Coaching career motivations – ladder climbing vs. maximizing what you have

My friend Ruben Wolochin forwarded me a link to the Forbes article about Western Kentucky head coach Travis Hudson. I’d seen the article floating around, but hadn’t read it yet. I found it really interesting that an Argentine (Ruben) coaching in Germany (for top division team Bühl) forwarded it to me. Of course, the fact that a mainstream site like Forbes is writing about a volleyball coach is quite exciting for our sport.

Maximizing what you have

Ruben made a comment in our conversation related to Hudson’s performance.

Success means getting the best possible from your circumstances.

I agree with him 100%.

We don’t all have great athletes. Nor do we all have high quality facilities, or good support. We have to do the best we can with what we do have. Sometimes that means winning lots of matches and being a champion. Other times, though, the win/loss record doesn’t reflect the real accomplishment.

Perhaps the team I’m most proud to have coached is the 2013-14 Exeter women. Reaching the national semifinals that year was an accomplishment far beyond anything anyone would reasonably have expected. We had no scholarship athletes, but finished above teams with them. It was literally the best season we could possibly have had (the teams above us had FAR superior athletes and resources). We got the absolute most out of ourselves.

The experience of that season at Exeter reinforced in me the need to constantly look for ways to maximize performance and the rewards it can bring. That applies to everything. It’s not just about the on-court performance. Certainly, it seems like Hudson has been able to do that.

Ladder climbing

Flipping things around, my response to Ruben was that Hudson seems to know what’s important to him. The article highlights how he’s had plenty of opportunity to move on to a higher level for probably much more money. That doesn’t motivate him, though. He’s not interested in climbing the ladder, and he’s making plenty of money at Western Kentucky.

When I interviewed Mike Lingenfelter for Volleyball Coaching Wizards we talked at one point about finding your niche. That’s the idea that each of us as coaches should figure out where we best fit in the coaching spectrum. There are a lot of different age groups, competitive levels, and locations. Some suit us better than others.

Hudson’s clearly found what suits him. As a result, his personal satisfaction and sense of reward are extremely high. Going somewhere else would risk reducing that. Why bother?

Now, it’s true that sometimes you have to do the ladder climbing thing to reach where you want to be (I bemoaned the requirement for it at times in a previous post). And for sure some coaches are motivated toward greater prestige, earning more money, or whatever they perceive as the reward(s) of coaching at a higher level. I’m not here to argue what is the right or wrong motivation – only that each coach should understand their own (though we’re pretty bad at understanding what we’ll want or be like in the future).

Hudson said his motivations are, “… to help kids grow, see them graduate and develop them as people.” Do you know your motivation? I wrote about my own in the Why I Coach post.

Looking forward myself

The combination of getting the most from your situation and finding your niche is something I think about quite a bit when I consider my own situation moving forward. I’ve spoken with Ruth Nelson (another of the Wizards I’ve interviewed) on this subject. She was heavily involved in my move to Midwestern State, and we’ve talked career stuff a number of times since then. Motivation is a big part of that.

The thing I often wonder is whether I could do something like Hudson has done. I don’t mean take a team from obscurity to national significance. I actually did that already at Exeter. 😉

What I mean is whether I could become a lifer somewhere. Can I find a place where I’m able to settle and coach until retirement – whenever that might be? My history doesn’t really show much indication of being able to do so.

I honestly think the answer is yes, though. It comes down to the challenge.

Obviously, it is important to live in place I like and to work with good people. Beyond that, however, there needs to be the opportunity to continuously challenge myself and push things forward. And I’m not just talking about the volleyball. Organizing the Midwestern State team trip to Buenos Aires, for example, was a massive challenge that had nothing to do with the on-court work. Not that I don’t care about the team’s performance, because I definitely do. I just need for things to be multi-dimensional.

That’s what I’ll have in mind as I ponder my future career direction.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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