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Blueprint for Coaching Success

Dr. David Hoch, CMAA, former Athletic Director at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore County, Md. is a regular contributor to this newsletter and has been a major reason for its success. In 2011, Dr. Hoch authored a book titled "Blueprint for Better Coaching." Hoch shares his thoughts on the key qualities that makes a coach outstanding—not just in terms winning games and titles, but positively impacting student-athletes and the community they serve.

As an athletic director, you hired many coaches. What are some of the things a coaching candidate can do during an interview to land a position? What is one thing a coach should never do?

A candidate should be prepared when walking into an interview. There are a few standard questions they should anticipate and have a good answer ready for. For example, expect to explain your coaching philosophy. Answers don't have to be memorized, stilted, and of the cookie-cutter variety, but there needs to be some thought put into how you would answer. It happens all of the time that a candidate stumbles with a question that they should expect. So be prepared!

Many high schools around the country have embraced the education-based philosophy of athletics. This means that while one should certainly prepare and strive to win, winning is not the only important outcome. Too many coaches are only interested in stressing their records, championships, or how great of a technical coach they are. The wise, enlightened candidate will clearly convince the athletic director or committee how the young people will grow and benefit under the coach's watch.

And what should you never do? Never, ever speak poorly or negatively about the previous coach of the position for which you are interviewing or the athletic director at your last school. The candidate never knows the working relationships and opinions that exist, and it simply shows poor taste. A red flag would certainly go up if I detected even a hint of a negative comment.

What's the biggest mistake you see young coaches make?

Having a lack of understanding and appreciation that administrative and organizational tasks are so important. A young coach is so filled with enthusiasm that they just want to conduct a practice session and shout instructions during a game. But before an athlete can step onto a field or court, the coach has to have the permission form, physical form, and inherent risk form signed by both the parent and athlete and an emergency card in hand. These documents are necessary because the information contained on them is the basis, in addition to the grades of the athlete, for the eligibility document that has to be filed.

Next, a coach has to have a system in order to maintain accurate records and to be efficient with the different processes, like issuing uniforms. And many of these things simply overwhelm a new, young coach. 

What did you find most difficult when coaching?

There were always two things that caused me the most trouble and that I found extremely difficult. The first was making cuts to a squad. Even with 24 years of experience, this was agonizing for me.

Nowadays the term "selecting the squad" should be used instead of making cuts. Every young man or woman who tries out for the team wants to be part of it. And yet you can't keep everyone. You know that some young people, and perhaps also their parents, will be extremely disappointed or upset at not making it. This is a difficult time for sure.

And of course, it is always difficult to deal with misguided, challenging parents. To me, this is the most time-consuming, emotional, and difficult part of coaching. There is no doubt that this represents--and has for decades--the number one problem in high school coaching. 

Learning techniques to deal with this small segment of individuals is absolutely essential in order to survive and thrive in coaching. I devoted two chapters in the book to this topic.

You believe that coaches sometimes need to take different approaches with different athletes. What do you do with a player who seems to not understand your instructions? 

First, the basic idea of taking different approaches with different athletes is really just an educational principle. Young people learn at different rates and may do best with different styles or approaches. In a classroom, for example, there are some students who may learn best with hands-on teaching and being in a small group. Others may need visual aids and there are those who thrive with individual attention. No one style and approach works well for all.

Since athletics is an integral part of education, and teaching and learning are vitally involved, a coach needs to use varying approaches. It is important for a coach to understand that each athlete is unique and he or she has to find the best method to relate to that person. 

For example, in my last coaching stop at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, I wanted two basketball players to move two feet away from the foul lane as starting points in one of our offensive. One of the players, a hard working, intelligent and good player, did not make this adjustment after repeated reminders.

During a game, I even had to call and use a timeout in an attempt to correct this seemingly very small adjustment. During halftime, I diagramed the change on the blackboard and still nothing changed. This player did not move off the block at all during the second half.

It was only in practice the following day when we finally 'physically and visually' connected and the light bulb came on for him. The player wasn't being obstinate, he needed to actually 'see' and understand the reasoning for the move. This example helped me, perhaps more than the player, to reinforce the concept that everyone learns, hears or communicates differently.

How do you deal with a player you feel doesn't like or respect you?

I think these are two distinctly separate issues. A player doesn't have to like me in order for us to have a working relationship and for the team to move forward. However, a lack of respect can be a more difficult hurdle, since this feeling could spill over to others on the team.

The lack of respect could be the result of the athlete being confused or not understanding the coach. This possibility emphasizes the importance of reviewing the concepts of good communication and to try different methods in order to bridge this possible gap.

And of course, the lack of respect could also be the result of poor communication tactics used by the coach. If this is the case, the coach, with the help of the athletic director, needs to learn from his or her shortcomings and develop a more acceptable and successful approach.

You stress the importance of interacting with officials in a considerate, respectful way. What should coaches do when the official seems to be making really bad calls?

During games, there is really only one acceptable approach. A coach can quietly and politely--and without yelling and throwing a tantrum--ask for an explanation after a call. During this quick meeting between the coach and official, it is possible to offer a suggestion such as, "Would you please look for ..." 

The overriding reason that this is the way the things have to be done with "bad calls" is that the coach can influence the athletes and fans by his or her actions. A coach has to be under control, exhibit sportsmanship, and be a role model. This isn't easy. And furthermore, it took me many, many years to begin to even understand this fundamental tenant.

It is really important coaches understand, by reading this text and being mentored by their athletic director, that officials are human and they are trying their best. If an official makes a mistake, it isn't intentional and not much different than those made by players and coaches.

There is also a system in place for most leagues, counties, and associations in order to document and report officials who make blatant mistakes or who need improvement. These reports are normally completed by athletic directors and forwarded to the assigner or supervisor of officials. Future assignments or suggestions for improvement will be made based in part upon these reports.

In many areas of the country, there simply are not enough officials. It is important, therefore, to identify weaknesses, prescribe steps for improvement and learn to treat them with respect. Remember, a game cannot be played without officials.

Coaching is a very emotional job. When you coached, what was your solution to dealing with a bad day at practice or a disappointing game?

I was absolutely the worst example. Win or lose a game, I would come home tied up in a knot. Usually my wife would have fed the kids early and upon the sound of the garage doors, she would gather them and announce, "Come on guys we're going to the movies or the mall."

Diane, my wife, knew that I was on an emotional edge after a game and just needed to be alone for a few hours. When they got back from the movies or mall, she got the kids ready for bed and I would head off to my home office because win or lose, I would never be able to fall asleep. 

Lying in bed tossing and turning didn't make much sense. Therefore, I'd watch the game tape or review a scouting tape in preparation for the next game until I started to nod off--usually around 2 a.m. I really wish that I had some guidance from a textbook or mentor to provide a better alternative.

It took me years to realize that taking a four to five mile run was the best approach for reducing the enormous tension and pent-up emotions after a game. It isn't always possible to fit a run in, though, when you get home at 11 p.m. or later. Having an elliptical machine or treadmill became an essential family room piece of equipment.

Is there anything that you would change or improve with coaches?

This is more of an irritant, but I'd like to see all coaches understand and appreciate the education-based philosophy of athletics. It bothers me when I read some of the 'unthinking,' poorly expressed statements some coaches make in the media.

Just yesterday, I read an article written after a team won a state championship and the coach repeatedly stated, "My team did this, my team did that ..." No, no, no! A team doesn't belong to a coach. It should be "our" team, which includes players, coaches, the school, and the community.

In another article, a coach was disappointed by the loss and said, "The kids didn't come ready to play." Oh, my! Whose fault is that? The coaching staff is responsible for preparing the team for competition. If the team didn't play with intensity, deal with it in practice the next day. But don't express your frustration in the newspaper!

These errors of judgment can be corrected and reading "Blueprint for Better Coaching" will definitely help coaches to improve by providing some hints. What a coach expresses does have an impact, and the image or perception that is created by those words needs to be considered before those comments are made. 

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