AGC #012 - 10 habits of successful coaches

How the best get to the top - and stay there

This year marked my 10th anniversary as a full-time coach.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in a bunch of developmental and performance environments in two countries, alongside and in opposition to some outstanding coaches.

Here are my top 10 habits of the most successful ones, from my personal experience:

1. Consistent curiosity

This could mean asking questions, interrogating processes, studying opponents, or just seeing what’s happening at the top end of their sport.

Either way, it’s the #1 trait for me.

If you're not a curious coach and trying to find better ways to do things, those who are will overtake you.

2. Adaptability

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” goes the legendary Mike Tyson quote.

The best coaches I’ve seen plan meticulously to prepare their teams, but can also work things out on the fly when the s**t hits the fan.

It’s both/and, not either/or.

3. Model vulnerability

One of the most powerful things a coach can say is: “I screwed that up.”

The best coaches demand high standards of, and have high expectations for, their players.

They also apply those same ideals to themselves and admit when they get it wrong.

4. Empower others

For decisions to get made and things to get done, there needs to be a hierarchical chain of command.

But top coaches know the chain of communication can be flatter.

It could be giving assistant coaches leeway to lead their areas of the program.

Maybe it’s appropriately handing over ownership of a practice or game plan to the team.

But occasionally making yourself disappear, and knowing when and how, is a quality leadership skill.

5. Make people feel seen

The grind of a season wears on everybody, but within it lies lots of fun moments and connections between players and staff.

The top coaches I’ve worked with find time for coffee with a player who is struggling, to nerd out over a shared interest, or an excuse for over-thanking someone to actively create those moments.

This summer, for instance, my boss bought both her assistant coaches (and herself!) massages to treat us before heading into the 2023 season. And in doing so, she supported my wife’s business.

A class act.

6. Big-picture thinking

Theming is a hugely underrated skill in coaching.

Being able to connect the dots between the players’ roles and the purpose and goals or the team takes tons of thought and intention.

Finding different ways to consistently and creatively point people back to the team’s “big why” requires a deep-thinking coach who can look above and beyond the day-to-day firefighting within a program.

7. Coach the individual

The modern athlete demands a trusting relationship with their coach. Motivation by fear and incentives may work in the short term but usually ends in tears over time.

Most team sports still come down to a series of 1-on-1 moments.

Being able to know each athlete’s strengths, weaknesses, and the specific ways to help them reach their potential is key to helping them excel.

Quality coaches find a way to coach both the team and the individual.

8. Have a higher purpose

Messiah’s ultra-successful men’s and women’s soccer teams had a simple mantra: “Winning is the point, but never the purpose.”

Theirs was faith-based, but secular coaches also need to have a purpose for coaching that’s bigger than themselves, and separate from their goals.

It helps create the resiliency and perspective needed to handle the tough losses and days when coaching wears you down.

9. Think outside their sport

David Epstein’s outstanding book Range argues that generalists can triumph over specialists.

And if a coach only ever sees a problem through the prism of their sport, it can give them a deep but narrow view of the potential solutions.

When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail, and all that.

Whether it’s seeking inspiration from other sports, the world of business, or successful groups in any discipline, the best coaches can look beyond their sport for ideas and solutions.

10. Value mentorship

Doctors have doctors. Lawyers have lawyers.

And every coach needs a coach.

Few professionals can sustain their best performance on their own, and the weight of coaching can be quite a burden.

High-performing coaches have a mentor or two to hold them accountable, tell them the truth, offer a listening ear, and help them see through the fog.

Whenever you’re ready, here are a few ways I can help you:

1. Efficient Practice Design: My multi-step system for creating practice plans that will flow smoothly, stretch your players appropriately, and save coaches of all team sports dozens of hours a year, on and off the field.

2. Premium Practice Planner:  A Notion template to help sports coaches plan, deliver and review their sessions with maximum efficiency - then smartly archive everything.

3. Coach’s Dozen: An ebook of 12 small-sided games with diagrams and animations to help you train goalscoring in field hockey, co-authored with Mark Egner.