Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 14, 2010

What makes a good coach good?

Complex mix of factors results in outstanding coaching, player experience, experts say

by Terri Lobdell

What makes a good coach good? It's all about teaching and motivating, which require clear and direct communication, empathy and responsiveness to player differences, according to experts with front-line experience.

How a coach says something can be just as important as what he or she says, as it creates an emotional overlay to the message, they agree.

"The job is in reality way more complex than what appears at first blush," longtime Palo Alto High School volunteer assistant coach Dick Held said of his experience.

Paly Athletic Director Earl Hansen described a good coach as "someone who can relate and teach the sport at hand, understands and has a passion for the sport, has realistic expectations of his athletes and tries to communicate that clearly and effectively."

What Hansen says about others could also be applied to his own 23-year career as Paly's football coach, as numerous football parents and athletes told the Weekly. His dedication, commitment to the students and leadership skills were frequently cited.

Gunn Athletic Director Chris Horpel, another widely respected and experienced coach (of wrestling), said a coach's temperament is key to a team's dynamic.

"I look for that now, whether they're a 'yeller' type," Horpel said. "It doesn't matter as much about the other qualifications or knowledge of the sport. If the temperament isn't right he won't be a good coach."

The front-liners also agree that there are scores of examples of outstanding coaching, and coaches, at work daily in Palo Alto schools, even if those tend to get overshadowed by outbursts of criticism about individual coaches.

Horpel said great coaches help players do three things: learn something new, get in better shape and have fun.

"If you do this every day, the byproduct is success," Horpel said. He cites legendary basketball coach John Wooden's philosophy: to make the most of the here and now.

"Don't worry about the past mistakes or future goals. In fact, don't worry at all. Just focus on doing your best now," Horpel said. "This is the way to go."

Superintendent Kevin Skelly believes that competition is a key piece. Coaches "can have lots of good characteristics but wanting to win is a pretty important one," he said. Competition "drives folks to a shared goal," which he said is a valuable lesson that carries through to the workplace.

Jim Thompson founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a training and advocacy organization based in Mountain View said the No. 1 character trait of an effective coach is the ability to demonstrate unqualified support for team players.

Gunn Assistant Principal Tom Jacoubowsky, the school's former athletic director, emphasized the need to take the kids' temperaments into account.

"A good coach can recognize some people are going to need a little push, so to speak, and some people are going to need a little pat on the back type of thing. Kids are all different. ... It's just understanding the chemistry of the team and the chemistry of each individual kid and trying to make that team work as well as possible," he said.

"A good coach can read each of their athletes," Paly Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson said. "Different athletes are going to react differently. You can yell at me all day, but if you yell at this other person then you're going to ruin them. A good coach is going to be able to figure that out."

Dan Sneider, parent of two Paly baseball players, said a coach's communication skills are key.

"Good coaches are the ones who teach well. Math teachers may be good at quadratic equations, but if they can't teach then what good are they to the student trying to learn math?

"The same is true for sports. If you don't communicate effectively you are a bad coach, especially if you have to use other ways to compensate for your ineffective communication like yelling, angry outbursts, swear words.

"Then you are not only not communicating, you are becoming abusive on top of it. What good is that to the students?"

Held emphasized the need for coaches to appreciate the broader educational opportunities when it comes to sports.

"We need to help coaches see that their most important job is helping all kids be better kids, to believe in themselves even if they are not starters, even if they are not the star of the team," he said.

Many involved in athletics are concerned that the coaching environment makes it hard to find good coaches particularly the low pay, long hours and difficulty in dealing with increasingly competitive pressures and the parent community.

Horpel resists this gloomy outlook. "I want to find great coaches who can direct the whole program in that sport. I want to get coaching philosophy on the same page and have a director of each sport. This creates consistency for the athletes," Horpel said.

That goal is all the more reason to emphasize training, mentoring and enforcement of coach standards of conduct, starting at the top, most experts agree.

Positive Coaching Alliance's literature stresses the importance of "message bombardment" in shaping a high school sports culture to achieve "total clarity of cultural norms." Bombardment means messages need to be sent often, through multiple channels, throughout the years and cannot be overdone.

Communicating "the way WE do things HERE" is the primary leadership task, and the athletic director can't do it alone, according to the Positive Coaching Alliance workshop materials for high school leaders.

Held agrees with the Positive Coaching Alliance's emphasis on the need for clear messages.

"Coaches can be important contributors to the education and maturation of our children, but the community and school administration need to make crystal clear what our expectations are and understand what support they (coaches) need to meet these expectations.

"Like our children, coaches are usually a work in progress, and we will have a future filled with even more frustration if we think that $2,500 and a steady diet of criticism in Palo Alto's 'very' demanding work environment (from administrators, parents, student athletes, etc.) will attract a steady stream of candidates who bring with them the communication skills, life experience and game knowledge success will require," he wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly.

"I have not met a coach who came for the money, especially knowing the time commitment required, but most left disappointed with the level of support and understanding they found. If we cannot hire the qualifications we want, we must help the coaches develop the skills we, in fact, require them to have."

Held said simply getting rid of unsatisfactory coaches, when the broader system of support is not in place, can result in a revolving door of new problems with each turnover.

"Sometimes it is easier to just get rid of the irritant than it is to deal with the larger issue," he said.

Chris Redfield, Gunn's former head and current assistant varsity boys' basketball coach and a math teacher, emphasizes the importance of team play.

"I try to make the experience of basketball about other things the players will carry with them for a long time. I want them to look back on the experience and feel strongly about the relationships they had with teammates. I want it to be something they look back proudly at."

An "unselfish team" leads to success, he said.

Redfield said the toughest coaching challenge comes from playing-time issues.

"Every player has high hopes for what they can contribute. They have a goal to play. But there are always players who play less. Convincing them that they make a contribution and they do sometimes it's hard for them to believe that," he said.

The problem can be parents who view success in terms of playing time, he noted. Redfield sees having less playing time as a teaching opportunity for parents to talk with their children about the broader perspective: their worth as people and as teammates independent of their playing time.

"There are wonderful team members who haven't played much. They are hard workers, help to push their teammates. When they make the effort, others are motivated. It brings up the level for the whole team.

"It's wonderful to have a kid who is realistic about playing time but wants to try hard to do his best and have that work ethic. That adds to the culture of the team and tone of practice. The guys on the bench add a lot to support their teammates," Redfield said.

During games, Redfield said, everyone should be positive, even if mistakes are made. The teaching comes later, after the game and during practices, and is done constructively, he said.

Gunn parent Mary Perricone recalls Redfield's positive influence on her son, Kyle, who played four years on varsity and graduated in 2009.

"A coach is like a god to a teen," she said. "Chris was a great influence on the kids. He was not as intense as other coaches, and some people criticize him for that, but I would much prefer the positive influence over any other aspect of a coach."

Paly teacher Jake Halas, former head of the varsity girls' softball team and assistant football coach, cited important differences between coaching girls and boys: "Girls don't question things. Guys will question you more. Girls are just as competitive, but more sensitive to direct criticism. My overall philosophy is that you've got to be aware of how you critique. All kids are individual and some kids will shut down if criticism is too harsh." Halas said his goals for athletes are to learn responsibility, commitment, work ethic, good morals, sportsmanship and how to work as a team.

Dealing with mistakes in play is a special challenge for coaches.

"When someone makes a mistake, I try to talk to her as soon as possible to instruct her on how to correct what she was doing," Paly varsity girls' lacrosse coach Jen Gray wrote in an e-mail. "I start with what she did right in the situation and then try to be very tactical about explaining the 'mistake.' That way we separate the skill and the mistake from the player, make it less personal."

Paly's varsity volleyball coach Dave Winn thinks a lot about when and how to raise his voice.

"If you yell all the time no one listens," he said. If girls are singled out, he tries to be careful to do it with respect and be clear and concise about what he's trying to communicate. He believes in "feedback sandwiches" ideally with a 4-to-1 positive-to-negative ratio, and 2-to-1 the bare minimum.

Sarah Stapp, Gunn varsity girls' basketball coach and physical-education teacher, said her favorite part of coaching is playing an important role in an athlete's development on and off the court.

"I don't do it for the money," she said. "I feel a responsibility to give back, since I benefited myself from good coaches."

Gunn water polo and swimming coach Mark Hernandez said he views the sports team as a second family for the players, something he considers rare beyond the high school years.

"It's very special to be part of a committed group of friends. It's a unique opportunity that won't last or be repeated," he said.

Comments

Posted by Tyler Hanley, online editor of Palo Alto Online
on May 14, 2010 at 8:53 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

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