I’m interested to get some views on this from those who’ve spent a fair amount of time on both sides of this equation. It’s a inquiry I came across in a coaching group. Just to be clear, AC = Assistant Coach and HC = Head Coach.

How do you as a coach approach the game differently as an AC vs. as an HC? If you’re the AC, how much do you find yourself interjecting more than you feel you should, and if you feel that you’re interjecting a lot, how hard/easy is it for you to pull back as the AC, regardless of how good your stuff is? Additionally, how different or similar is your approach when it comes to what you primarily look for as an AC compared to being a HC? In other words, do you look for the same thing or different things depending on your role?

For me the reflexive response is to think back about my own history in coaching. That might not be the most useful exercise in this particular case, though. I’m a quite different coach now than I was back in the day – on a lot of levels. As such, how I thought and acted previously is probably not all that useful. So I’ll avoid going in down that particular path.

Instead, let me take the view of how I would approach things today. I’ll start with a structural aspect of the comparison.

Specialization vs. Generalization

Necessarily, a head coach has to look at the big picture and has an overall responsibility for the team/program. That inherently makes them a generalist. Assistant coaches, on the other hand, tend toward more specialization. Since they don’t have to oversee everything, they can concentrate on certain things a bit more.

You might think that only really applies to larger staffs. While it’s true that a bigger coaching staff means more opportunity to spread things out, it doesn’t change the overall dynamic I’m speaking to. Even on a small staff – of which I’ve been a part – where you tend to do a bit of everything, the assistant coach has the freedom to specialize more because they don’t have to worry about the totality the way the head coach does.

For more on how duties and roles should be divided up on a staff, check out Stop Competing and Start Winning.

What is your role?

Now let’s get into the real meat of the question at-hand. The poster asks how much you inject as an AC vs an HC and how what you look at differs. It comes off as the poster is struggling with how to handle being in the more “limited” role of the assistant. The head coach essentially has free reign to talk about whatever they think is important and to observe the play in the manner of their choosing. After all, they have ultimate responsibility.

This is not to say, however, that it’s the best choice for the head coach to talk about and/or to focus on anything and everything. That’s where having designated roles on the staff come in. On a good-working staff those roles are defined based on who is best for each, and even the HC abides by them.

Ultimately, as an assistant you need to know what your lane is and stay there. This isn’t to say you can’t interject something you’ve seen or thought. You certainly can. It’s just that you need to do that in a staff context so you’re not causing authority issues vis-a-vis the head coach or stepping on the toes of a fellow assistant.

All kinds of roles

It’s worth noting, however, that there are all kinds of different roles assistants can take with teams. Some head coaches do a lot of talking and want their voice to be the main one. Others are more than happy to give assistants plenty of voice. It’s something I find interesting to watch during matches. The staff dynamics can be fascinating!

Ultimately, the degree you insert yourself and where you focus as an assistant comes down to the relationship you have with the head coach – and potentially the rest of the staff. If you’ve earned their trust, you’ll probably get more freedom. When you’re new to the staff you probably need to do a lot of watching and listening to see what the head coach tends to focus on and talk about. That will let you know where there may be some space for you to contribute value. It’s often a feeling out process how that ends up working best.

For more on the head coach vs. assistant coach dynamic, check out these posts:

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly 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.

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