How To Become A Sports Coach (Even If You’ve Never Played The Sport…)

Have you ever wanted to coach a sport? Were you once an athlete who played a game, and then decided that coaching could be a vehicle through which you could touch and impact others? Have you been a fan who adores everything about a particular sport’s existence, and want to take your passion one step further and get involved in the action? Are you ready to move from the crowd to the bench, or from wearing a jersey to a whistle? Buckle up, because this post will help show you the way!

Before going any further, let me try and put to bed a common misconception that to be a sports coach you must have first played the sport previously. This is false, and is just a self-imposed limit that you have put on yourself. I don’t blame you for it – society reinforces this notion frequently! However, just because you have not formally done something yourself doesn’t mean you cannot discover the knowledge base, techniques and tactics needed to teach yourself (and others) how to do it!

Does personal experience help? Yes, it absolutely can! Having lived what you teach or coach can provide you with unique insight and credibility – a must-have characteristic of all leaders.

Is it always possible to draw on personal experience in a particular domain before helping others develop themselves within it? No – imagine how we must have “trained” astronauts before a single human had ever been into space? Or for the first person to summit Mt. Everest, Edmund Hillary, could his guide (Tenzing Norgay) have spoken about the exact nature of the final ascent from having done it himself – obviously not!

The main reason that it is possible for a non-player to become a coach is this: coaching and playing a sport are two completely different roles, which require very different (albeit sometimes overlapping) skill sets. It is a limiting belief to say that it’s impossible to get into coaching with only a modest (or even non-existent) athletic background in the target sport. However, a coach in this position will almost certainly need to establish a deeper level of credibility, and will often need to be creative in the way they do it.

I could speak (from personal experience) on this particular issue at length, but going further on this now would be going beyond the scope of the this post. Right now, let’s address an extremely important question:

“Why do you want to become a coach?”

Figuring out your “why” is a critical first step to take before going full-bore into coaching, because it is possible to coach for reasons and in ways that aren’t beneficial to those you are working with! It’s possible to put your own interests way ahead of those of your athletes, and I will admit that I was guilty of doing this at times in my earlier coaching days.

Coaching is all about empowering others, and yet some coaches are out there looking to “power up” themselves. Abusing the position of authority that you have as a coach can only be detrimental – who wants to play for and put their trust in someone who doesn’t have their own best interests at heart? It is always saddening to witness someone who is “coaching for themselves,” because it’s only in working with (dare I even say for) other people, within an environment of great trust, that the coaching process can truly have a chance to gain traction and positively transform.

This importance of this first step in exploring the world of coaching cannot be overstated. Coaching is a process through which beautiful, positive, life-changing things can happen. However, it is entirely possible for a coach to completely destroy the spirit of enjoyment and fulfillment that a sport can bring out in its participants. Once again, I can humbly attest to having lived this in my past. The attitude and approach of the coach will decide whether they will help or hurt their athletes along the way.

Coaches are servant leaders first and foremost, and those who aren’t ready to take care of the people they work with will never fully gain the trust of those they intend to help.

In a related vein, putting an emphasis on developing the people they work with (as opposed to “winning games”) is the trademark of all of the great coaches that I’ve ever worked for or with.

I attended a basketball clinic earlier this year in which there was a discussion on philosophy and whether or not coaches should put their main emphasis on “winning games” as opposed to “player development.” To me, the choice to make is not only a no-brainer, but I truly believe you can actually have both.

Winning is not something that you can even control, but developing your people is! And this shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the coaches who develop their players better than others almost always win more games in the long run because, well, their players (and thus their teams) become better than those of their opponents! Choosing to pursue the betterment of the people you work with is the strategy behind the success of most great coaches.

Related: Check out this amazing TED talk featuring legendary former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and his comments on what success is, and why winning doesn’t automatically mean you’re successful:

Not everyone who goes into coaching gets caught up in the process of development. Some just like being a relatively passive part of a team’s culture (although I’d argue that this isn’t really coaching…), while others become behind-the-scenes builders or managers of a team (a valuable asset to almost all teams, but again, this is not really the essence of coaching). When looking to get started as a coach, that initial question of why you want to become one in the first place is a key point which will usually determine how successfully you take the next step in your own development.

Learn, Learn, Learn…

Getting through that initial, very philosophical first question of “why” someone should become a coach brings us back to the the question of “how” one actually goes about doing this. And based on my experiences and those of many of my coaching colleagues, there really is only one logical next step: learn.

Put your nose to the grindstone. Read, watch, listen, consume. Get immersed in the game. Open your mind and become a sponge. Be non-judgmental and try and discover as many different ways of teaching the sport as possible. “There are a thousand ways to skin a cat,” is a common saying in coaching circles – why not learn as many methods as you can before specializing in the ones that suit you the best?

When you commit to coaching, you are committing to a never-ending learning process, which I’ll touch on later.

Although there is nothing wrong with jumping into coaching at a grassroots level and learning through trial and error, it is probably much more beneficial (and efficient in the long-term) to jump to the highest level of the sport that you can access, and learn from the most talented coaches that you can. Even though this will mean you are likely serving in only a very minor role off the bat, the time that you invest in this role will pay dividends down the road.

As I think back to when I was a video coordinator for my university football team, I can still remember the daily grind. 90- to 100-hour work weeks for very little money in exchange, sleeping in the office, and doing very little actual coaching were the hallmarks of this incredibly valuable time in my career. Watching so much film on such a regular basis made the game’s techniques, tactics and flow become easier to observe and simpler to interpret. It’s rare that the lower levels of a sport can give you the same kind of immersive experience.

The more pure knowledge and exposure to the ways of good coaches that you can pack in early on in your career, the faster you can ascend the coaching ranks. Upon leaving the university level at the bottom of the staff ladder, I immediately jumped into a high-level coaching role at the competitive level just one notch below. Now, I wasn’t ready for the level of leadership that was needed of me at the time, but that was another lesson to be learned another way.

All this to say, I don’t think that I’d be where I’m at now as a coach had it not been for that early foray at the university level.

“Mentor Me, Coach”

Without a doubt, my career has been shaped tremendously by those from whom I’ve learned. Just off the top of my head, there are probably around ten people who have had a really significant impact on me, with another 10-20 more who have influenced me in some other meaningful way. That’s a lot of teachers, and I count myself very lucky to have been around each and every one of them.

While you can certainly develop some of your coaching ability on your own, the process is more beneficial, and much more efficient, when you work alongside mentor coaches. While a good mentor can certainly aid you in building your knowledge base, their real benefit to you comes from the feedback they can provide.

A critical part of the coaching process involves helping others uncover their blind spots, which everyone invariably has a number of. Because we cannot see them ourselves, they must be “seen” by a third party in order for us to even have a chance to improve upon them. Whether you are coaching others or are being coached, this is an extremely important concept to keep in mind!

Related: The Number One Role of a Coach

Sports are people games: your relationships with others are invaluable and will make or break you as a coach.

Not only does it help to find people who will show you the ropes in coaching, but you usually need the help of others to advance through the ranks. Coaching puts a heavy emphasis on “who you know,” but that usually only gets you to the doorway of a new opportunity. How good you are at working with others and teaching your craft is what gets you through the door and to a seat at the table.

How do know that someone has the potential to be a great mentor to you? Like all great coaches, an outstanding mentor coach will find ways to prioritize your personal development and become invested in your own coaching journey.

In return for their commitment to you, it is imperative to invest in your connection with your mentor(s). If you and your mentor base your relationship on serving one another, it can lead to both of you accomplishing things that are beyond your individual capacities.

And while you may not always agree with the way in which your mentor approaches a certain situation or issue (especially if the resolution isn’t so effective!), these kind of moments are important learning opportunities for you. A smart person learns from their mistakes: a smarter one learns from those of others!

Your mentor coaches will often become mentors to you outside of the football world. If you act in good faith and work hard in your role, your relationship with your mentor will deepen and become even more beneficial. This relationship has a huge secondary kickback: your more meaningful relationship will make you a happier person overall.

Know Where You Want to Go, Then Build the Roads to Get There

As a sports coach, you are usually tasked with guiding your athletes toward a accomplishing a number of (hopefully) well-defined goals. These goals could include the mastery of a technique, the understanding of a scheme, or the establishment of certain habits, such as playing with discipline and poise. The quality of the roads that you pave for your pupils is of utmost importance in seeing these goals attained.

NB: Notice how I did not include winning in the above list of goals? Winning, on its own, is not really a great goal, because it’s an outcome that is often well outside of our control. It’s always helpful to remember that a team or individual can perform well in competition and still lose to an opponent who performs even better. Winning is a byproduct of performing well, and good performance is something that is absolutely within our control! Hence, performing well is often the central goal of most experienced coaches.

As your exposure to a sport grows, you’ll gain an understanding of what the mastery of different skills and schemes looks like. While there are many ways to shoot a three-point jump shot in basketball, a few methods are much more effective, efficient and consistent than most.

When you deeply understand the most effective, efficient and consistent models of task performance (i.e. you can visualize, breakdown, concisely explain, demonstrate and troubleshoot the task), you can begin to authentically teach your athletes how to master a given task.

For example, in teaching an offensive lineman how to “drive block,” you should be able to:

  • see a clear picture of the well-performed technique in your mind’s eye
  • understand the steps of the action (stance, start, footwork, hand and eye placement, body posture, etc.)
  • have a set of coaching points ready to go to verbally communicate the task
  • demonstrate or have someone else demonstrate a high-quality drive block, and,
  • address problems that your athletes experience as they learn and progress.

If you lack these tools as a coach, you risk slowing down or even misleading your athletes through their progression toward mastery. Knowing what you want your athletes to do (if they don’t already know themselves) and creating learning pathways for them is central to the athletic coaching process.

The More You Learn…

One of the great, mysterious paradoxes of life is that the more you explore and learn about a subject, the more new roads to further learning you discover.

I am super fortunate to count a now 70-year-old veteran coach among my mentors. He is one of my active coaching colleagues, and is a living example of the journey that coaching can take you on. His pure knowledge and wisdom gained from years of experience are impressive to behold, but what is more impressive is this fact – he is an eternal student. A life learnerA man with an unquenchable thirst to keep evolving as a coach.

Now I’m pretty sure that Coach B doesn’t sleep a whole lot anymore, which might explain how he is able to share new articles and coaching videos with the rest of us on the staff at 5:00 AM on some days!

When you fully embrace a life of coaching – in order to do it well – you must also embrace a life of learning. As much knowledge as I gained from slaving away in a video room for a few football seasons in university, I have learned MUCH more about my craft since then. Live coaching repetitions are certainly part of the progress I’ve made (that is to say, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about coaching just by coaching), but a drive to learn more on my own still exists within me.

There is perhaps a survival mechanism at play here – in any competitive setting, you risk falling behind when you stagnate, simply because anyone who is improving their game “behind  you,” is effectively catching up or overtaking you.

Whether your drive to evolve is intrinsically motivated (Coach B doesn’t really have anything more to prove – he just learns for the sake of becoming a better coach!) or is triggered extrinsically, it is a must-have attribute of anyone who wants to truly make a mark as a coach.

Take Care Of The Game

Coaching is a truly fulfilling vocation for many reasons. Among the greatest feelings you will experience is a sense of community and contribution to something bigger than yourself.

Coaches often strive to become “people developers,” and this can apply to both the athletes and the other coaches you work with. As John C. Maxwell wrote in his book, The 5 Levels of Leadership1, the “pinnacle” of being a great leader comes about through the act of developing others into great, people-developing leaders themselves.

Cherish this amazing opportunity to help others grow, but remember, as a coach you are under a microscope. Most coaching circles are small and news (both good and bad) travels very quickly throughout them.

The more people you know (or perhaps more importantly, the more who know you!) who believe in your ability as a coach, the more rewarding coaching becomes. As you extend your reach and develop yourself and others, you can affect other coaches and thus have a chance to improve the coaching profession as a whole. As such, taking care of the game you coach naturally becomes a priority whether you like it or not. Right now, we are seeing a lot of elite athletics programs letting down their sports by acting in unethical, morally broken ways, and this is not good for anyone!!

Build and nurture your relationships, not only with your athletes, but with other coaches (those within and outside of your program). In doing so, you will multiply your efforts in this amazing field.

Do not be needlessly judgmental of another coach just because they operate in a way that is different from your own. The paradox of your competition is this: only the people on the other sideline or bench can really understand and appreciate your reality as a coach/athlete/professional/businessperson…you name it! You will always find common ground with a new connection if you keep this in mind.

I wish you all the best in your personal coaching journey. Is there something significant that I have missed (admittedly this is just an introductory guide to the subject) that you’d like me to comment on? If you have any questions or points to add, please feel free to post in the comments section below. Merci!



Referenced Works:

  1. John C. Maxwell, The Five Levels of Leadership (Center Street, 2011)

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