John Wooden and Pat Summit are the gold standard of coaching. In 25 years at UCLA, the “Wizard of Westwood” won 10 national championships and was AP Coach of the Year five times. Across the country at the University of Tennessee, Summit won 8 women’s national titles, had over 1,000 wins and was the Naismith Coach of the 20th Century. Both coaches are linked by unparalleled successes on the biggest of stages. But it’s their actions on the smaller stages, behind the scenes, and in practices that sheds a light on what made them such effective coaches.
What makes a “good” coach? Adults of our generation grew up idolizing Coach Bombay’s ability to rally the Mighty Ducks to victory, and Coach Boone’s and Yost’s fiery pregame speeches that helped us to Remember the Titans. The words of Coach D’Amato and Coach Taylor are part of our pre-game soundtracks. This is how we envision ourselves when we first become coaches. While passionate outbursts happen, great coaches win through thoughtful communication. Whether you’re working with Olympians or little leaguers, the work of great coaches behind the scenes can lead to new insights that translate to great performances on the field or court.
“Short, Punctuated, Numerous”
In 1974, two UCLA psychologists’ asked “What makes coach John Wooden so successful?” His ability to recruit talent? His skill as a tactician? Sure. But there was another theory. Wooden’s distinct style of coaching was why his teams kept winning. Over the course of their study they watched and analyzed practices, paying attention to how and why he was so successful. The secret they concluded was how Wooden taught: statements were “short, punctuated, and numerous. There were no lectures, no extended harangues”.
Instructions, corrections, and cues get a bad rap. Because they are intended to fix a problem (“Jump for the rebound,”” “Fire through the hips,” “Shoulders back and down”) we experience them as negative. But cues are neither positive nor negative, they’re just information.
Wooden understood this. His role was to educate: give his athletes the information they needed when they needed it – if they needed to jump “Jump!”, drive to the basket “Drive!” keep the ball moving “Pass!”. Urgency and emotion came from the importance of the lesson not a sense of blame at the player.
Knowing how and when to give what instruction to which athlete is a skill. Wooden cared to learn and understand the roles, relationships and team dynamics that played in cueing his players, especially the often overlooked reserve players. While he offered instruction and praise evenly across skill level, he purposefully gave his back up players fewer scoldings than his starters. He understood that they were already stressed from getting worked DAILY by future hall of famers . The higher he kept their spirits, the harder they pushed his starters.
We can do the same in the gym. We know who just needs the occasional nod and who needs the extra attention. Endless praise can be condescending, but by reducing “scolds” and peppering in a healthy dose of instruction you create a great learning environment.
Failure is a part of progress. A Bedrock cycle that ends without resets is a cycle gone wrong. Coach Wooden knew practices are made for failure; athletes and individuals pushing their boundaries will fail. But, this is precisely where a coach and teacher can shine. “Pass!” “Drive!” “Hips!”. Failing forward in a safe environment looks a lot like learning.
Knowing when to interject as coaches takes practice. Nick Winkelman offers a simple structure for when to say what: “Cue. Do. Debrief”. University of Tennessee’s Coach Pat Summit broke her coaching down similarly into pre, inter, and post-drill instruction. In a study of her coaching style, researchers found pre and inter-drill instructions were directed at the team. One person needs to hear it, but everyone can benefit. Post-drill debriefs( taking the time to correct faults or check on progress) on the other hand were on an individual basis. Bolted onto Winkelman’s structure, Cue and Do as a group, Debrief one on one.
Cues: Specificity Adds Impact
Giving positive reinforcement comes naturally to new coaches. It’s easy to do, relatively low risk, and it makes you feel involved. Looking at coaches like Wooden and Summitt, we understand how overvalued and even dangerous a “cheerleader” coach can be.
Think back to your first time in the weight room, trying to figure out exactly how many sets of chest and arms you needed to do, and which machine to use. Who is more helpful, the coach who walks by while you fumble your way around the pec deck and says “solid pump big dog!”, or the coach who saves you from embarrassment, pulls you aside, and starts talking about the benefits of the barbell.
Positive reinforcement and support have their time and place. Coach Summit was tactful in how she praised her teams. Like Wooden, the majority of Summitt’s coaching interactions were gauged towards instruction. So when she praised her athletes, she made it count. General praise, “Good Job!” “Keep Going!” “Way to be!” was rare. Instead, she preferred precise and individualized recognition, “That was the right pass!” “Good Box out on that rebound” “Solid patience on that post-up.” This type of praise not only acknowledges a player’s good work, but it directly reinforces the actions and behaviors that lead to team success.
We can transfer these ideas into the weightroom. Start with three questions. Who is the praise for? What exactly are you cheering on? What behavior are you reinforcing? A person’s name is their most prized possession; use it, let them know exactly who you are praising. Let that athlete know exactly what they did right. If you’re pleased with their speed on a back squat, SAY THAT, “good squat” is not enough. Specificity adds impact. Finally, praise should foster the culture you want to build, “Amy, nice speed finishing out that tough set”.
Praise can be an effective tool, “cheerleading” can be a dangerous distraction. In general population training we see coaches spend an hour cheering while missing dozens of opportunities to actually COACH! Like Summit and Wooden, the most useful thing we can do is give a good cue, watch, then move on. When we focus on “amping” people up we miss detail: lifted heels, collapsed knees, rounded shoulders. Stand back and observe, show support by being useful, not just loud.
The military gave me what’s called a “bias for action.” This bias takes many forms, but can best be summarized as “Speed Kills.” While decisiveness can be a virtue, a coach should know when and how to slow down, step back, and get the full picture.
As a young coach, leader, parent, or teacher, stepping back seems impossible. There is so much going on in a gym, on a game field, or in a classroom that we often feel the urge to match that intensity. I know because I’ve had this instinct too. The more hectic things got, the faster I moved; the Tasmanian Devil turning the amps up to eleven while chugging seven cups of black coffee. In that tornado of action I could control but I couldn’t coach.
Summit and Wooden knew chaos was part of their sport. Championships were won or lost in a few frantic possessions or a single scramble for a loose ball. They didn’t shy away from disorder in practices instead they inoculated their athletes against the unexpected. What allowed them to embrace disorder? A dedication to planning and a willingness to “let chaos happen.”
Wooden especially planned practices down to the minute “3:40-3:45: Five-man rebounding and passing; 3:45-3:50: Five-man dribble and pivot.” Detailed plans were written before every practice by the entire coaching staff. Planning meetings were often longer than the practices themselves and gave assistant coaches a clear picture of every detail of the day’s work. The exacting nature of these practice plans and how thoroughly his assistants understood them allowed Coach Wooden to sit back and just watch.
Coach Summit too understood the value of simply observing without intervening. A meticulous planner, she used intrasquad scrimmages to observe and annotate: looking for patterns and common faults to be fixed later. After decades of coaching she knew which in practice stressors would expose which issues. Stepping back gave her the opportunity to fix what needed fixing or simply let young players continue to learn and grow.
Stepping back as a coach takes confidence. In athletic performance, we often feel that our action proves our worth. In the gen pop world we often think that since our members are paying they deserve our constant attention.These mindsets are common for young coaches. It takes practice to do less and watch more. When given a crisis, many believe faster equals better. More experienced coaches will tell you that’s not always the case.
I had a boss, a Marine Corps Colonel, one of the smartest leaders I worked for. He certainly had a bias for action, but he also had “tactical patience.” When asked to react to some imminent disaster he’d regularly reply, “Nope… I’m going to let the grass grow on this one.” In other words, “We don’t know enough. Rushing in will make it worse. The more we know the better solution we’ll create.” It’s the same in the weight room. Just because you’re quick to see an issue doesn’t mean you have to be quick to fix that issue. Give your athletes the chance to learn. Let them experiment, let them fail, let them grow. Tactical patience can go a long way.
Empty Cup. Full Bore.
It goes without saying, most of us will not have the careers of Coach Summit or Coach Wooden. Nevertheless, we can still have a tremendous impact helping players, members, and clients become more powerful athletes. Good coaches never stop teaching, but great coaches never stop learning. There are hundreds of opportunities to continue to grow as a coach. Finding great sport and strength coaches to learn from should be one you take advantage of. Sit in on a practice, shadow a lift; observe, absorb, and emulate.
Interested in learning more about how you can take your coaching to the next level? Sign up for the Power Athlete Methodology Course today, and start your deep dive into the principles and knowledge bombs that will truly Empower your Performance
Podcast: PA Radio Episode 369: The Language of Coaching w/ Nick Winkelman
Podcast: PA Radio Episode 308: Conscious Coaching w/ Brett Bartholomew
Blog: Dedicate to Filling Your Holes by Don Ricci
Becker, A. J., & Wrisberg, C. A. (2008). Effective Coaching in Action: Observations of Legendary Collegiate Basketball Coach Pat Summit. The Sport Psychologist , 197-211.
Gallimore, R., & Tharp, R. (2004). What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and Reanalysis of John Wooden's Teaching Practices . The Sport Psychologist , 119-137.
Andy Holmes is a Power Athlete Block One Coach who has over the last decade worked with athletes from nearly every walk of life, sport and occupation. A college athlete Andy graduated and commissioned in the United States Marine Corps as an Officer. After leaving the Corps he began coaching full time working with both general, athlete, and tactical populations. He has coached collegiately at Georgetown University and The University of Texas working extensively with football, lacrosse, rowing, softball, and volleyball teams. Andy is a firm believer that better people make better athletes and better athletes win championships. He is currently enrolled in Denver University’s Masters of Arts in Sport Coaching Program and loves to chop it up about philosophy, Russian history, and obscure films between heavy sets. In addition to the coveted Block, Andy holds certifications from the NSCA, CSCCa, and USAW. He currently most likely drinking coffee or eating tacos with his wife and dog in Austin, TX.
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