Category Archives: Coaching philosophy

The Two Sides Of Every Coach

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Over the years, the image of VanDerveer has taken two forms, one warm and engaging, one not so much.  Her defining yin and yang appears to be toughness and tenderness. She demonstrates the former as needed; it’s the latter that people close to her often mention.—Game On

Tara VanDerveer has won over 900 basketball games, Pac-10 conference coach of the year ten times, and two national championships.  So she’s pretty good.

The quotation above highlights the necessities of coaching, whether you coach men or women.  You’ve got to be able to bring the hammer, but you’ve also got to care.  I’ve seen young coaches miss the boat on this one, trying too hard to be their player’s friend that they are unable to effectively coach their team.

3 types of young coaches

  • Young coach ignores obvious problems in order to be “fun”, “cool”, or whatever.
  • Young coach is sometimes super “fun” in practice and other times oddly strict…their teams don’t know what to expect.
  • Young coach is distant with players, not worried about being “fun”, but not able to connect with players on a personal level.



I’m pretty sure when I was first starting out, I chose the last of those options.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve never been burdened by the desire to be perceived as “fun”, so I didn’t care that my team thought I wasn’t “cool”.  In my opinion, that’s the best option of those available, but I do think I could have worked harder to show my team I cared about them off the court.

3 qualities of tough coaches

  • Demand consistent effort levels from their athletes,
  • Set a high bar for excellence within their program,
  • Challenge their athletes to embrace the discomfort of getting better.



3 qualities of caring coaches

  • Let their players get to know them,
  • Take an interest in their players personally,
  • Stay in touch with former players.



Both sides of a coach are necessary.  You don’t want to be a soft touch whose athletes take advantage of them, but you also don’t want to be so hard on them that they don’t enjoy their sport anymore.  Finding the right balance is the key to a successful coach-player relationship.

Why Do You Coach?

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“Once you know your greater purpose, there are lots of roads that will take you there.”
Where There’s a Why, There’s A Way

I’ll start.

I coach because I believe in it.  I coach because God created me to coach.  I coach because I’m good at it.  I coach because I believe sport creates better humans than those who don’t participate.  A bit judge-y, I know, but it’s how I feel.  I coach because I enjoy working with young people and watching them transform themselves into better players, teammates, and friends.  I coach because it’s amazing to watch a group of people accomplish a goal.  I coach because I think it’s important for young ladies to learn about leadership, winning and losing with grace, conflict management…all the stuff of teams.

So that’s my why.

Check out the article linked above, it’s very good.  I completely agree with its premise that there are many ways to skin a cat, many roads that can take you to your why…many “hows”, if you will.  In my case, I could coach club, I could coach high school, I could coach at any level as long as I’d be able to accomplish my why.  It’s the why that’s important, not the where or the how.

Coaching truly is an amazing profession.  Challenging?  Sure…but it wouldn’t be fun if it were easy.

Your turn.

I’ll ask again:  Why do you coach?

Teaching Our Teams To Handle Pressure

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There’s a possibility that I’ve been wrong about how I go about teaching my team to handle pressure.  I’ve always told them, do what you gotta do to figure out how you best handle pressure.  If you’ve got to convince yourself that there is no pressure, then go for it.  On the flip side, if you’ve got to tell yourself that you eat pressure for breakfast…you thrive on it, then that works too.

Turns out, there’s some research that says one is definitely better than the other.

According to the post 3 Words to Improve Pressure Performance (and 3 to Avoid) on the Talent Code’s blog, a test group that embraced the excitement of a pressure situation performed the best.  Better than the group that admitted nervousness.  And way better than the group that pretended to be calm.

I’ve always told my teams that whether you embrace pressure or pretend it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter because they’re both mind tricks.  Now it seems that, while that assertion may be true, one certainly has a leg up on the other.

So when your player is standing at the service line on game point, you want her to tell herself that she is excited about the moment.

Check out the post and see what you think.

Are You Committed To Your Team?

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I found a nice article over at Basketball Insights that talked about NBA coach Gregg Popovich’s leadership skills.  Since he’s been so successful, I thought I’d share it with you and put my spin on things.

6 ways to show your commitment to your team

1.      Understand what motivates your players. In practices and in games, we’ve got to know how to get our teams going.  I often tell my teams that games aren’t the time for teaching…go play and we’ll fix it later.  The same goes for us as coaches.  We’ve got to remember to use practice time to figure out how each player is motivated to learn, how they’re motivated to push themselves, and how they’re motivated to excel.  In the same manner, we can use scrimmages to see how they’re motivated in stressful competitive situations.

2.      Do what it takes to be a champion. Winning cultures win. I’m sure you’ve played teams that your team was better than…but that other team had crazy swagger.  They expected to win more than your team hoped to win.  Before we can create a culture of winning, I believe we’ve got to create a culture of success.  You all know by now how deep my love of John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success goes, he was awesome.  He was also a champion.

3.      Be a learning leader. Isn’t the coaching cliché that the best coaches steal from the best coaches?  With so many coaches out there, I can’t think of a reason that we can’t all find someone to learn from!  I believe in being a coaching nerd and learning from as many folks as I can, whether it’s another coach or a business leader.

4.      Provide vision for your program. What is important to you?  What is your coaching philosophy? How do you want your team to be perceived?  All of those things go into creating a vision for your program.  Then you go out and get it.  Without knowing what you want, how will you know what players to recruit?  Beyond that, how will your players know when they’re successful?

5.      Put the team first. Everything we do has to be about the team.  Whether it’s being incredibly prepared for every drill, practice, and game…or making sure you’re on the same page with your assistants.  All of that puts the team first.  Add to that all of the intangibles that we teach our athletes, they’ll appreciate that it’s “we before me” and model that behavior.

6.      Have fun. Hopefully you love your sport.  Hopefully you love going to practice.  Hopefully you love coaching.  Hopefully you love your athletes (even when they’re driving you crazy).  Hopefully you get along with your coworkers.  Hopefully you’ve got rockstar assistants.  If you’ve got all of that, then you’re having fun.

Leading, coaching…it’s not easy, but it’s the best job ever!  We can learn from those folks who’ve not only been successful, but who’ve been continuously successful over a long period of time.

The 7 Secrets Of Inspiring Coaches

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If my team is still loving volleyball and enjoying coming into the gym every day at the end of the season, I feel like I’ve done my job well.  If they’re still working hard, achieving, getting better, and excelling…I’m a happy coach.  But how can I make sure that it’s happening?  Check out this post based on the article, The 7 Secrets of Inspiring Leaders.

7 ways we can inspire our teams

  1. Ignite your enthusiasm.  We’ve got to be passionate about our jobs…and we’ve got to somehow get that across to our team.  As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success and one of the cornerstones of his Pyramid is enthusiasm.  If we’re enthusiastic about not just our sport, but the welfare and success of our players as individuals…we’ll find success as a team.
  2. Navigate a course of action. What’s your vision for your team?  Do they know it?  Is it inspiring?  A few years ago, I told a team I was coaching that I wanted other folks who saw us practice and play to think we were doing things the right way…that we were working hard and getting after it in the gym.  My expectations for them were high and they rose to the challenge.
  3. Sell the benefit.  What will accomplishing your vision for the team mean for each player individually?  Of course having a winning season is great…every team wants that, but what about your particular vision for the team is unique?  For me, and I understand that it’s a bit touchy feely, but I sell the feeling they’ll have at the end of a successful season.  The sense of pride in achievement is a major benefit for my teams.
  4. Paint a picture. Is your team close to winning a championship?  Maybe you can bring in a former player from a previous championship winning team to talk to your players.  They can tell them about the amazing experience they had winning for the school.  They can paint a mental picture for your players about how amazing they’ll feel when they’ve won it all.
  5. Invite participation.  I’m not saying that your team has to be a democracy, but I am saying that your team needs to feel like they have some sort of say in things.  With my personality, this is always a tough one for me, but I’ve found a few ways to give my team input.  Individual meetings with each player…you never know who’s got some great idea but is afraid to tell you.  And giving the team control over smaller things (like hotel room assignment, where the team goes for dinner, etc.) takes things off of my plate and helps them to feel a responsibility to the team.
  6. Reinforce optimism.  There’s this thing called the recency effect.  It says that we best remember the most recent things and not only that, we think the way things are right now are the way things will always be.  So it’s our job as coach to remind our players that things are never as bad (whether they’ve had a bad game or the team is on a losing streak) as they seem.
  7. Encourage potential.  Not just in things that directly benefit our programs.  Sure it’s our job to squeeze every bit of potential from our student-athletes…but it’s also our job to prepare them for whatever they want to do in the future.  Maybe we encourage them to study abroad, or try out for the orchestra, or wherever else a passion may lay.


I believe our players look to us for inspiration in good times and bad…let’s be prepared to support them in every way that we can.

Have The Courage To Create Conflict

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In her great TEDtalk, Dare To Disagree, Margaret Heffernan talks about conflict among individuals and within larger organizations…and how constructive conflict isn’t bad, but actually very good.  I’ve written enough on here about conflict that you all should know that I completely agree with this viewpoint.

Benefits of operating our teams with a constructive conflict model

  1. Surrounding ourselves with assistant coaches who will challenge us and create conflict around what we think is true will make us better leaders.  For example, a few years ago, one of my starters got hurt mid-match and we made in-game adjustments as necessary.  But after the match, when we had time to think about it, we discussed our options and I poo poo’d my assistant’s suggestion of a lineup change.  He persisted and his suggestion worked much better than the one I’d assumed would be best.
  2. When we explore all possibilities, we can feel confident we’re on the right path.  I’m a big fan of asking my assistants, “so what do you think?”  They may get tired of me always exploring, but when we hit a problem from every angle, I can feel confident that we’re doing what’s best for the team.

How do we set up a constructive conflict model with our team?

  1. See conflict as thinking.  Conflict gets a bad rap.  When we get right down to it, conflict is just exploring different ways to solve the same problem.
  2. Don’t be afraid of conflict.  Conflict among coaching staffs shouldn’t include screaming, yelling, name-calling, or other any of the other negative outcomes.  It truly should be a group of people with the same destination…they’re just all taking different roads.
  3. Find assistants who think differently than we do.  Heffernan says we’re genetically predisposed to surround ourselves with people who are like us.  That’s great if we want coaches who just parrot off what we say…not so great if we want to be thoughtful about the direction of our team.
  4. Have the patience and energy to seek these people out.  Finding those folks who will feel comfortable challenging us isn’t easy and it will take time.  Some of us have the opportunity to hire those people, while others of us will have to cultivate this atmosphere of constructive conflict among an existing coaching staff.
  5. Be prepared to change our minds.  This is the biggie.  If we’re going to seek out folks who’ll disagree with our opinions, we have to be open-minded enough to acknowledge that their ideas may, in fact, be better and more successful than ours.


So how many of us will dare to do this?  When we learn to see constructive conflict as productive and not negative, we’ll be more apt to try it.

Are Optimists Better Coaches?

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There are all sorts of coaches out there.

There’s the Sandbagger Coach: “My team is okay…we’ll be lucky if we’re above .500 this season.”  Of course, they proceed to win the conference championship.

There’s the Eeyore Coach: “Recruiting was terrible, I’ve got no good players, and the best of this bad bunch just got hurt.” Self-fulfilling prophecy?

There’s the Over-The-Moon Coach: “My team is ready to win it all this year, go ahead and buy your tickets to the finals!” Even keeled isn’t in this coach’s vocabulary.

Where do I think I fall on the coach spectrum?  I’m an optimist…for better or worse.  It’s in my DNA to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.  Of course, I will game plan to figure out a way to get the glass full instead of just half full…but I’m generally more positive than negative with my team.  I suppose it’s a matter of perspective though.  If you were to ask my team, they may think my “honest conversations about where they stand on the team” are really just me being mean.

Anyhoo, without the fear of the theoretical hammer being thrown down, how does an optimist inspire her team and get them to challenge themselves?

5 ways optimists can get the best from their teams

  1. Optimists overcome fear.  As Winston Churchill once said, “optimists see opportunities in every difficulty.”  Every team, no matter how successful, will face challenges.  Helping our teams to overcome their fears and tackle those challenges is the major job of the optimistic coach.
  2. Optimists inspire their team.  Optimistic coaches understand the power of their words.  It’s our job to make our players see things in themselves and the future of the team that they wouldn’t have seen without our leading.
  3. Optimists rally the troops.  This is just an opinion, but I think most folks rise and fall with the tide of their emotions.  They played great…everything is awesome!  They played poorly…everything is awful!  The optimistic coach keeps the team level-headed and focused on the end goal instead of the day to day ups and downs of being on a team.
  4. Optimists see the big picture.  I just heard about this and thought I’d share a quote here:  We all need optimists in our lives to fight the recency effect. The recency effect is a psychological term that simply means the most recent experiences we go through are the ones we are likely to remember and we assume those experiences will continue into the future.  It’s the idea that we’ve lost three games in a row…will we lose all of our games?  Or, we’re on a roll…no one can stop us!  The optimistic coach brings perspective to her team.
  5. Optimists make things better.  Our players are looking to us for inspiration.  Maybe it’s the player who plops down in your office and asks if she’s really got a shot to play.  Or maybe it’s after a tough loss.  Or maybe it’s when you’re about to face a team you’ve never beaten.  The optimistic coach will give their players a vision of success in their mind’s eye.


I was inspired to write this post after reading, 5 Reasons Why Optimists Make Better Leaders, over at forbes.com. The season inherently has its ups and downs…I believe an optimistic coach can better guide her team through those treacherous waters.

Are You A Compassionate Coach?

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I give talks all around the country about motivating female athletes.  There’s a portion of my talk where I talk about creating great relationships on your team—among the players as well as players with the coaches.  Without fail, during the question and answer period, someone will ask something along the lines of: “So, you’re saying that we should be friends with our players…”

I, of course, remind them that I don’t think it’s possible for coaches to be friends with players…not with the power weighted squarely in the coach’s corner.  We can be friendly, but not friends.  In much the same way, I think the word compassion is misunderstood by leaders and those they are leading.

Understanding compassion and how it relates to leaders

  • Compassion does not mean avoiding difficult situations.  Years ago, I had a player in a leadership position who floundered.  She was off-putting to her teammates and she seemed miserable every time she stepped into the gym.  It would have been much easier for me to avoid talking to her about her behavior and trying to take advantage of the teachable moments her poor behavior provided.  Instead, we sucked it up and talked to her.  Not only because of her impact on the team, but the impact on her future life.
  • Compassion is not kindness.  Kindness is being friendly and having a gentle nature.  Compassion is having concern for others.  A kind coach may let poor behavior slide, while a compassionate coach will address it because they know it will make them a better player in the long run.  A kind coach will ignore poor team chemistry, because they want to escape the unavoidable conflict that is bound to occur.  The compassionate coach will try to get to the bottom of the problem so that she can educate her team on how to function properly.
  • Compassion is caring about the development of your players.  If we see our jobs as transforming our players into better versions of their current selves, then we’ll develop them.  Sometimes that means motivating them.  Sometimes that means being their biggest cheerleader.  Sometimes that means tooting their horn so that everyone knows about a particular success of theirs.  And yes, sometimes that means correction.


I expanded on a very good idea I found on Harvard Business Review’s website.  The post was called, “What It Really Means To Be A Compassionate Leader”…it’s just a couple of paragraphs long, but very powerful.

On The Myth Of Instant Success

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“Remarkable careers take a remarkably large amount of training.”

When I saw the title of this article over at Study Hacks, I thought it could stand on its own as significant:  On the Remarkably Long Road to the Remarkable.  Isn’t that true?  We want our athletes and our teams to experience success at a high level, yet it never happens when we think it should.

A few years ago, I had a team that was tremendously talented and they dominated our conference all season only to fall in the championship game to a team they were better than.  It wasn’t their time.  On paper, this team was better than the team which went on to capture the championship the next year.  It was their time…though I don’t know if they’d ever won it all without experiencing the disappointment of losing the year before.  Being remarkable takes time and we’ve got to teach our players to embrace the struggle.

3 ways to teach patience in our players

  1. Set realistic and attainable goals.  If our players’ only goal is to win a national championship, they will experience a lot of disappointment.  They should set some stair step goals that will get them closer to their mission.
  2. Set “reach” goals.  Though every goal they set can’t be easily reached…that wouldn’t be much of a goal.  Their reach goals should require a good bit of time to reach, maybe even more than one season.
  3. Revisit and reassess goals.  Oftentimes, teams will set goals at the beginning of the season and never look at them again.  If their goals don’t drive them to achieve each and every day, they aren’t effective goals.  Players should look at their goals once a week and see where they are and what they need to change about their effort to achieve them.
  4. Constantly evaluate performance.  This one goes along with number three.  Questions they should ask themselves: Am I working hard in every drill?  Am I trying to get better every day?  Am I challenging myself to improve weaknesses?  Do I work to improve my strengths?  Am I a valuable member of this team?  Why?
  5. Celebrate successes along the way.  Like I said at the beginning, if our teams only have one big, huge, gigantic goal…their success is going to be limited.  If we are to believe that becoming a remarkable player and team takes time, we should celebrate when we take a step forward, right?  I know we’re all super-focused grinders, but a little pat on the back should be allowed.


For those of us who have ever fallen short and been disappointed, I truly believe it’s that very disappointment which fuels our desire to continually strive for that elusive goal.  It’s hard for us as coaches, because we want success so badly for our players.  It comes in its own time, though, and when the team is ready and has prepared for it.

9 Ways To Value The Game

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What does it take to be successful?  How can we teach our players to value everything it takes to win consistently?  Check out these nine traits I believe our athletes need in order to contribute to a team’s success.

  1. Work ethic.  I would hazard a guess that most athletes playing at high level collegiate programs are naturally talented.  I would also guess that those same athletes were able to get by without giving full effort at some point in their career.  But those athletes who are internally motivated to get better, will work harder.  They understand that they may be talented, but they want to see just how talented they can be.
  2. Proper execution.  This requires focused practice…no one can perform a skill correctly without practicing diligently.  Every now and then, I’ll run into a player who thinks they can mess around in practice and just turn it on in games.  Proper execution begins in practice and ends in games.
  3. Fortitude.  Players with fortitude have strong minds and are resilient.  They understand that ups and downs are embedded within athletics.  I can’t think of a team I’ve coached that hasn’t ridden that roller coaster.  Whether those teams won it all or didn’t win much at all, the players that fared the best were resilient.
  4. Tenacity.  If fortitude is strength of mind, tenacity is toughness of mind.  In my opinion, working hard each and every day (even when they’re tired, even when they’ve got exams, even at the end of the season) requires a high level of mental toughness.  Also, to properly execute a skill requires toughness…it’s just too easy to slack off in practice.
  5. Taking responsibility.  I coached a player at a camp once who was full of excuses.  Each mistake she made was someone else’s fault: she’s never played that particular position before, Susie was distracting her, Becky wasn’t communicating with her.  *sigh*  I kept waiting for her to say, “my fault”…those are powerful words.
  6. Enthusiasm.  If you’ve been reading for a while, you know about my coaching crush on John Wooden and his Pyramid of Success.  The cornerstones of his Pyramid are hard work and enthusiasm.  Without passion and enthusiasm, I don’t believe our players will do the rest of the things required to be successful.
  7. Competitiveness.  I used to think that all athletes were naturally competitive, and I think most are, but I’ve started to see that sometimes they need to find a higher purpose from competition…not just competition for competition’s sake.  Some of our athletes need to know how they matter in the grand scheme of things.
  8. Preparedness.  It’s practicing well and executing in competition.  The purpose of practice is to prepare our athletes to compete.  Not to drill, not to practice, not to play…but to compete.
  9. Rest.  This is probably the most underrated of all of these…by athletes and coaches.  Our teams have a lot on their plates.  They’re studying for classes, working, practicing, lifting, trying to have a social life, maintaining friendships…that’s a lot.  Sometimes they need to just chill out and do nothing.


The inspiration for this post came from a post over on Hoop Thoughts, Values To Playing The Game.