How does one recognize coaching talent when making a coaching hire

An athletic director emailed and said that I lacked head-coaching experience for a job despite over 20 seasons of head-coaching experience. I don’t really believe experience is the only answer. I watched a college coach with 20+ years of head coaching experience at the college level, and he was not a good coach: Poor use of personnel, poor interpersonal relationships with players, visibly played favorites, poor communication on and off the court, inability to maximize talent, looked at what team lacked and made excuses rather than looking at what the team had, etc. Plenty of experience, yet failing miserably at so many important elements of coaching.

In my first three seasons as an assistant coach (varsity high school, NAIA, junior college), I assisted coaches with far more experience. However, in all three cases, I had to convince the head coach to move away from his or her preferred style of play because it did not fit the personnel. In each case, the head coach stubbornly attempted to fit a square peg in a round hole. In one season, we committed 50 turnovers in one game! After convincing the head coach to allow me to experiment, we upset the #5 team in the state. Our scoring average went up by 20ppg and our turnovers were halved. Why? We used our personnel better. We put the players in positions to succeed rather than trying to fit them into a system where the coach was comfortable. Their experience actually hindered these coaches, as they were comfortable in their styles of play, even if those styles did not fit their personnel. It was the novice coach without any preconceived ideas who was able to see a better approach for the personnel.

For years, I have asked questions about the characteristics, traits, talents and skills of coaches. In the July 2009 USOC Olympic Coachan article titled “Expert Coaches of High Performance Athletes” offers four characteristics of elite coaches:

Elite coaches tend to be life-long learners, who approach almost everything with an open mind. They are continually looking for an edge that can help their athletes or themselves improve. Many are voracious readers with a wide variety of interests…

Elite coaches are problem solvers. They will search for answers to problems. Many have developed networks of ‘service providers’ who can help them when they have issues about which way to take something.

They are leaders. The leadership skills of elite coaches are impressive. We sometimes forget that they are not just coaching and directing athletes, they are also managing a large and varied staff, a budget and different logistics.

They can develop and sustain relationships. The relationship between an elite coach and the elite athlete is fascinating…The relationships that work best, in my opinion, are those in which the coach has become the guide. The athlete is self-reliant, but needs the coach to offer advice and suggestions and to be the eyes and ears of the performance…It is a true partnership working toward one goal.

I agree with this article because it serves me. I embody these traits. I am pursuing my PhD primarily because I had questions for which I could not find answers, so I decided to answer them myself. When asked to describe coaching, I answer that it is problem-solving. In many ways, that is what appeals to me about coaching: Finding solutions to problems in terms of individual development, team success, etc. I think that I have always been a leader because I tend to have a vision and the tenacity and commitment to realize the vision, and I have relationships with coaches and players around the world.

In another old blog entry, I found a description of former St Louis Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan that offered eight attributes of a good coach, based on Duncan: Knowledge. Problem-Solving. Simplicity. Preparedness. Communication. Ability to Explain. Analyzing the true problem. Knowing one’s limitations.

USA Today featured an article about St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, arguably the best pitching coach of the past 30 years.

St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa says, “You can’t bring in a pitching coach any better than Dunc. He’s the Albert Pujols of pitching coaches.

“What makes him good? You can’t just identify one thing. Pitchers all have different problems — 10, 15, 20 things can go wrong. Most pitching coaches can fix a dozen things. Dave is a 10 in every category.”

According to this statement, Duncan’s knowledge and problem-solving ability set him apart from his peers. But, knowledge cannot be the sole factor.

“He’s the most-prepared guy I’ve ever been around,” says Chris Carpenter, who won the 2005 NL Cy Young Award. “He has charts and videos and a simple plan. Our pre-game meetings last maybe five minutes.”

According to one of his star pupils, it is simplicity and preparedness. One frustrating aspect of coaching is the detail, time and research that a coach undertakes to discover a solution, yet he shares only a glimpse of this with the players.

John Wooden wrote about the amount of time that he took every day to plan practice carefully so not a minute of practice time would be wasted. We sometimes see the results – a pitcher’s improvement or an efficient practice – but few people recognize the time spent by the coach to create the five minute pre-game meeting. In a sense, the coach’s preparation and simplicity make the player’s job easier, which is one role of  a coach.

Duncan is a soft-spoken man of few words. Cardinals pitchers like that he doesn’t have a one-style-fits-all philosophy and his ability to break down and explain a problem.

Often, the coaches who yell and scream capture the media and fan’s attention because you can see them “coaching” during games, while the quiet coach is accused of not doing anything (Phil Jackson, Rick Adelman). Different coaches have different personalities. Some are fiery and intense; some are soft-spoken and quiet.

The best coaches treat each player as an individual. I have watched many basketball trainers who constantly try to re-create themselves in the players that they train. However, just because one player is successful doing things one way does not mean that another player will have similar success.

The ability to break down and explain a problem, to me, is one of the most overlooked aspects of coaching. A lot of coaching is very general – if a player misses a shot short, almost every coach and parent in the stands yell at the player to “bend his knees.” However, what happens if the player bends his knees and the shot still misses short?

I had a mom tell me that her son’s previous trainer told him to get his eyes checked because he could not figure out the problem. I watched the kid shoot one free throw and realized the problem was not his eyes or the lack of knee bend, it was the way he bent his knees. He bent his knees so far forward that he was off-balance, even when shooting a free throw. As the coach and parents yelled “bend your knees,” after every miss, his shot grew worse and worse because bending his knees exacerbated the problem, rather than fixing it. Few coaches go beyond the general instructions and really break down a player’s skill and explain the way to improve.

What does a great coach think?

Duncan said a pitcher has to have talent before he can turn around his career.

“You look at a guy that has a lot of talent and not doing well, and so you have to look for the reasons why,” Duncan said. “It can be done. We need pitchers that have ability and have a desire to be better. The difficult times are when you have a guy with a lot of talent and you can’t make progress.”

A great coach knows his limitations. A coach cannot create something from nothing. It starts with the player and his talents and work ethic. When those are present, a good coach can assist the player with his development.

Beyond successful coaches, we often look to education for examples of traits and characteristics that we should look for in expert coaches.

At an old TED Conference, Bill Gates spoke about fighting malaria and improving education.


While speaking about education, he mentioned several things which are relevant to developing better coaches:

  1. After three years, the quality of teaching does not change. Basically, once a teacher gets comfortable in the classroom and overcomes the initial challenges, they are who they are. Therefore, hiring a teacher because he has 20 years of teaching experience over one with three years of teaching experience is a poor way to hire a teacher. And, it is probably a poor reason to hire a basketball coach too.
  2. The best teachers have dynamic classrooms that engage all students. Isn’t coaching the same? Do good coaches ignore the players at the end of he bench? Do they run boring practices? I doubt it. Every time an analysts mentions going to a well-run practice, they mention the crispness and the lack of down time. Good coaches run organized practices that keep players active. They do not waste time.
  3. Gates also says that the places trying to improve teaching (he mentions the KIPP schools) are data driven. When I ask coaches how they know if a player has improved, they base it on their observation. But, aren’t you biased when you see a player every single day? Can you objectively measure a player’s improvement by watching him play day to day? There are so many statistical tools that are available to measure improvement and performance, yet few high school and college coaches use them. They rely on what they see.
  4. Poor schools, Gates says, have very little evaluation. He says that in some schools, principals are only allowed into a classroom once a year and they have to give advanced warning. How do teachers know if they are doing a good job if nobody evaluates their teaching? How does a coach know if he is an effective teacher if he never gets an honest evaluation? Anonymous fans posting on the Internet based on one game is not an evaluation. However, coaches are so competitive with each other that few work together to evaluate their performances and help each other improve.

What does it mean? Assuming one can infer from classroom studies and transfer the information to the court, experience is a very poor predictor of successful coaching; the best coaches engage all players and run dynamic practices; the best coaches use objective means to measure improvement; and the best coaches seek evaluations to improve their coaching.

These disparate sources (experienced coaches, athlete opinions, and Bill Gates) provide a short list of attributes that one should seek when hiring a coach:

  • Life-long Learner.
  • Leader.
  • Develop and sustain relationships.
  • Knowledge.
  • Problem-Solving.
  • Simplicity.
  • Preparedness.
  • Communication.
  • Ability to Explain.
  • Analyzes the true problem.
  • Knows one’s limitations.
  • Engage all players.
  • Run dynamic practices.
  • Use objective means to measure improvement.
  • Seek evaluations to improve their coaching.

Experience is not necessarily one of those attributes (though it is implied to some degree, as someone who has never coached could not demonstrate these attributes). In First Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham argues that the best managers [Athletic Directors, Head Coaches] hire based on talent, not experience or connections. In sports, and many other businesses, there is a sense of entitlement: People get jobs because theydeserve the job. We equate “deserve” with “paid their dues,” “worked their way up,” etc. However, as Buckingham writes, the best managers do not fall into the entitlement trap; jobs are not lifetime achievement awards. A manager’s job is to build his business. The best way to build a business (sports program) is with talented, motivated individuals, not the best “ass kissers.”

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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