© April, 2011
by Lew Johnston Former Head Coach, Western Branch High School, Chesapeake (VA)
Of all the books I’ve read on leadership skills or success in business, there is one element that stands out as the “success factor.” That is – pay attention to details. I read a statement years ago from a highly successful insurance salesman that said “successful people form the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do!” There’s the key. Most unsuccessful people fail because they lack the self-discipline to get the little things done that need to be done. They overlook them or ignore them. The problem is (and we need to recognize this) is that they never go away.
Getting off to a good start in your new head coaching position means focusing on the things that are necessary for you to succeed. The following are 10 critical things that a new head coach needs to tackle early on. Some are simply a one-shot deal and you’re done. But for most of them, it means that you must continue to address them over a period of 6-10 months to be sure that your program is organized and you are ready to start practice.
I wrote a book for coaches several years ago that was published by Coaches Choice entitled 101 Little Things That Can Make a BIG Difference – Developing a Consistently Successful High School Football Program. The book addresses “little things” that a head coach needs to attend to year-round. This article will focus on 10 critical elements that have to be dealt with as soon as you take over a new head coaching position.
1. Meet with the players.
2. Hire a staff.
3. Meet with the seniors.
4. Have a detailed off-season program ready.
5. Check out equipment and your equipment room. Additionally, check practice fields, schedule, scrimmages, 7-on-7, video equipment, etc.
6. Meet with your athletic director repeatedly.
7. Recruit in hall and games and be sure you’re seen.
8. Attend and contribute to parent and booster club meetings as well as middle and youth league coaches meetings. Also, attend Rotary, Lions Club and other community service clubs.
9. Review game films.
10. Organize staff meetings – have a playbook ready.
1. MEET WITH THE PLAYERS - The sooner you can hold a meeting with the players, the sooner your philosophy and who you are as a person can be “put out there”. In today’s instant communication society, word spreads quickly about the new coach. Opinions about why he was hired, what kind of guy he is and what he plans to run on offense are all subjects for texts, tweets and Facebook comments. You need to get in front of your players so they can see you and hear you in person.
In this meeting, you want to share a little of your background. It’s important to be upbeat and let the players know how excited you are to have been selected. A positive attitude and a positive message set the tone. It’s true to a great extent – “the first impression is often the lasting impression.” You want the players leaving that meeting with a good feeling about you. That’s not to say that you can’t lay down the ground rules of how you are going to run the program, but at this early juncture you don’t want to scare anybody off. State some goals and objectives you plan to achieve. Be honest and be realistic. If you’re taking over a program that has been down, you need to lay the groundwork for how you plan to change things. Talk about what’s important to you.
I love the statement that Lou Holtz makes about one of the factors in achieving success. He says, “Help other people achieve their goals and they will follow you anywhere”. This is true of your players. They need to leave this meeting knowing that you will help them succeed in football and life. A big order but, you only have one chance to make a first impression – make it a good one!
2. HIRE A STAFF - The first thing you want to do with the current coaches who remained at your new school is to find out if they are interested in applying to be part of your staff. Unless you have been told by the administration that you have to re-hire all of the current coaches, you should let them know when interviews will be held and have them contact you. If someone does not get in touch with you within 3-4 days after the public announcement, I would encourage you to call them and find out what their intentions are. They may have missed the announcement. Don’t assume anything. We get in trouble when we think we can “read into” what a person does or fails to do. It may be simply that they did not get the word about contacting you. If you want a particular coach, it may mean that you make the first gesture.
Before you meet with the coaches, you need to have a list of questions Their background in coaching and what experience they have are important topics. What is their coaching philosophy? How do they treat kids? What are their strengths and weaknesses as a coach? You should go into the meeting with these questions typed out on a piece of paper. Leave room at the top to write the coach’s name and the date/time that you’re meeting. Bring a pen and take notes as the coach is answering your query. It’s also good to make observations about his demeanor and body language as he expresses himself. Having it written down will help you later when you are making a final evaluation.
I also bring a sheet that spells out my expectations for coaches at my new school. List those things that are important to you. Write out what the responsibilities are for assistant coaches. When you have it in writing, there are no questions later. You have told each of them what you expect from your staff. Take the time to go over each of those points.
Ask the coaches if they have any questions. Find out if they have a problem with anything you have shared. An interview is a two-way street. You want them to find out about you and how you run your program as much as you want to learn about them. Once the conversation is completed, shake their hands and thank them for their time and interest. Be sure to give them a date that you will get back with him – and do it. There’s nothing more unprofessional than to not get back with a man you have interviewed for a position. You never know when the time may come in the future to call on him. Leave a positive impression by being as professional as possible.
3. MEET WITH YOUR RISING SENIORS - Another of the “first things I need to do” things is to hold a meeting with your veteran juniors. I would encourage you to meet them at a local restaurant/pizza place. These are your leaders for your first team. You want them “aboard” as fully as you can. Food always helps to bridge the gap. You don’t know how they felt about the last head coach. Some of them may be resentful that he left. You, once again, have to make that positive first impression with these guys. Carry on conversations as you eat. Ask them questions about themselves. What is their favorite class in school? Would they like to play college football? Get them sharing about themselves. Once lunch is over, you are ready to make your presentation.
You want to emphasize those things that are keys to your success as a team. One thing that I always emphasize to the rising seniors is, as the senior class goes, so goes the rest of the team. You need to plant the seed in their minds right there that if you’re going to be successful next fall, it starts with them. You need them to play the best ball of their career. You want them to go out with a bang. It is important to make them see that they are the leaders of the team. Use the picture of how they have watched the former senior classes lead the team in the past. Did they do a good job or poor? How did that equate to how successful that season went? In other words, turn the tables on them. By using their memories, it gives them a comparison point of what they need to do as seniors. I like to emphasize that they are our chief recruiters. The coaches can get out and talk to the student body but that “positive peer pressure” carries a lot of weight. If they want to have a senior season to remember, then they need to get out there and start talking up the football program. There will be a “honeymoon” period where the enthusiasm level is up. Guys who have not played football before may be thinking about it now. You need to use that enthusiasm to your advantage.
4. BUILD AN OFF-SEASON PROGRAM - A key element of any high school football program is your off-season training program. This can be a tough sell if the previous coach did not put a lot of emphasis on out-of-season weight lifting. However, most high school athletes are savvy enough to know they need to lift weights if they want to be competitive. If you make it a point of emphasis, the players will respond.
The first step is finding a qualified coach to supervise the program. If there is nobody available, it falls on you to see that it gets done – and done right. Even if you hire someone else to run your program, I think it’s important that you are there every time the kids are working out. Your presence says that “THIS is important! I’m here, so I want you here with me.” The sooner you can get the weight room doors open, the better. I will not take the time to go into all of the specific details of a particular program of lifting and speed training. Let it suffice to say that it’s a lot more than just throwing some weight on a bar and letting the players max out on the bench every day. You should include flexibility training (pilates or yoga), plyometrics (explosive jumping and bounding), agility work (cutting, accelerating), speed training and, if you’re permitted, throwing the ball around one day a week. Off-season work-outs have evolved into a lot more than just lifting weights three times a week.
If you are not knowledgeable about off-season training, purchase some books or videos from the American Football Monthly catalog of coaching aids. You must be educated in what is the best method of conducting an off-season program. Then it’s a matter of getting out there in the halls and “selling” your program to the prospective players. It has to be attractive to them. Ask your veterans to be “Weight Room Ambassadors.” There’s nothing like positive peer pressure to motivate teenagers.
5. CHECK OUT THE FACILITIES - Besides building a football team, there are additional responsibilities that fall on you. I’m speaking of inventory of equipment, ordering new equipment if needed and cleaning up the equipment room. Enlisting the help of your staff is important here. Don’t try to do these things on your own. Evaluate your practice field and locker room. These are two areas where your team will spend a lot of time.
You need to check out the video system that your school is using. Is it up to date? Does it meet your needs? Do you need to purchase a new software system that allows you to evaluate and copy game DVDs? Scouting and developing a game plan are key elements in earning those victories on Friday night. You need a quality video system.
Check to see that you have a full schedule of games. If not, find out from your athletic director what is being done. Does your team have its allotted number of pre-season scrimmages? If not, you need to start contacting other schools.
These are the “little things” that can make a difference between being a football program that the young men in your school want to participate in and one that is second rate. Colleges spend millions to upgrade their facilities to woo those recruits. You probably won’t ever raise that kind of money but you need to find a way to make those facilities look first class.
6. MEET WITH THE ATHLETIC DIRECTOR – REPEATEDLY - Your A.D. had a hand in getting you hired. He or she is an ally and you need their continued support. You accomplish this by keeping him or her in the loop. This may hold true for your principal also. Keep the lines of communication open. Let them know what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re the new guy and they know that. It is flattering to a person that you respect them enough to come to them to ask for help and/or advice. At least once a week stop in their office and let them know what’s happening. What kind of progress you are making? Where do you need help?
7. RECRUIT! Recruit and Recruit! You need to be out in the halls talking to kids. You need to go to the basketball games and the wrestling matches. You need to drive to the track meet. You need to be “seen.” More than that, you need to be talking with potential players. Think of the “sales strategy” that college recruiters use to sign a great athlete. It takes lots of contacts. You need to establish a relationship. They need to know that you are interested in them. I love Coach Lou Holtz’s saying: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. If you want to get that basketball player or track sprinter out for football, they need to know that you care about them as people. When you can establish a rapport with these athletes, they will want to play for your team. It’s a process. It won’t happen overnight. You have to stay on the recruiting trail all the time.
Attend a middle school football practice and game. Be there on Saturday morning for the Youth League games. Get to know the younger players. As I said, establish that relationship early. It’s also important to build a relationship with the parents. Talking to them is important also. Let them know that you care about their son. Explain to them that you want to help their son achieve his goals. Discuss his goals and help lay out a plan to achieve them.
8. SPEAK AT A PARENTS AND/OR BOOSTERS CLUB MEETING - It’s all about public relations today. Communication is king. Ask for an opportunity to be the guest speaker at any meetings that involve your school’s boosters – a PTA monthly meeting or the parents of athletes, your athletic department’s boosters club or even the Lions or Rotary Club. You need to get out there and “meet and greet” people. This assumes that you are an accomplished public speaker. If you are not, you must work on it. Take a class on public speaking. Join Toastmasters. Get help from the English teacher in your school that teaches public speaking. And, practice, practice, practice. You’re not going to sell yourself or your program unless you can give an effective motivational speech. We are back to that scenario• the first impression is often the lasting impression. Make it a positive one with these groups. They are going to talk. You are going to get “Facebooked” and texted about what you said and how you said it.
9. REVIEW LAST SEASON’S GAME FILMS - The sooner you can get copies of this past season’s game video to review, the better position you’re going to be in when you start meeting with your players on an individual basis. I’d recommend that you do this first evaluation alone. You don’t need other coaches’ opinions at this time. You need to see for yourself what you have coming back. Get a copy of the roster and scratch through those players who were seniors. Highlight anyone you’ve heard about who is supposed to be a “player” for you next year. Keep that roster and a notebook beside you as you begin to watch the video. If a particular player “jumps out” at you, note his jersey number and check to see if he will be returning. Look at the roster for particular people and memorize their jersey numbers. Look for them in the game footage to see if they make plays. Take notes of the good and the not so good as the game unfolds. Certain people will begin to catch your eye the more video you watch. I would suggest that you “scout” your team the same way you’d scout a new opponent for next year. That is, in terms of personnel. Unless you are going to run the same offense and defense that your predecessor ran, you don’t need to really look at schemes. You want to study and evaluate each player that will be vying for playing time next fall. This is a great discussion topic when you meet with players. You can give them an evaluation based on what you saw and help them set some goals for what they would like to accomplish next year.
10. ORGANIZE STAFF MEETINGS - It is important that you meet with your staff several times during the spring. This will motivate you to get your staff hired and in place. I would recommend at least a monthly meeting starting in March. The March meeting would focus on offense. The April meeting would involve defense. The May meeting would be your presentation of your kicking game and making summer plans. You may need to meet more often if you are going to be “coaching the coaches”. If it’s a new system for your staff, you are going to have to spend some extra time bringing them up to speed in terms of an overall understanding of your offense and defense plus making sure all of them know how to coach the specific position(s) you have assigned them. It is also important to share some philosophy topics. You need to talk with your staff about how you want them to conduct themselves – around you, around each other, around the players and around the parents and community members.
If being a positive role model is important to you, this must be stated. A list of coaches policies should be reviewed. It is up to you as the new head coach to set the tone. Nobody will know how to follow if you don’t explain to them what the standard is. When you meet with your coaches, it is important to have your playbooks completed. Have a copy for each coach. Your level of organization will filter down to the assistant coaches.
About the Author: Lew Johnston was recently named the new head coach at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in Suffolk,VA and will be responsible for their varsity, junior varsity and middle school teams. Johnston was the head coach at Western Branch High School (Chesapeake, VA) for 22 years, compiling an overall record of 163-65-3. Between 2001 and 2004, Western Branch had a 32-game winning streak.