themselves. However, at the high school level and beyond, coaches need a depth of knowledge about skills and tactics to teach and challenge their players continually.

Willingness to listen, honesty and understanding relate to one overall category: they want a coach who is human. Through the media, we have built coaches into mythic figures who must never show vulnerability because of their position of power. However, these students appreciated coaches who listened to the players, on and off the court. They also wanted coaches who spoke honestly rather than lying to try and not hurt someone’s feelings, and they wanted an understanding coach who could sympathize with players and their different situations. They simply wanted a human coach who could relate to players and treat them like people, not objects.

Players responded to enthusiastic coaches who loved what they were doing and the game. Many coaches coach because they are gym rats and like helping people, and players generally respond to these coaches regardless of skills or knowledge because their enthusiasm is genuine. Other coaches appear cold or distant, like they are forced into coaching or dislike the players, and players dislike these coaches. People’s feeling generally show through their demeanor, and these feelings affect the players’ enthusiasm and the players’ behavior toward the coach.

A confident and motivating coach inspired players. It is hard for players to feel confident when a coach appears insecure or unsure of himself. Do soldiers follow a timid leader into battle? In all the great cliched movie scenes, is the hero timid or unsure of the plan or does he exude confidence?

These answers do not encapsulate coaching fully. Other answers like humility, patience, flexibility, and communication skills round out the characteristics of a good coach, but the answer is still incomplete. Good coaching differs from situation to situation, but these answers provide some ideas from the athlete’s side. If a coach possesses several or all of these characteristics, it does not guarantee that he or she will be a great coach, but it serves as a good start in that direction.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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