BEING AN ASSISTANT COACH (Part II)
By Doug Abrams
Nearly every youth sports team has one or more assistant coaches, so the role of these important staff members deserves discussion. Two weeks ago, I began a two-part column, which I interrupted last week when the New Jersey lawsuit against the Little League catcher hit the headlines. Part II resumes here.
Two weeks ago, I drew on my own happy experiences, as an assistant coach in some years and a head coach in others. After discussing the benefits of being an assistant coach, I turned to the seven most common challenges that face assistant coaches and the head coach. The column ended with the first challenge (Developing mutual respect), and this column resumes with the final six.
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2) Maintaining relations with the players. When I began as Wally Livingstone’s assistant in the Nassau County youth hockey program in 1978, I wondered whether the players would react differently to me when I was not a head coach. I quickly learned that being an assistant coach makes little or no difference. An assistant coach who earns the players’ respect and affection will enjoy the players’ respect and affection. It’s as simple as that. Regardless of a coach’s title, the formula for reaching the players remains the same.
3) Showing loyalty to the head coach. In the years when I was a head coach, nearly all assistant coaches contributed mightily to the team effort, and to the players’ positive experiences on and off the ice. Collaborating with committed assistant coaches was an important reward of being the head coach.
In all candor, however, I also had a few assistants who were jealous, overly ambitious, or who otherwise did not understand the supporting role they had been assigned. They would sometimes overstep their bounds by making and announcing decisions that were the head coach’s, by second-guessing strategy or other decisions privately to parents or players, or by tolerating or even encouraging criticism from team members. These strains frequently surface when the board of directors, and not the head coach, selects the assistants.
The coaching staff needs to speak with one voice — the head coach’s. When assistant coaches have input for the head coach — even a disagreement — the staff needs to talk privately and candidly, without fanning flames among the parents or players. Anything less demonstrates disloyalty to the head coach and can bring down the team because disagreements and personality conflicts among the staff must be kept from the players.
4) Showing loyalty to the assistants. Loyalty is a two-way street, and the head coach also owes loyalty to the assistants. Every cooperative assistant — even one with little hands-on experience in the game — has strengths to offer the team, often strengths that the head coach lacks. In return for loyal service to the players, assistants earn a genuine stake in the team’s fortunes. That stake comes, however, only when the head coach feels secure enough to share the limelight with other staff members.
Whenever a local newspaper ran the photo of a team that I served as head coach, for example, I always tried to make sure that the caption identified me as “Coach Doug Abrams,” not as “Head Coach.” Each assistant was also identified as “Coach.” Titles did not mean much to me, and I was comfortable with equal identification for all staff members who pitched in with their talents. The head coach makes the final decisions and sets the team’s direction, but I considered myself as “first among equals” in my personal relationships with the assistants, who also contributed to the luster that accompanies a job well done.
Loyalty also means that the head coach needs to view the assistant coaches as the “brain trust.” Candid behind-the-scenes sharing of ideas (including disagreements) can pay rich dividends because head coaches have relatively few people they can turn to for advice about lineups, discipline, strategies and other day-to-day decisions. Consulting a few parents may be off-limits because consultation might smack of favoritism. In the years when I was a head coach, I remained thankful for assistant coaches who rescued me from making avoidable mistakes by raising pros and cons as respected colleagues outside the earshot of the players and parents.
The door to candid discussion remains open only when the head coach keeps it open, beginning during the first preseason staff meeting. Unless the head coach specifies that candor is welcome and not resented, the assistants may conclude that approving nods are the safest path, or they may vent their frustrations covertly with one or more parents. Open discussion among the staff can be a safety valve that enables the coach to avoid squandering valuable opportunities to correct mistakes before they happen.
The best head coaches show loyalty to the staff with humility and openness that views head coaching as an ongoing learning experience rather than an ego boost. As President Harry S Truman once said, “the only things worth learning are the things you learn after you know it all.”
5) Fully involving each assistant coach in practice sessions. In many communities today, practice time is scarce, expensive or both. Smart head coaches make full use of every minute by fully involving each assistant coach, but I have also seen head coaches who want to be the “whole show” while their assistants stand by idly, hands folded, and doing little or nothing. Besides being insulting to the assistants, putting on a one-person show is a likely sign that the head coach feels too insecure or inexperienced to share center stage.
To use every minute of practice time most efficiently, talented head coaches sometimes split the squad into smaller groups during a portion of the session. Each group works on a different skill for a few minutes. When the coach blows the whistle, the groups rotate from one skill to another. The groups continue rotating until each one has worked on each skill. Four groups, for example, can quadruple productivity.
Sometimes an assistant coach joins the staff with a special background as a player. For example, the assistant coach may have been pitcher in baseball or (as I was) a goalie in hockey. Pitching coaches or goalie coaches are hard to come by. I spent rewarding years serving as the goalie coach with head coaches like Wally Livingstone, who were secure enough in their own strengths that they encouraged the assistant to display his.
6) Fully involving each assistant coach in games. The head coach normally makes out the lineup and, depending on the sport’s substitution rules, manages the team throughout the game. In the heat of the action, however, the head coach may find it difficult to pay close individual attention to a dozen or more players at the same time. Assistant coaches on the bench can help by keying on individual players, who will appreciate a mentor who shows personal interest with words of encouragement or correction throughout the game.
7) Preparing assistants for team leadership. Emergencies happen. Like the players, the head coach may have to miss a game for sickness, family commitments or other unforeseen circumstances. When assistant coaches must step suddenly into the lead role, the team will stand the best chance if the head coach has prepared for that contingency by already assuring the assistants a meaningful role in each practice session and game. Grooming the assistants to run the team by themselves can help them adjust more comfortably when circumstances suddenly thrust them in the head role, and can also help the players adjust more comfortably to their leadership.
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What does all this add up to? The staff’s greatest challenge is that each player depends on coaches – head and assistants alike – who understand their distinctive roles, support one another, and cooperate from a foundation of mutual respect. The best interests of the players come first.