As an assistant coach you should have a game plan to prepare yourself to be a head coach. Think intentionally about what you need to do to be ready when you get your shot. Before I became a head coach, as I look back now, these are some of the things that I did that really helped me when I became a head coach.
- Connect with your players. Nothing will be more important as a head coach than your relationships with your players. Get to know what makes them tick. Learn how different players react to different situations. Think about what type of communication from the head coach works, and what type of communication they turn off. You’ll be coaching a different set of players when you get your own team. But the close relationships you have with your current players will help you establish the right relationships with your new ones. Your relationships with your players will mean everything when you become a head coach.
- Show vulnerability. Get comfortable telling the players you coach when you make a mistake. Let them see that you aren’t perfect. Don’t be all-knowing, the I’m-the-coach-so-that’s-why approach. Your players will respect that, and it will create a safe environment in which they will be comfortable expressing themselves. That type of environment will be very important when you get your own program.
- Define a defensive system and make sure you know how you are going to teach it. The most important basketball decision I made when I first became a head coach was the way we were going to guard. Defining what you do defensively will give your team confidence. Learn exactly how you are going to teach it, and instill it in your program every day. A great team defense is a separator.
- Speak in public. Do as man public speaking engagements as your head coach will allow. Booster groups, local organizations and media appearances. Practice speaking in public. Not just so you’ll be a able to handle public speaking when you get your own program, but also so you’ll be able to speak to your team. As an assistant coach you aren’t in front of the group trying to deliver a direct, concise message in a short period of time – maybe when you do a scouting report, but that is it. As a head coach you speak in front of your team every day, and they’ll know if you aren’t prepared.
- Study film. Watch as many games as you can when scouting opponents. and keep notes on what you like and what you don’t like. It might be a different way of attack a zone, or how another team doubles the post. It’s more than just set plays, it’s an idea of how you want to play. Watching film and scouting opponents is a great way to develop your own basketball philosophy.
- Figure out what you like in players. What qualities are the ones you want to coach, and how do you figure those out in recruiting. What are the tells – the signs that trigger to you that a kid is not only good enough for you, but your type of player. What you value in a player might be different than what your head coach values, and that is okay. You can learn a lot about who you want to recruit as an assistant.
- Decide what you can live with. Every head coach has their own non-negotiables. You’ll also have certain little things that drive you nuts. Again, you are going to be different then the head coach you currently work for, even if you really believe in his approach. You can figure this out as an assistant. Make a note of what is really important to you and what you can let go.
- Keep track of potential staff. Get to know as many young guys in the business as you can. Most people don’t get jobs that have high-paying salaries for everyone on staff. You’ll likely need some young guys who are willing to work on the cheap. Think about the composition of your staff, specifically how to get guys who compliment you. You want coaches who are strong where you are weak. Most people surround themselves with people that make them comfortable. Don’t fall into that trap. When you are on the road and get to know coaches at different levels and in different programs, make notes of the guys you’d consider for your staff. Your staff needs to fit together like a puzzle, and you want to be prepared.
- Carry yourself like a head coach. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Think about your presence. Keep your emotions balanced as much as possible. You want everyone around you to look at you knowing you are going to be a head coach in the near future. This will bring on greater responsibility in your current job, thus preparing you for your next one.