This post was motivated by a combination of personal experience, talks with fellow coaches, and posts and articles I’ve read over the years. When talking about those who judge coaches, I refer to everyone who, for one reason or another, makes assessments of a coach’s quality, fit, knowledge, capability, etc. That includes the likes of fellow coaches, athletic directors, college administrators, club presidents, parents, club directors, players, media, and fans.

Dear Coach Evaluator,

Regardless of whether you do formal coach evaluations for hiring/supervision or you make more informal evaluations, there are things you must consider to have any chance to make a reasonable judgement. This letter addresses them.

My intention is to help you to view things from different perspectives, and through that to improve your chances of making an informed judgement. It is not my intention to say all coaches should be judged positively. They most certainly should not! Even very good coaches deserve to be judged negatively at times.

That said, let me begin.

Keep the priorities in mind

First and foremost, do you know the coach’s priority? By that I mean what the coach’s superior told them to prioritize. You can only judge them fairly on that basis, nothing else.

Naturally, winning is often the basis for coach assessment, but in many cases that isn’t the priority. At the college level, for example, there are lots of programs where making sure the players have a good experience, stay out of trouble, and do well academically are the important considerations. In many other situations, fun and skill development are the biggest things. In the pros, keeping sponsors happy is important.

If winning isn’t the priority, it’s unfair to judge someone poorly for losing, or highly for winning. Providing praise or criticism based on something other than their given priority at a minimum sends mixed messages. Often it leads them down a bad path.

The classic example is the coach too focused on winning. Of course, if their priority is to win, they should make decisions from that perspective and you should judge them on that basis. If it’s not, however, a focus on winning might lead them to sacrifice the real priority in the cause of competitiveness. It tends to create a short-term mentality, and loses sight of the long-term objectives.

So judge coaches on their given priorities, and give them feedback on that. If you have a hiring perspective, make sure you know clearly what a coach’s priorities were in their previous positions to assess them on the right factors. And if you’re a coach’s supervisor, be totally honest with yourself and them. Make the priorities clear and stick to them. Don’t say one thing, then assess based on something else.

Understanding of the position’s requirements

The second need for reasonable coach rating is knowing the job’s requirements. Frankly, a lot of non-coaches fall short here. Ask anyone who shifted from player to coach. They’ll tell you how little they realized went into coaching before they actually did it. And if you’ve never been in that environment at all, your understanding is even less.

There are multiple levels to this. I’ll use college coaching as an example. College coaches must recruit well, regardless if their priority is competitiveness or a happy, trouble-free squad. At the next level, effective recruitment has its own requirements – organization, communication, talent assessment, etc. And recruiting is just one of many demands. Fair assessment requires you to understand both levels.

There’s more. In a coaching staff the members have different responsibilities. Keeping with college recruiting, staff size makes a difference on who does what work. In a small staff, everyone does everything to varying degrees. Larger staffs specialize more. Assistants often lead the way on recruiting. The head coach is still involved, but assistants do much of the actual work.

I mention this because I often see prior recruiting success as part of a head coach’s hiring criteria. If, however, you’re hiring for a staff where the assistants do most of the recruiting work, it’s a different skill set – more management of recruiters than actual recruiting.

Knowledge of these requirements is especially critical in the hiring and on-going assessment for a coach supervisor. That’s you athletic directors, club presidents, etc. If you were not a coach at the level you supervise, then you must learn what it takes to do it successfully. Even more so if you believe part of your role is to guide your coaches in their development.

Why don’t they do something?

Now we move on to evaluation during competition. By that I mean judging what a coach does or does not do when their team plays. Mostly, this comes to the fore when the team is losing. Coach evaluators – especially fans – want them to “do something”. There are two big problems with this.

First, what should they do? Do you want them to change something? That only makes sense if the coach reasonably believes two things. One is that team/player performance isn’t just a normal variation. The other is that the change would actually improve things. There’s no reason to believe that to be true if you sub in someone who’s on the bench because they’re an inferior player. Similarly, something like calling timeout may not be as effective as you think.

Second, the sort of thing you expect the coach to do could be counterproductive. Yelling and punishment fall into this category. Likely, any following performance improvement is probably reversion to the mean. That’s not just me saying it. That’s Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman saying so. Further, while you might see a real short-term impact, in the long run the influence of yelling and such will probably be negative. This is especially true when driven by emotion.

Unfortunately, media portrayals and stereotypes suggest coaches should regularly employ these sorts of interventions. Further, as a spectator you are helpless. Since you can’t influence things, you want the coach to do so. The combination helps drive the “do something” mentality.

Winning and losing can be emotional, but avoid emotionally-driven coach assessments – in either direction. Instead, when it comes to the idea of the coach making changes – whether they should or should not – think about whether they represent a reasonable expectation of improved performance.

Demeanor

Related to coaching actions is coach demeanor and your expectations. The coach stereotype tends to be of animated individuals prowling the sideline. For some coaches this is fine. It suits their personality. Other coaches are more sedate. There are Hall of Fame coaches from both categories. You should not judge a coach based on your internal model of what a good coach acts like so long as they are positively engaged and focused.

Do you have knowledge of best practices?

Are you up to date on coaching best practices? How much do you know about motor learning and skill acquisition? Do you know the difference between blocked and random (a.k.a. open or adaptive) exercises and the implication for their use in a training context? Are you aware of the difference between Guided Discovery and Direct Instruction? Do you know the best feedback mechanisms?

When it comes to athlete contact hours – especially in team sports – for most coaches, practice time is top of the list. Further, one of any coach’s most important jobs is helping their players – individually and collectively – get better and prepare for competition. This happens in practice.

What should that look like? If you want to base your assessment of a coach on how they run training sessions then you need a basis for it. That means understanding the underlying principles. And no, your own prior experience as a player doesn’t count. Chances are your coaches used methods that are dated by current standards, regardless of how you did or how you “turned out”.

You want a coach who uses modern methods for two reasons. First, they are more effective and efficient. Second, it indicates a coach who keeps themselves educated. That’s a coach motivated to be the best they can. This isn’t enough by itself, of course, but it goes a long way.

What if you aren’t up on coaching best practices, though? Then it’s not appropriate for you to judge a coach based on what you think of their training sessions. And don’t base it on what the athletes say either. They likely have the same fundamental lack of understanding you have.

All the above aside, do be critical of a coach whose players are not engaged in practice. That’s a sign something is wrong.

Remember you don’t have the full picture

Do you know why experienced coaches avoid criticizing other coaches? It’s because they realize there’s a lot they don’t know about what goes into coach decision-making. Some of it can be worked out if you’re an insider, so to speak. You could perhaps see a player’s practice performance, or know of behavioral issues, or one of any number of other factors impacting a line-up decision. Similarly, maybe you’re privy to the scouting report and how that relates to strategy.

Even if that’s the case, though, coaches still make many decisions you can’t see. Don’t do what players often do and make assumptions. If you are evaluating a coach based on their decision-making, it’s only fair that you actually talk with them about it. Find out what they were thinking and why. Admittedly, this isn’t always easy to do as a parent or fan, but for sure it should be part of the supervisory process.

Just keep in mind there are good and bad times for these sorts of conversations. Immediately following competition is one of the bad times.

Be realistic about your situation

This big topic ties everything together. Know your situation and be realistic about your expectations. This is particularly true when it comes to the competitive environment. Generally speaking, the teams with the most resources perform the best. You need look no further than professional sports to see this. In leagues where there is no salary cap you inevitably see those with the biggest budgets near the top and those with the smallest near the bottom.

Coaching might make some marginal differences, but even a great coach will struggle when they have inferior talent and/or resources. This is backed by research which finds that firing a coach for performance tends to have little impact on that team’s performance moving forward. Here’s one study.

So understand your competitive situation and be realistic about your coaching expectations.

Behavior

I’ve talked a lot up to now about how you might unfairly judge a coach. Let me flip things around for a minute, though. Here I want to talk about not judging a coach harshly enough. That’s when it comes to their behavior.

While you cannot observe all of a coach’s behavior, you can make at least some judgements based on what you do see. This is particularly so for negative behavior. Under no condition should abusive or unprofessional actions or attitudes be tolerated – regardless of the outcome, the target, or the coach’s perceived level of success. It’s that simple.

And beware of categorizing abusive behavior as a coach simply “being tough”. Yes, it is the coach’s responsibility to make things challenging for the athletes. There’s no reason this needs to include yelling and punishment for failure, though, or anything that puts the athletes’ health and well-being at risk (here’s the reality of what “being tough” can do). A coach who does that demonstrates a shortcoming in terms of the tools to properly motivate and develop their athletes. Such behavior also suggests they lack the empathy required for the position.

The fan aspect

It’s worth taking a moment here to address the fan perspective on things. A lot of times we judge coaches in situations where we are fans of the team they coach. A parent is naturally a fan of their child’s team. An athletic director or school administrator is naturally a fan of the school’s team. A club director or president is naturally a fan of the club’s team(s). This is only to be expected, and even encouraged.

A major problem with this fan aspect, though, is that it can put you at cross purposes to the team’s objectives – and by extension the coach’s. As a fan, you want entertainment. That, though, is probably not a priority for the coach. If, for example, you’re the parent of a child on a youth club team, the coach’s primary objective is probably player development. That can lead to decisions which don’t make for the best entertainment as far as you are concerned.

Understanding your influence

The concept of the fan experience aspect of coach judgment rolls me into a very important final element of this discussion. That’s your position as a stakeholder in the team.

Part of the entertainment value of spectator sports is the discussion and debate you have with other fans. The implications of those exchanges, however, vary considerably based on your involvement with the team. If you’re simply a fan, talk about things as critically as you like. Let’s face it. You are unlikely to influence anything by doing so.

If, however, your assessment of a coach carries weight in some fashion, then you have to be very careful with your public comments and actions. Think whatever you will about the coach privately – keeping in mind what I talked about in the sections above, of course. Taking those critical thoughts into public arena – especially in the presence of members of the team – is potentially extremely toxic, however. This is even more the case if you are someone with influence over that coach’s employment.

The bottom line is if you’re a stakeholder you shouldn’t do anything which could undermine the coach or their authority. And discourage others from doing so as well. If you have a legitimate issue, bring it up privately through appropriate channels. By the way, this also goes for coaching peers who could have a reputational impact on the coach in question.

Final thoughts

There’s a lot to this “open letter”, I know. These are important considerations, though. We all want coaches judged and treated fairly. That means both positively and negatively. Judging a coach harshly for something they shouldn’t be rated on is just as bad as judging them well on the same basis. If you lack the knowledge and/or situational understanding to assess some aspect of a coach’s performance, then don’t. Either educate yourself or stick to what you know (avoiding invalid assumptions). It’s the only fair way to go, and it will probably save considerable stress in the process.

Thanks for your attention. I’d love to get your thoughts. Feel free to share them via comment below.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently Technical Director for Charleston Academy. His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

    4 replies to "An open letter to those who judge coaches"

    • steven millhouse

      Can you imagine if this were in reverse? What if coaches showed up to parent offices and judged them based on what they read in a book or saw on YouTube?? We often look at what parents do and we even try to “train” them to be better parents with regards to sports. I honestly don’t think there is a fix for this in today’s world. Parents have become sports agents and rightly so because a lot of our club sports have evolved into that. Clubs dangle the carrot of playing in college if kids make the “#1” team. Some clubs even go as far as inviting college coaches to practice all as a way of asking for more tuition. So, parents feel like they need to be an advocate for their child. Gone are the days when the primary focus of club ball was to improve. Period…end of story! I’ve seen clubs with 25+ teams…how the heck do you find even 1 or 2 good coaches…let alone 25?? Practically impossible! Sorry…it just is impossible to have that many good coaches in one club. The really good coaches end up starting their own club so you end up with 1-2 good coaches per club and dozens of clubs all with dozens of teams and the coaching is watered down in my opinion. How do parents navigate this maze and find a good fit for their kid?? Personally, I think 90% of kids need to JUST attend training 2-3 days per week. With inter club scrimmages. Cheap, good, fast, hard training and that’s it with some local playing time where everyone plays. Because, let’s face it, 90% of kids just want to be good enough to make the varsity team at school. They don’t dream of college…or maybe a JC at most. The top 10% should travel and test their mettle! Bottom line is I think the club system created this monster and only one thing can fix it…that is clubs making less $$ and bringing the focus back on the kids. It will never happen…but, it is a nice idea.

      • Andrew

        What the “good” clubs do with those 20+ under qualified coaches is invest in them. Pair them up with an experienced mentor, send them to clinics, get them cap certified, etc… Then they see a return on investment a few years down the road. Does it work out for all of them? No. But clubs invest in their coaches or else they quickly lose their business.

        • John Forman John Forman

          Indeed they do Andrew. Good clubs having a pipeline for coaches just as they do for players.

    • John Forman John Forman

      I like your first comment Steven. Maybe we coaches should try that sometime. 😀

      To your point about big clubs not having sufficient coaching quality, I agree that’s very likely to be the reality. I would contend, however, that with a good coaching/training structure, the good, experienced coaches could be leveraged to a very high degree. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.