by Coach Dave Kenson

As a young boy, like so many males of my generation, I truly believed I would grow up to be a cowboy.  My hero was the Lone Ranger.  What greater career could anyone have than helping people in anonymity?  But I soon realized that times of Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Cheyenne, The Rifleman, Maverick, The Cisco Kid and Wyatt Earp were, as the saying goes, “tales of days gone by”.    

As I got a little older, I fell in love with sports, and my new dream was to become a professional athlete.  I played football, basketball, and baseball.  I practiced constantly, not only with my teams, but countless hours on my own.   In high school I received some scholarship offers for basketball, but more for football.  I chose Rutgers University.  One of the reasons was there were no restrictions on my playing football, basketball and baseball my Freshman year.  At that time there were Freshmen teams, because the NCAA said that freshmen could not play varsity sports.  One of 13 candidates, I became the starter and quarterback on an undefeated team.  I believed that I was on my way to my goal.  The problem was that at Rutgers, I felt, not for the last time in my life, like a square peg in a round hole.  In hindsight, it was my immaturity that kept me from adjusting to a change of cultures.  This is something that I have made a concerted effort to improve since that time.   After this first year at Rutgers I transferred to the University of Cincinnati and three things happened that would change the direction of my life.

The first situation was that I found out that I would be competing with “the pro” for the quarterback position.  He was 6’4”, 220 lbs., ran a 4.6 forty, and had an accurate rifle for an arm.  He would go on to set every University of Cincinnati passing record and become the #1 selection for the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL draft.  Starting as a rookie, he had a great season before a torn rotator cuff ended his playing career.  Often you will hear former athletes, in hindsight, saying things like, “I was as good as so and so.”.  Not me.  I could look back 100 years from now and still come to the same conclusion.  He was so much better than I could ever have dreamed of being.

The second event happened in spring practice following “the pro’s” graduation.  I would have the opportunity to compete for the position.  Unfortunately, my body was shot.  By that time, I had torn the cartilage in both knees (I now have two titanium joints) and had a recurring back problem.  In spring practice, I hurt my back again and it was discovered that two vertebrae were out of line.  I did not find out until 45 years later that they had been fractured and healed over time.  Like Niedermeyer in “Animal House”, my playing, or in my case practicing career, was dead!  That fall, I became first a student assistant coach and then a graduate assistant coach, while getting my Masters degree.

The third important event was that when I arrived at Cincinnati, so did a new head coach.  His name was Homer Rice, and his impact would have a lasting impression on my coaching career.  I was introduced to option football combined with drop-back passing.  It would be featured in my offensive philosophy for decades.  Coach Rice also introduced us to Paul J. Meyer, a pioneer in the self-improvement industry and the concept of positive thinking.  This curiosity with the mental aspect of playing and coaching would lead to my life-long study in that area.

I really enjoyed the coaching experience and now that I could no longer play, I took a greater interest in the whole game and not just the position I played.  I decided that I really wanted to be a coach.  The rest of this article will be about the things that I learned from many great coaches and what worked for me over the next 50 years.  It may not be everyone’s “cup of tea” because one of the most important things that I learned about being a teacher/coach is that you must be yourself.  However, there may be some ideas that will be beneficial to anyone who wants to coach.

GOALS –Everybody talks about goals, but few people understand them.  You need to have a long-term goal– an unrealistic one.  No coach or player gets excited about the goal that seems reasonable at the time.  You and your players need to be excited about the goal so that you can be enthusiastic about the PROCESS.  Many people put too much emphasis on early outcomes and not enough focus on the steps. “Good things happen to those who wait” does not mean that you sit and do nothing.  It means to be patient while you work hard.  Let the process work on its own time, not your schedule.  Winning championships do not take place sometime in the future.  It happens every day in practice.  This is the process:  Implement the steps that the coach believes are necessary to get from setting the goal to reaching its accomplishment, and include these in the drills that you do everyday in practice.  The goal has to be exciting enough to make the team enthusiastic about daily accomplishments and to remind them of why they are practicing.  Otherwise they become just another drill: just work.

Steve Jobs said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”  Having enthusiasm and passion makes you love what you do.  You as the coach must sell the goal and motivate your team to love the process.  At the end of each practice, let your players know the progress they made today.  The culture must precede the reward.  You have to become a champion before you win a championship.  The importance of the process is less about what you get and more about what you become.  When you become a winner, winning will happen.

CRITICISM/PRAISE –In our modern society, criticism has taken on a negative connotation, but as a coach, constructive criticism is your job.  Having our unproductive attitudes, behaviors, and performances corrected is how we grow as individuals and improve as a team.  In order to accomplish this, we must first be made aware that they are unproductive; that this is why we are not succeeding, that it is not someone else’s fault.  This is the purpose of the coach.  He must identify, and correct, unsuccessful performances and then explain and demonstrate productive ways of accomplishing necessary skills.  Finally, these new and improved skills and techniques must become automatic reactions through multiple repetitions.  The successful coach is adept in getting his players to do things the “right way” instead of the way they want to do them.  To quote Tom Hanks, “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.  It’s the hard that makes it great.”.

Criticism is what coaches do; but what kind and how should it be done.  First, we have to understand that there are two kinds of people.  There are those with a fixed mindset, and there are those with a growth mindset.  Fixed mindset people believe that all their accomplishments stem from how talented they are.  When they experience failure, it is either because they realize they are not as good as they thought they were, and they get depressed and quit and they blame someone or something.   Its all about their ego defending them.  If you make a criticism of them personal, you will lose them and they will blame you.  Growth mindset people know that their success has come from working hard and working smart.  When they experience a setback, they look at themselves in the mirror and say, “How can I change my attitude, behaviors and approach to the problem in order to perform better?”  You can win with growth mindset players.  They are coachable.  What then, does this have to do with criticism?  Since a lot of your players (especially the most talented ones) are going to be fixed minded when they come to you, be careful not to criticize them.  Criticize their attitude, their effort and their performance, but not them personally.  Instead of “You’re soft”, tell them that “Your effort was soft”, or “Your performance was soft”.  It is more than just semantics.

What about praise?  In my lifetime our culture has gone from heavy criticism and little praise for kids to heavy praise and little criticism.  Praise is important, but we need to know what to praise.  Don’t praise talent.  It just reinforces the ego of the fixed mindset.  Praise effort and, most importantly, praise IMPROVEMENT.  That will encourage the growth mindset.  I am not in favor of giving out awards and trophies at the end of the season, but if I had to do it, the biggest trophy would be for “Most Improved”.  That’s why you coach.  You’re not a baby sitter.  You’re there to effect positive change.  Always treat your players fairly, not equally.  Playing time must be based on performance.

As a coach you will not be immune from criticism or praise.  If the criticism is truly constructive, you should do some self-examination and make necessary changes.  However, you will also be criticized by arm-chair quarterbacks.  Guys who played a little and maybe coached Pop Warner, Bitty-Ball, or Little League will tell you that they “know the game”.  But they are not at practice, off-season workouts, and they don’t watch tape.  Parents may complain that you play favorites because t heir child is not playing enough.  They may tell you that your practices are too hard and too long and that you practice when other teams do not.  You have to deal with these complaints in a professional manner while standing your ground.  Never make it personal, and never take it out on the player because of what his parent may have said to you.  In public, always take the blame for poor performance by the team.  Deflect personal praise, and praise the team when things are going well.

ADAPT, IMPROVISE, OVERCOME – Just like life, one of the constants of coach is change.  Successful coaches are innovators, but coaches are also copy cats.  The key is knowing what change to make.  Coaching clinics are a great source of new ideas.  But buyers beware!  Often coaches, especially young coaches looking for magic dust, view a coach’s presentation like they did their very first date.  They forget that its purpose is to learn, not to fall in love.  They need to understand that there are many reasons and special circumstances why a particular play, scheme, or system worked.  Are your circumstances similar?  These things work for the following reasons:

1.  the coach completely understands it, including that to do when the opponent adjusts

2. his players have the necessary skill sets to accomplish all of its components,

3.  the coach is able to get his team to believe in the process of getting it done

Of course, the opposite can also be true.  An experienced coach may reject anything new.   He views these new ideas like dating after his divorce.  He doesn’t trust anything that differs from what he is comfortable with.  In either case it takes a great deal of study and an honest assessment of the probability of it becoming successful for “his” team.  It is not whether or not to change things.  It is what changes to make and when to make them.

Still want to be a coach?