Great conversation with my assistant Zak Boisvert on a long recruiting trip this week, talking about the preparation to become a head coach. What are the key things as an assistant that I took with me when I got a chance to run my own program? What should you be thinking about as an assistant as you prepare? Thinking back on some of the things that were really important in the transition to head coach.
Develop your identity. Put together in your own mind as an assistant who you want your team to be. What’s going to be most important to you, what are the principles you absolutely refuse to give in on? When other people look at your team, what are they going to say about you? What adjectives will they use to describe your team? When you stand in front of your new team, you want to be able to tell them who you are going to be. When you start planning practices, those principles are going to determine the drills you do and how you do them.
During all your days as an assistant you are thinking about the principles that you believe go into a winning program. Putting these ideas together in a coaching portfolio really helps – it will prepare you for your interviews, and also keep your thoughts in order on paper. Define those in clear terms and be ready to take them with you.
Watch a lot of tape. One of the best training tools is to watch as much tape as you can of other teams. See what other people do, take notes on what you think is really effective. Keep track of the best time and score sets you see, the best way to get the ball into the post, the best set you see when you need a 3. You have a huge library of video to learn from as an assistant coach, take advantage of it.
Spend a lot of time in the gym. The relationships, the connections you are able to make with the players are important when you are an assistant. They are crucial when you become a head coach. Every interaction you have with every player – in the gym, coaching them, individual workouts, practices – is experience that you can draw on when you become a head coach. You may not realize how much you are learning from these interactions when you are an assistant, but when you get a head job you’ll go rely on them a great deal.
The relationships will change. Your relationships with the players immediately change when you become a head coach. It’s not really a matter of you acting differently. It’s simply that they all look at you differently. They are always reading you as a head coach – what kind of mood you are in, how you talk to them, what type of tone are you setting. The players always look at you as the head coach and are reading everything you do. It doesn’t mean you can’t get along with them, crack jokes, have a good time. But you have to be able to get serious when the time is right, and demand a lot out of them.
You can still have great relationships with your players when you become a head coach, but they will be on a different level than the ones you had as an assistant.
Your culture is your best recruiting tool. Your first thought is always going to be “I need to get players.” But your talent will not establish the culture. Your culture will attract the talent. Think long-term over short-term, and whenever you have a choice choose what is best for your culture. As an assistant coach, think about the type of culture you want to establish, and how you are going to do it. It’s the most important thing you’ll do as a head coach.
Be honest. The relationships you develop as an assistant coach will be crucial for you when you become a head coach. Recruiting connections, people you work with, referees, other coaches, the players you coach – they will all be able to help you when you get your own program. The last thing you want is them to think you are full of it. You want to make sure everyone around you feels like you are a head coach you can trust, and the kind of head coach they want their kids to play for.
Find a defensive system you love. I’ve always said this was the most important basketball element when you become a head coach. There are so many positives to having a great defensive system when you take over a new program. It gives your team a chance to win every night, it helps your teams confidence a great deal, and it can separate you from other teams in your league if you are consistently good at it. If you bring one basketball element to your new program, it should be a defined defensive system. Develop it in your own mind as an assistant coach.