I’ve always felt like our business doesn’t do a good job of training young assistants to be head coaches. It’s such a competitive business, you do whatever you can to get on staff as an assistant wherever you can. Then you put your head down and work your ass off for your boss, trying to prove you’ll do whatever it takes to help the program.
Most head coaches don’t spend time training their assistants – you simply gain knowledge through your experience. You like what your boss does and you file that away, you don’t like some things and you file that away as well. You watch film on opponents and learn what they like to do, and you pick up things you might use when you get your own team. You can also study as much as possible on your own – clinics, reading, videos. You are on your own to train yourself to become a head coach.
We like to say in our business that the move over one chair from being an assistant to being a head coach is a big one, and it is. But the reality is it’s a big leap because we don’t really train our assistants for what you really need to be a head coach.
I knew there would be a learning curve when I first became a head coach – there is for everyone. But I didn’t realize the nature of what it was I needed to learn. Looking back, these are some things I would have paid more attention to in my preparation to be a head coach. Certain things you don’t know to expect, and no one really prepares you for.
You are always on. Walking into practice as the head coach is different. It’s something you need to mentally prepare for ahead of time. You’ll learn it as a head coach, but the sooner you realize it the better. The players are looking at you for cues as soon as they see you, as soon as you walk into practice. You set the tone for practice every day, and they are reading you once you walk through the door. The sooner you recognize that and prepare for it the better.
What is your identity going to be as a head coach? This is something I wasn’t totally prepared for, and it took me some time to realize I should have been. It’s not as simple as walking into a practice, seeing how the kids respond, and making changes accordingly. What do you want the environment in practice to be? Positive, intense, fast, slow, measured, technical, comfortable? You have to be intentional about the environment you create, and focus on it daily. It’s natural to just show up and coach and let it happen, but in doing this I realized the environment wasn’t always what I wanted. It was affected a lot by the players and their approach.
Define your defensive system. I’ve said a number of times that the most important basketball decision I made when I became a head coach was to have a defined defensive system. It was the core of why we were so successful at RIC, and I felt like a lot of coaches don’t necessarily teach or define what they do defensively for their teams. It’s something that can separate you as a program. It doesn’t matter how you want to play, but however you want to play, definite it for your kids. It will give them a ton of confidence as a team.
Keep a balanced perspective. Head coaches are great at taking themselves too seriously. As an assistant, often your job is to make sure you bring energy and you are constantly getting after guys to compete harder. You ride the emotions along with the players. As a head coach, they way you react is a huge cue to your team. Good or bad, they are going to see you and they are going to follow you. Great stuff will happen, terrible stuff will happen. You have to stay measured as the head coach to keep your program in balance. Learn not to take yourself too seriously and to handle whatever happens with poise.
Refine your message. It’s so important to be able to deliver your message in a direct, concise fashion. As an assistant coach, you don’t get nearly as many opportunities to do this. It’s something you should really practice. As the head coach, you are going to deliver messages every single day. If you ramble on, you are going to lose your players. Get comfortable delivering the message clearly, but in soundbites.
Connect with the players. Don’t ever forget this is the most important thing you need to do, and you need to do it every day. As an assistant, it’s almost a given – your relationship with the players is a little different, and they come in and talk to you about a lot of different stuff. As the head coach, you have to be more intentional about it, because so much other stuff is going to be happening around you. Your responsibilities change. One of the things I realized after I got to Maine was the need to spend a lot of one on one time connecting with the players. It’s something I wish I thought about sooner.
Practice listening. Something that is very different for you as a head coach – everybody stops when you talk, and no one cuts you off. You can talk as long as you want. But it’s really important to listen as a head coach, and it’s something you can practice as an assistant. Do you let people finish their thoughts before offering your own? Listening is the best way to learn about your team, but as a head coach no one is every going to force you to listen. It’s easy to think you are supposed to do the talking.
Focus on the mental side. 75% of what I talk to my players about as a head coach is about mentality. It’s not about basketball. It’s about approach. Toughness. Focus. Compete level. So much of what you need to talk about, handle and emphasize as a head coach isn’t related to X’s and O’s. And so much of what your players need from you is mental. As an assistant, you should prepare yourself for this.
Create systems for organization. How are you going to approach recruiting? How about scouting? What is your staff organization going to look like? If you don’t set create systems for different aspects of your program, it will just happen organically. But if it ends up not being the way you want, it is a lot harder to change. Be intentional about systematically organizing your approach.
Designate your own time. Set your schedule up the way you want it as a head coach, and set aside time for yourself. You can think about this as an assistant. What is your daily routine going to be? Do you like to workout early in the morning before work, or get a sweat at lunch? Do you take your kids to school in the morning? When you do meet, what’s the most effective time as a staff? And when you do that, set aside at least an hour a day to be alone. I can’t tell you how many times I planned on watching tape in the morning, and I got to practice and still hadn’t been able to get through it. Someone always needs you as the head coach. So set aside time where you are by yourself to get your stuff done, or at least to take a break. Think about how you want to schedule your day to be most effective.
The basketball stuff will be less important than you think. The people, the relationships, the environment you create, the approach, the identity, how you handle success and failure – so many different things are more important than the basketball decisions you make. Start to prepare yourself for that as an assistant coach.