How Much Does the Coach Really Matter? 

David Mullins

Sports fans typically fancy themselves to be true experts of their sport. They love to share their opinions as to what tactics athletes should adopt, what calls the coaches should have made, who must retire, who should turn pro, who is taking performance enhancing drugs and which coaches should lose their jobs.

They love to give adulation and praise to coaches when they win and demonize them when they lose. But Max Landsberg, author of Mastering Coaching, states only “20 percent of learning derives from a coach who cares about an individual’s or team’s learning.”

If this is true, even if a coach happens to be the Michael Jordan of coaching, the most they can hope to impact a players progress is around 20%. This means that your average or inexperienced coach may have even less than 20% influence on their players’ development. This makes me question, do coaches deserve the attention they receive?

My own experiences and observations have led me to believe that a team’s success ultimately depends upon the quality, experience and mindset of the players within the team more than any other factor. Think about it. Do the Patriots win yet another Super Bowl without Tom Brady at the quarter-back position? Do the Cleveland Cavaliers win the NBA Championship without LeBron James?

When it comes to building a successful college tennis team (or any college sports team), the most vital skill a coach can possess has nothing to do with motivation, conditioning, tactics, team-building, empathy, planning or culture building. It is, in fact, sales!

One of the reasons I retired from college coaching is because it had become clear that the profession had evolved to be more about sales and less about coaching at the highest levels. I naively entered the profession thinking it was all about tennis development and molding young students into highly functioning adults who would go take on the world.

Originally, this was the sole purpose for including athletics as part of the curriculum in third level education institutions, but I believe the relevance of this now gets lost with the influx of resources at the highest levels. Those wanting to make a name for themselves as a college coach must make recruiting their highest priority, every moment of every day.

At many colleges, winning is the number one priority of the Athletic Department. Therefore, Athletic Directors should be looking for highly skilled salespeople, and investing in the development of their coaches’ selling proficiency more than any other area of expertise.

The definition of the word Coach is, “One who instructs players in the fundamentals of a sport and directs team strategy.” Based on this definition, I think using the word, “coach,” for college coaches of all sports, including tennis, may be somewhat inaccurate. Head coaches are expected to play many different roles and they need a term that more broadly defines their occupation. My belief is that they hold more of a management position, and coaching is just one of their various daily duties, thus referring to them as managers would be more appropriate.

To be sure, there are still many dedicated “coaches” out there who are fantastic developers and phenomenal, genuine salespeople. They don’t spend time negatively recruiting other programs and can connect at a high level with these teenagers. They may not be coaching championship winning teams but they are maximizing their recruits’ potential and find ways to consistently overachieve despite their limited talent level.

They spend an inordinate amount of time travelling, making phone calls, and building relationships with players, parents and coaches in order to find a recruit who will match their coaching style. Once that player is on campus for their freshmen year, this same coach works incredibly hard to back up everything they promised, and work equally as hard on the court as they did during the recruitment process. I have so much respect for these coaches and what they sacrifice.

It is up to you, the future prospect, to determine who those coaches are and how important a role you want them to play in your experience. Remember, that on average, the most you can hope the coach to assist with your development is about 20%. The rest will be up to you. On the other hand, it is also important to recognize that a coach can have a negative influence on your experience, too.

I coached players that were not right for my program and coaching style and even with the best of intentions, was not the correct fit for them as a coach. This happens from time to time, so be sure to do your homework so that does not happen to you.

I tell clients I consult with all the time to get very clear on their criteria for selecting a college. Many of them will tell me that having a “good” coach is one of their top priorities. When they use the word coach, they are generally referring to the strict definition of a coach and determine how good a coach is by their win/loss record. I encourage them to challenge generally held assumptions, and that just because a coach’s team wins a lot does not necessarily make them a “good” coach. It could, in fact, just make them a fantastic salesperson.

If playing for a coach who can help you develop your game is important, then you must look beyond the wins/losses and tradition of the program. There are some fantastic coaches at all the different levels of college tennis who have decided they are extremely happy in their current position or haven’t had the right opportunity to move up to a higher level to attract the top recruits.

Don’t overlook these coaches and programs. These coaches may be more grounded and focused on the things that truly matter in a player’s tennis and personal development. They are the ones who epitomize the word “coach”. They may not be bogged down in recruiting battles that require them to constantly travel and miss practices to go watch some local stud for the 87th time in the past four months. They may not put winning as their number one priority, which I know is heresy to you hard-charging, go-getter types.

Understand that if Team A consistently attracts blue chip recruits and Team B has nothing but 4 start recruits, well Team A is going to win 100% of the time, regardless of how amazing the coach is – at least in the world of college tennis.

Now if you say your top priority is being part of a highly ranked, championship winning team or playing with blue chip recruits on a daily basis, well, that is a different story. I am absolutely not saying that you can’t have a great coach, and practice daily with a winning team of blue chip recruits but this combination is not a given and is rarer than you think.

If having a quality coach is an important component of your college choice, then you must define what your definition is of a quality coach. What are the skills that you hope they possess? Is their level of success as player important? Are you looking for someone that is going to challenge you and make things tough, or do you want a coach that will be ultra positive all of the time?

Do you want a coach that has great technical expertise in order to make some changes to your game, or maybe it is someone with a background in sports psychology or strength and conditioning. What about years of coaching experience versus a younger coach who you feel can relate better to the issues you may face as a college student? Your decision about a coaches ability should not be based on wins and losses from one year to the next, as this will change based on their talent level and other unforeseen circumstances.

Do you like them because they are a good salesperson, or do you like them because you believe they can provide exactly what it is you say you are looking for out of your college coach based on something more than a few friendly conversations?

Have you gone to watch both their individual and team practices with players. Have you discussed the coaches ability with current and past players? Are many of their players improving year after year, and do these same coaches have their best years when they have three or four seniors in their teams who have made their way up the line-up through the years?

Maybe the tennis development aspect is not that important for you, but you want to be sure that the team chemistry is solid and the coach has a good relationship with all their players. How you are going to determine this if have not spent some time observing the interactions between the team and the coach. Whatever it is for you, figure out how you will get the answers you need to make an informed decision.

Coaches do matter, regardless of how high a priority they are to you in your decision. Take the time to do the research this all important decision deserves.

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