The Value of a Serious, Thoughtful Coaching Philosophy

“It is our choice of good or evil that determines our character, not our opinion about good or evil”

Marv Dunphy

Like many coaches, I was drawn to the coaching profession because I loved to play the game. After my Ball State playing days, I was blessed to work countless camps, sharing courts with Beal, Liskevych, Haley, Dunphy, Coleman, and McGown, among other Hall of Fame coaches. My lunch hours were spent soaking in as much wisdom as possible without my head exploding.

When the time arrived for full-time employment, I felt confident in my skills. Forget the fact that I’d never coached before. At this point, one of my favorite John Wooden quotes seems appropriate-

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts”

~John Wooden, UCLA Men’s Basketball Coach
10x National Champions

Looking back, I did not realize how unprepared I was for what lay ahead. Despite this relative unpreparedness, I found myself at the University of Wyoming, coaching players who were only a few years younger than me. I’m thankful I was not asked to articulate my coaching philosophy during the job interview. As I began my career, possessing a well-constructed coaching philosophy wasn’t on my radar.

Retrospectively, I now appreciate the importance of possessing a philosophy capable of withstanding the challenges of this profession. At that point in my career, my main focus was strategies and techniques. However, I discovered the challenges I faced were not on-court (strategies and techniques) but off-court situations (team dynamics, communication, decision-making, goal setting, problem-solving, etc.). A well-considered and meaningful coaching philosophy could have been my guiding light to assist me in managing a myriad of land mines that would materialize at inopportune times.

Developing a clear, concise, meaningful philosophy of why you coach and what you hope to accomplish can be daunting. One of the cornerstones of developing a coherent philosophy is to know yourself and make a valiant effort to discover the “why” behind your passion for coaching. The “why” will directly impact the “how” of your approach to your craft and address the ever-present situational challenges that come with our profession.

I cannot offer a specific roadmap to assist in this journey of self-discovery, but I can attest to its importance. The most basic question is, why are you coaching? Unearthing your “why” will entail a lot of personal reflection and talking with those you trust. There will be bumps in the road that may impact your philosophy. However, I offer the following items as a springboard to help you move in a positive direction.

  • What are the areas of coaching are you passionate about? What excites you about coaching? Equally, what are the areas of coaching that you do not enjoy? How will you find a way to manage these unpleasant areas?
  • What do you want to contribute to the lives of your players?
  • How will your players benefit by having you as their coach?
  • What are your core values that will impact your coaching style and decision-making?
  • What do you want to contribute to the lives of others?
  • Why do you want to coach?
  • How do you deal with disagreement?
  • What is your communication style?

The next challenge is aligning the items you value (“why”) with “how” you coach. The “why” and “how” process is not just a mundane task but a personal growth journey. Write down your values in order of importance and then develop a corresponding list of action items or behaviors that mirror your “why.” Similar to the advice you might give a player, goals without corresponding behaviors will not lead to success. The alignment of values and methods will impact your coaching style and have a “ripple effect” in managing your day-to-day activities. I remember many instances where my values and methods would not align. Those situations never ended well.

I do not approach this subject from a perspective of wisdom or knowledge. I approach this from the perspective of experience. For much of my career, I needed a coherent philosophy, and there were times when I paid the price for this lack of understanding of the why and how of my approach to coaching.

When first starting a coaching career, most young coaches emulate the coaches they’ve played for. The goal is to develop your philosophy, not necessarily copy the philosophy of another coach. Watch and listen to as many coaches as possible. You will discover aspects of their coaching you like and those you don’t like. With each coach you interact with, examine their methods and values, and you’ll slowly begin to build your philosophy. It’s not a race. Be thoughtful!

I am an unabashed fan of the Star Wars movies. One of my all-time favorite scenes is when Luke enters the “dark side” cave. Luke asks Yoda, “What’s in there?” The response is, “Only what you take with you.”

I feel much the same way about coaching. A coach only has their values and personal philosophy to accompany them into the competitive arena. There will be components of your philosophy that are non-negotiables. Other components of your philosophy can be tweaked based on your experiences. With each practice, each conversation with a player, and each problem you face will challenge and force you to examine your knowledge and values.

Take every scenario as an opportunity for growth. Accept that in the various scenarios you’ll encounter, you might be wrong about how you feel or handle a situation. Your philosophy is a never-ending opera with scenes that are continuously unfolding.