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What makes a good coach?

by Alan Goldberg, Ed.D.

The best coaches continually challenge their athletes.
The best coaches continually challenge their athletes.

March 2007 -- This second installment of a two-part article on coaching and mentoring young athletes is reprinted with permission from the Mental Toughness Newsletter. Part 1 ran in the February issue of ADDvantage.

Let’s take a look at what makes a really good coach. As a tennis-teacher or coach, reading this will help you learn which behaviors and characteristics will best motivate and inspire your players, and you can also see how you measure up as a coach.

  1. The very best coaches get their athletes to believe in themselves - Good coaches inspire their players to do more than they think they can. In fact, all good teachers do this. Part of this involves building the athlete up rather than knocking him down. This self-esteem building is not a gimmick nor is it done artificially. A coach doesn’t praise a mediocre effort. He simply makes it a practice to catch his athletes doing things right.

  2. Truly effective coaches do not use embarrassment and humiliation as "teaching tools" - One of the characteristics of badly misguided coaches is that they regularly use embarrassment and humiliation. They think nothing of calling out or putting down an athlete in front of his peers, fans or parents. These coaches mistakenly believe this is the way to build character and mental toughness. What they don’t understand is that these abusive techniques are the most effective way to emotionally destroy kids. There is nothing educational or constructive about it.

  3. Great coaches are great life teachers - A good coach understands that what he is teaching goes far beyond the X’s and O’s of the court, track or field. As a consequence, this kind of individual does not just teach the skills, technique and strategy within the narrow confines of the sport. Instead, he looks for opportunities to teach the more important life lessons, such as rebounding from failures and setbacks, trusting your teammates, sacrificing individual needs for the benefit of the group, dealing with winning and losing, good sportsmanship, fair play, honesty, integrity, etc.

  4. The best coaches keep the game in perspective - Somewhat related to No. 3, the best coaches are able to keep their sport in perspective. They understand that what they teach and how they teach it will have an impact on the student that goes far beyond the sport. They know that long after the athlete has put away his bats, balls, racquets and other sport paraphernalia, the effect of his relationship with the coach will continue to influence that individual’s life and happiness.

  5. Great coaches do not let their egos and self-worth get tied up in the outcome - The best coaches are psychologically healthy enough to know they are not their performances, regardless of what others may say. They do not feel diminished as a person when their teams fail nor do they feel that much better about themselves when their squads succeed. These people understand that coaching is only one of many things that they do and therefore they do not let this one thing solely define themselves as individuals. Coaches who get into trouble with their athletes do so because they are emotionally more vulnerable and tend to feel threatened by a loss or failure.

  6. Great coaches understand individual differences in their athletes - The best coaches know that each athlete is different in attitude, personality, sensitivity, and how they handle criticism and adversity. These coaches take the time to get to know each athlete’s individual differences and styles. They then hand-tailor what they say to and how they treat this athlete to achieve maximum coaching effectiveness.

  7. The best coaches coach the person, not just the athlete - Good coaches take an interest in the athlete’s life off the field, court or track. They do not see a student’s personal, academic or social problems as a distraction. In fact, they view these "outside problems" as an opportunity to further build a relationship with the athlete and help him become a better person. This kind of caring is never lost on the athlete. Coaches who take an interest in the athlete’s total life are more trusted and respected than those who don’t, and they are better motivators.

  8. The best coaches are flexible - Be ­flexible enough to examine yourself when your athletes struggle. Assuming that they are the ones with the problem is not the mark of a good coach. Coaches who are rigid, who continually adopt the attitude that "It’s my way or the highway," are far less effective than coaches who have mastered the art of being flexible. Understand here that flexibility does not mean being wishy-washy. You can be flexible and strong at the same time.

  9. The great coaches are great communicators - You can’t be effective as a coach unless you can successfully reach the people with whom you work. Good coaches understand that communication is a two-way street and involves a back and forth between coach and athlete. Bad coaches think that communication is a one-way street. You talk and the athletes listen. Period! Instead, effective communication requires that you as a coach carefully listen to what your athletes are saying. If you can’t learn how to listen then you will never truly be effective in reaching your players.

  10. Good coaches take the time to listen to and educate their athletes’ parents - Many coaches find it inconvenient that they have to deal with the parents of their athletes. If your job entails having to interact with parents, understand this: Your life will be far easier and you will be much more effective if you make it a regular practice to communicate with and educate parents about the sport and the role they need to play on the team. Your success as a coach often depends upon getting parents to work with you, not against you. This means you must learn to listen to their concerns and questions. Be proactive with parents, not reactive. Use an educational, preventative model when working with them rather than crisis intervention.

  11. Good coaches "walk the talk" with their athletes and parents - If you want to be effective in reaching the people you coach, then you must learn to put your actions where your mouth is. That is, there must be some congruence between what you say and how you act. If you are teaching your players about the virtues of consistent, hard work yet you yourself are inconsistent in this area, then what you are really teaching your athletes is that you are a hypocrite, it’s really OK to slough off, and that talk is cheap. What I’m really saying here is that your most powerful teaching tool is modeling. You should operate upon the principle that your actions will always speak much louder than your words.

  12. Good coaches keep the learning environment emotionally safe - There are a lot of social things that go on in sports between teammates that make the learning environment emotionally unsafe: scapegoating, ostracism, cruelty, petty jealousies, and the list goes on and on. Good coaches understand that the emotional climate on the team is everything and dramatically affects how players practice and perform. Good coaches make it their job to directly and immediately deal with the social garbage that sometimes arises between players. They make it very clear to their athletes which behaviors are appropriate and acceptable when interacting with teammates and which are not and therefore will not be tolerated. As a consequence, this kind of coach creates an atmosphere of safety on the team that is absolutely crucial for optimal learning and peak performance.

  13. Great coaches continually challenge their athletes to do better and push their limits - The best coaches do not allow their players to just get by with the status quo. They refuse to tolerate mediocrity in effort, attitude, technique, training or performance. Because they continually challenge their athletes, they are able to keep them highly motivated. There is nothing more motivating to an athlete than being challenged, experiencing the success of rising to meet that test and as a result, improving. When coaches fail to adequately challenge their athletes, they will end up losing those athletes to boredom and apathy.

  14. The best coaches continually challenge themselves - Good coaches always maintain a "beginner’s mind" when it comes to their professional development within the sport. They understand that regardless of how much success they may have had in the past doing things their own way, they can always learn new and better ways of teaching the sport. These coaches are always open to learning the very latest that may be available within their field, be it strategy, technique, conditioning, mental training or motivation. They attend coaching conferences, read new books, watch and listen to what’s current on DVD and CD programs, and actively explore ways of getting the job done better. These coaches do not fight what is usually a fast-changing technology within their sport.

  15. The very best coaches are passionate about what they do - As a coach, your passion for the sport and for coaching as a profession is what will ultimately make you a great coach. Passion is infectious and if you approach your practices and competitions with it, soon after your athletes will "catch" it. It gets them excited and gives them a reason to stretch themselves. If you’re bored coaching then you will bore your athletes. If you can’t seem to find the passion in coaching then perhaps it’s time that you seriously considered doing something else.

  16. Good coaches are empathetic and tuned in to the feelings of their players - Empathy is the ability to tap into another’s emotions, experience what they are feeling and to then communicate your understanding to that person. This goes a long way in building an athlete’s loyalty, self-esteem, motivation and, ultimately, peak performance. However, being empathic doesn’t necessarily mean you are an emotional pushover. You can understand where your players are coming from and still make coaching decisions you feel are necessary.

  17. Good coaches are honest and conduct themselves with integrity - How you conduct yourself in relation to your athletes, their parents, your opponents, the referees, the fans and the media is never lost on your players. They see and hear virtually everything you say and do. Be an honest role model. Demonstrate character and class. These qualities are far more important than how many games or championships your teams have won.

  18. The best coaches make the sport fun for their athletes - It doesn’t really matter on what level you coach, from the pros all the way down to Little League. It doesn’t really matter whether a national title is at stake or just simply bragging rights around the neighborhood. Sports are just games and games are meant to be fun! One of your most important jobs as a coach is to find creative ways to integrate this fun into what you do over the course of the season, on a daily basis in practice and during those important competitions. Fun is the glue that bonds "peak" and "performance" together. When an athlete is enjoying himself, he is loose and relaxed - two of the most crucial ingredients to peak performance. Keep in mind that it’s perfectly fine for you to make the fun "goal directed." Just don’t get too caught up in how important a particular game or tournament may be.

  19. Good coaches are not defensive in their interactions with their players or parents - Part of being a good communicator is that you have to be open to negative feedback and criticism. This is not something that is easy to do and most of us respond to negative feedback by getting defensive, closing off and going on the counterattack. If you want to be successful as a coach you have to learn to be open to all kinds of feedback. You have to train yourself to carefully listen to what others have to say to you and consider their comments and points of view. This is especially important if the comments and negative feedback are coming from your players. Sometimes the complaints from your athletes hold the seeds to your becoming a better, more successful coach. Put the defensive stance away. It’s unbecoming and ultimately counterproductive.

  20. Great coaches use their athletes’ mistakes and failures as valuable teaching opportunities - One of the bigger teaching mistakes that coaches make is to get angry and impatient with their athletes when they mess up or fail. This response to your athletes’ mistakes will ensure that they will make plenty more of them. Coaches who consistently yell at their players for screwing up end up making them too nervous to play to their potential. Good coaches know that mistakes and failures are the necessary prerequisites to learning, improvement and success. They instill in their players the understanding that mistakes and failures are feedback about what you did wrong and specifically what you need to do differently next time. In other words, the best coaches teach that failure is feedback and feedback is the breakfast of champions!

Alan Goldberg, Ed.D., is a former No.1 singles player for the University of Massachusetts Minute Men and two-time conference champion. He has taught tennis professionally for 22 years and has worked as a sport psychology consultant for a number of high school and college teams, as well as with several players on the pro tour. He is the author of Tennis with the Competitive Advantage, a four-CD mental toughness training program. For more information about Goldberg, visit

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