With more than 700 games on the bench as either the head coach or an assistant, my leadership journey started with organized sports
I absolutely love coaching so when I began seeking K-12 leadership positions last year, it hit me that I will be stepping away from coaching high school basketball. This fact makes me sad. In addition to leaving the classroom at a time when teaching brings me incredible fulfillment, coaching has been a major part of my professional identity for more than 15 years.
Trading team huddles for something new leaves me conflicted because my involvement in high school athletics has given my life so much meaning. After all, the joys and challenges of coaching were factors that pushed me to explore my interest in advancing a career in leadership. Educational leadership is a career move that excites me and I am ready for the challenge.
I am proud of my association with hundreds of parents as well as dozens of coaches and referees throughout my career. Most of all, the student-athletes in my charge have been at the center of my pride. Since I began working toward the next chapter on my career journey, I have enjoyed coaching at a deeper level. The thrill of coaching in big games and the connections made with young people on the hardwood never gets old.
In coaching, the drawbacks are humbling and failure is on public display. Those failures steel a coaches approach to leadership and simultaneously make us vulnerable. That realization led me to these nine takeaways from a coaching career that includes buzzer-beaters, raucous locker room dancing, season-ending injuries and even hostile parents demanding I be fired.
I often tell people that coaching is just teaching with a ball and just like classroom teaching, reflecting on the lessons learned is a valuable exercise.
1. Being right is overrated; losing is underrated
Sometimes it takes a loss to recognize weaknesses that were present all along. A loss at the right time can lead to more success in the long run. We have a saying on my teams that when you win it doesn't mean you did everything right and when you lose it doesn’t mean you did everything wrong.
Coaching requires leaders to distinguish the process from the the results. Striving to win is great, and my teams remind me not to be fooled by scoreboards or other people's measures of our success. Losing is a necessary and healthy part of growth. This lesson is directly linked to lesson number nine, it ain't about me.
2. Respect is given, trust is gained and confidence is earned
From the whiteboard in the locker room - I enjoy
delivering pre-game speeches and this one was
especially intense. We won a close game and the
celebration is one of my favorites. When I step back
from coaching I am not sure how I will fill the void.
Two of my players after a game. They hurried
out of our locker room to perform in a concert
and I got to see part of the show. It is rewarding
to coach well-rounded players. I stay in touch
with dozens of my former players.
3. Relationships make the experience
Relationships have always been critical to my fulfillment as a leader but this was different because my competitive nature could have made the process miserable. We were not a good basketball team and I had grown accustomed to coaching teams that won a vast majority of our games. My struggling team helped me learn how to adapt and coach with a winning mindset. We developed meaningful measures for our growth and we hung on to high expectations. Success and failure are never by accident and both are a function of relationships.
4. Learn to follow
We should not expect people to understand what we want as leaders if we fail to listen to what they need as players and parents. From the most disgruntled to the most valuable, everyone wants to belong. In roles outside of my own leadership, I have witnessed good leaders helping others and bringing meaning to the experiences of others and it reminds me that all leaders benefit by learning how to follow. I have had to learn how to get out of my own way so I could grow into a better follower. Coaching has taught me how to adapt to the various leadership styles of authority figures in my school. Leading a team provides great opportunities to build rapport with diverse parent groups and establish that I care about the young people in our program at a crucial time in their development as adolescents. There is no better training ground for learning how to follow than coaching children.
5. It is a marathon, not a sprint
Over the years I have gained a better appreciation for
all the people involved, even the refs! I have a lot of
respect for referees and have gotten to know quite a few.
There’s also something about the daily work that brings out my best energy. I love working with my players. I enjoy the details and the drills. I love building habits and teaching our system. When my players simply feel prepared they are more likely to have success. Sometimes that feeling can go a long way, but actually being prepared is critical for teams trying to get to the next level. That is the marathon part - stringing together days and weeks of working our tails off to be better today and at the finish line.
Whether it involves the promise of the early season or the late-season grind, my coaching experience has taught me more than any other leadership endeavor that the process is the result. Focusing on the marathon keeps my leadership in perspective. I love a strong finish.
6. Making the experience uniquely ours
I thoroughly enjoy when those special occasions emerge in a season and they become part of how we define our team experience. I refer to this collection of events as "honest moments" and like my best coaches, I have learned how to harness the power of those unplanned parts of a team experience that are consequential to our story.
Each November, our boys and girls basketball
programs lay wreaths at the graves of military
veterans as part of our community service
initiative. This is part of our program culture.
My student-athletes have taught me to appreciate the authenticity in the moments we experience together as a team and build our lessons around our struggles. They have also helped me remain mindful of the togetherness outside of practices that help define us too - the times when we do community service, joke around after practices, and go through shared experiences like final exam week together - all of that is part of the team story.
I learned how to shape the stories we tell and the strategies I employ for practice around the qualities that make each team unique. My players taught me how to leverage our unique story to inspire them rather than depending on general platitudes.
7. Who gets your water?
Your team culture reveals your values. A culture includes a lot of elements and often times the guys pushing others in practice despite a lack of playing time are central to the culture of a team. Expressive cheering and shows of support are part of it too, but even those things can be fleeting. A culture is built in practices and in the habits, the body language and the approach taken by players and coaches every day.
The cool thing about a winning culture is that it remains constant in times of struggle or great success. Everyone can embrace the culture because it’s based on who we are and our commitment, not unpredictable conditions.
8. Space required
I am so grateful that
my wife and children
support my coaching
experience is one that
we share and it means
the world to me. (By
the way, my team is
the Tigers - hence the
9. It ain't about me
Coaching has accelerated my professional growth and the realization that my passion revolves around improving the lives of others. My life is richer because of a career spent in education.
Coaching lineage is often referred to as a "coaching tree" and I have always been grateful that I can trace my roots back to some remarkable men. I am hopeful that as my players approach adulthood, they will feel the same way about me.
- Starting with Kyle Henry who introduced me to baseball, which I still love. Now I share that love and coach my own children.
- Phil Agostini who taught me how to be a part of a team and stuck with me as a kid when I had a tendency to challenge authority.
- Steve Walter is the coach I wish my own children could have because he was such a great teacher.
- Mitch Mercer with his incredible ability to relate to kids and see the big picture.
- Darin Magley, a remarkably patient and kind role-model. Great for kids.
- Jim VanSyckle & Chris Booth - Both men spent a lot of time helping me learn the value of patience and hard work as I sat the bench trying to earn playing time. A lot of coaches don't talk about sitting the bench, but I share the experience with my teams every season. These two coaches helped me grow through the challenge and I am a better coach because of them.
- Scott Swinehart - the most prepared and detail-oriented coach I ever had as a kid. Our team respected him and responded to his demanding expectations. A master of consistency.
- Jim Graham - Skillful deployment of the pre-game speech and motivating his players to go all in. Fired up and proud.
- Jerry Reams - One of my all-time favorites. "Old Dawg" was the finest assistant coach a young man could want. He always encouraged us, made us laugh and kept the game of baseball a game. I appreciated him at the time because his calm approach to coaching and his kind heart kept some negative influences at bay for me. He always found the positive and we knew he respected the game. More importantly, he cared about us as players and we knew it.
- Joel Leipprandt was my JV basketball coach and I still call him each season before big games. I knew early on how lucky I was to have him in my life. He was a selfless leader, an authentic man with high expectations and integrity; on my coach's Dream Team.