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What does it mean to be an elite coach?

Volleyball Coach

I came across an interesting topic in a coaching group. The original poster asked the following question.

What characteristics or skills do you think are an absolute necessity to be an elite coach or coaching staff?

Sadly, only a handful of people answered the question. Their answers were pretty good ones, though. Here’s a summary list, in no particular order.

  • Always strive to improve
  • Being coachable and humble
  • Trust the process
  • Strive to be your best
  • Communication skills
  • Explain they Why
  • High level understanding of the game
  • Clear objectives
  • Knowledge of your athletes
  • Well-planned practices
  • Being a listener
  • Consistent feedback
  • Creator of a strong, winning culture

I’m going to address the subject of a coaching staff separately. I think it’s a separate discussion. The above list focuses mainly on the individual coach, so I’m going to concentrate on that here.

Here are the things I think are probably key in being an elite coach.

Knowledge of the game

This is a pretty obvious thing for a coach to have, but it’s an area where new coaches can come up short. Many of us – perhaps most – started out as players at some level. Playing the game for sure develops a knowledge of the game, but it’s not the same as that required of a coach. Players tend to focus on parts, while the coach has to be aware of how those parts link together. This sort of thing tends to come primarily from watching a lot of volleyball, but not as a spectator. You have to do it with an analytic eye, watching all the various moving parts.

Up-to-date understanding of training methods

I’m not talking about know the latest drills here (see my post on Fancy New Drill Syndrome). Rather, I’m talking about the science of motor learning. It’s very easy to think you know how it works because it’s intuitive stuff. Really, though, it isn’t. See Going beyond maximizing player contacts for an idea of what I’m talking about here. The point is you need to stay on top of this stuff, not just persist in doing stuff you’ve always done or your coaches before you did.

This applies to stuff like strength and conditioning as well. Things are changing on a fairly steady basis there.

Communication skills

To put it simply, you can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can’t communicate it to your players, it’s useless.This isn’t just about teaching skills and tactics. It’s also about communicating your vision and getting others to buy in. It’s learning about your players and letting them get to know you as well. As coaches, communication is at the very core of what we do, and you will never become an elite coach without good skills in this area.

Drive

What are you trying to accomplish? Where are you trying to go with your coaching? Your team has its goals, but no doubt you have your own as well. It’s the thing that pushes you to keep moving forward and encourages you to be better, or to make things better.

In the Why I Coach post I shared some of my drive in the “Building something” section. I’m motivated to take a program to a higher level. That isn’t just about winning as that isn’t really in your control. Instead, it’s about reaching new milestones and generally pushing things forward. If I reach a point where I don’t see the potential to keep doing that, then I know it’s probably time for me to move on.

A vision

This is somewhat related to drive above, but is more focused in the present on the current team. In order to lead others you need to know where you’re trying to go. And going to back to another prior section, it needs to be something you can communicate in a way that gets others to have the same vision and to be willing to follow you in that direction.

Organizational skills

This can cover a fairly wide array of things. For some coaches it’s at the level of organizing practices and generally managing the affairs immediately related to the team and players. Think of a club situation where there is someone (or several someones) higher up taking care of the larger administration.

In some coaching roles – a college coach, for example – there’s a lot more to it. There’s a whole lot more overhead. Much of what is handled by a club director, a manager, or a board is on your shoulders. You need to deal with budgets, scheduling, facilities, and interacting and coordinating with any number of on-campus and off-campus constituencies. If you don’t have good organizational skills in that context it can really hamper your on-court efforts.

An unquenchable thirst for knowledge

One of the very clear things to come out of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews we’ve done is that those great coaches all have the mentality of constantly looking to learn and improve. They take every opportunity they can to gain more knowledge and insight.

So those are some of my thoughts on what it takes to be an elite coach. Do you have thoughts of your own? I’d love to hear them. Just leave a comment below.

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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