This article was written as part of Alex Luna's BCAP certification.

What makes a good coach?

You didn’t think I was going to give it away in the first line, did you?

When I was in college, I used to play with one of those “old-guy” beach volleyball groups that played at the crack of dawn every Sunday. And I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. We all know those guys are the craftiest players on the beach. But one day, one of them asked if any of us were interested in coaching; he was looking for an assistant for his 16s team. I hadn’t coached before but was at the peak of my obsession with the ins and outs of the game, and I eagerly jumped on the opportunity to flex my coaching muscles and continue to grow as a volleyballer.

I fell in love with coaching that year.

It started me off on a path that steered me away from my future in marketing and toward a full-time career coaching in college. Those girls were awesome, and their parents were awesome. What I want to draw attention to, however, is how awesome my relationship with my head coach was and how exactly he made it that way.

He had the type of coolness to him that helped you realize that things that happened on the court were not life and death. And as a first-year coach, he did for me what so many coaches do not do: he gave me freedom. He gave me room to grow. He gave me the opportunity to bring my strengths to the team. I had plenty to learn about the game, but I was skilled at building trust in relationships.

He frequently talked to me and asked if I wanted to run the next practice. He noted two or three things he thought we should focus on, and he let me run with it. Like, truly let me run with it. He had the confidence to see what I would bring to the table and the discipline to talk to me about it after and help me grow through those trials. I had a role.

Without that guidance, that confidence, that organization and that feedback, I might not even be coaching anymore. Now that I’m in a Division I coaching role, I’ve come full circle with my understanding of why that relationship and that team was so successful.

See, good coaching is really just about good managing.

Seriously, it’s everything. It’s the effectiveness and happiness of your staff, it’s the effectiveness and happiness of your players, your parents, your administrators, club directors, EVERYONE with any stake in your program.

And here’s the thing, it’s easy. So why do so few people do it well? Well, quite frankly I just don’t think the volleyball community has made the connection as to just how central it is to success.

Volleyball IQ vs. Emotional IQ

There is a phenomenon in the hiring of volleyball coaching at all levels where people tend to over-value volleyball intelligence and under-value emotional intelligence. As if success hinges on having a coach who knows more about blocking schemes or transition footwork rather that the ability to get players to actually do those things.

This is not to say knowledge of the game isn’t important, but I ask this: Are the largest sources of frustrations in your coaching experience volleyball-knowledge-related, or are they people-related?

How often have you heard these things or even felt them yourself:

  • Players complain about not knowing what to expect from their coaches, or that they’re inconsistent

  • Assistants never understanding their role, or feeling like their head coaches have poorly defined expectations

  • Head coaches feeling like their assistants aren’t carrying their weight

  • Parents on a different page as the directors or head coaches
For most of us, we know that the actual coaching is in some ways the easy part. What’s difficult is getting players to feel confident and understood, getting your staff on the same page, getting your parents to know their role, getting your director or administrator to get behind you. There’s an irony in the fact that in an industry that is so inherently about relationships, there’s such a lack of understanding of them. It all comes down to managing expectations.

The solution?
  1. Communicate

  2. Communicate

  3. Over-communicate

Head Coaches

Make it a serious point to frequently discuss expectations with your assistants, just as you would with your players. This includes not just dictating long- and short-term expectations/roles but also being collaborative and asking your assistants if they have strong opinions on things or if they have things they’ve been wanting to try or accomplish.

Many assistants don’t want to step on toes, have strongly opinionated head coaches, or have had the experience of putting themselves out there and had their feedback adjusted by a head coach in front of players. This can really put them in a shell, and most of the time only happens because you didn’t do a good enough job of talking about coaching cues and training preferences beforehand. 

Have a pre-practice meeting and go over a few coaching cues for that session, encourage them to really focus on one aspect of the training. This will make your gym such a more effective place of development while simultaneously building trust with your coaching staff and allowing them to bring their strengths.

Assistant Coaches

I’ve learned that sometimes you have to manage your head coaches. They can have a tendency of just doing everything themselves as a default modus operandi. Sometimes, your feelings or your role in the gym doesn’t even cross their mind. This doesn’t mean they’re a bad person or coach; it’s fairly normal for most Type A coaches. It just means you have to be the one to initiate conversations regarding your role. “Hey, can we chat about practice this week? I had some ideas and wanted to see if I could lead a few drills or stick with a certain position group.”

Whenever you’re in staff meetings, make sure you’re always peppering in your goals and don’t dance around them-make sure they’re clear. If you want to be a head coach soon for example, make it known often and ask for their guidance and opportunities to lead. When you continually open these lines of communication, you help yourself obtain a more significant role while also keeping you and your head coaches expectations aligned. This will lead to a healthy coaching relationship.

Regardless of who you are or what your position is, if you have a stake in the team you should be initiating these types of conversations both from the top down and the bottom up. In business, these kinds of practices are commonplace and oftentimes even overdone. That’s why there’s StrengthsFinder seminars and Management Training and Progress Reports and Quarterly Evaluations and a laundry list of other things.

Good businesses understand that their strength lies in the operational cohesion and success of the individual people doing the work. A volleyball team is really no different from a small business. It’s an organization with shared goals.

I strongly encourage you to get better at the skill of management. Whether you’re already good at it or not, or whether you’re the head of the program or at the bottom. It puts not just your success, but your happiness in your control.