7 Traits Behind the Best Coaches

Across any given year tens of millions of kids take to the playing fields and courts where they will fall under the guidance of coaches (more than 2.5 million of them), most of whom are volunteers, may be coaching for the first time, and have received no formal training (only 10 percent).

Not surprisingly, many parents are keen on finding good coaches that not only will teach their kids how to play a particular sport, but who also can be trusted to protect their kids against injury, treat them with respect, and perhaps pass along an important life lesson or two along the way.

The importance of a good coach cannot be overstated, particularly when upward of 70% of student athletes abandon sports by the age of 13 citing it no longer being fun and coaches as a key source of that dissatisfaction.

Which is why we thought it useful to offer up seven traits we’ve found to consistently be associated with successful coaches (and by successful, we don’t necessarily mean wins, though the W’s usually come when coaches possess these traits).

#1. High Level of Self Awareness

While this could apply to just about any individual in any role, it’s particularly true for individuals who wield authority, influence, and power over the powerless (e.g. children). Outstanding coaches are always working on themselves, are open to constructive criticism, and recognize there are many ways to improve what they do.

#2. Excellent Communicators

This is another universally important trait. The best coaches are almost always terrific communicators, and not just in the big, motivational half-time speeches. These coaches are equally adept during practices, when, let’s face it, the truly important work is being accomplished. They’re articulate and clear on what they expect from kids, so there are no surprises when it comes to game time. Excellent communicators also tend to be direct – they are comfortable offering uncomfortable truths to help bring out the best in players.

#3. Treat Kids as Individuals

Smart coaches recognize that every child hails from different backgrounds and circumstances and, as such, will respond to different coaching styles. Bela Karolyi, whose gymnasts netted nine Olympic gold medals, noted that some of his girls, like Nadia Comaneci, were “like steel” while others, like Kerri Strug, were “timid.” Each became a champion, but had to be molded using different tactics.

#4. Positive and Constructive

Contrary to the bellicose, screaming coach so often portrayed in Hollywood films, the reality is that calm, collected coaches who employ positive feedback enjoy the greatest success. This is not to say that these coaches don’t shout or criticize a player. But when they do so, it’s constructive and includes positive feedback as well. Sir Alex Ferguson, coach of Manchester United, said most players respond to encouragement more than criticism. “For a player – for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing, ‘Well done.’ Those are the two best words ever invented.”

#5. Treat Sports as a Game

According to numerous surveys, studies, and polls, the number one reason kids abandon sports is it’s no longer fun, and a key culprit (along with parents) is the coach.  Which, of course, is absurd since these are ‘games’ after all. Good coaches are recognized as much for their ability to have fun as their competency and skill. If a coach never laughs during practices or games, your best advice is to look elsewhere.

#6. Competency and Skill

Ideally, a coach has genuine skills in the sport he or she is teaching. This doesn’t mean all coaches have to have played a game to coach it, but they certainly need to understand the sport, its rules, along with tactics for teaching the fundamentals and game strategies. The younger the age of the participant, the more important it is that the coach focus on teaching fundamentals. The older the kids, the more important the in-game strategic mindset.

#7. Fair

This is one of the most important qualities and also one of the most difficult to assess. Coaches often find themselves in something of a pickle when it comes to issues like playing time, in part because kids and parents alike want their teams to be competitive, and in part because some kids put in more time than others (i.e. they deserve more playing time because they make the effort, including make it to all the practices, work on fundamentals on their own time, and so on). Look for coaches who have a formula for playing time based on effort AND equality.

The bottom line: when it comes to picking a coach for your kid(s), do your best to ensure they possess as many of these traits as possible. Your child still may not end up a superstar or on a wining team. But he or she very likely will come away from the experience healthier and happier and grateful for the opportunity.


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