Coaching Philosophy -- What is Success?

by Suzie Tuffey, M.S.
USOC Sport Science and Technology Division

How does one measure success in coaching? Is it based on the number of Olympians, All-Americans, or national champion athletes under your tutelage? Is success simply a reflection of your win-loss record as a coach? Or is success measured in terms such as the life skills taught on the playing field, lessons learned by the athlete through the competitive experience, and the accomplishment of personal goals regardless of the final

As a coach, how you measure your success is intricately tied to your philosophy of coaching -- the beliefs, principles, and values you hold to be true. A solid philosophical base can act as a guide when making decisions, acting, and interacting with others. Your philosophy contains what you believe to be the essence of coaching; your objective day after day and year after year when working with athletes. And if your objectives are achieved or an honest effort is made towards achieving them, that is an indication of success.

Understanding Your Philosophy

Rainer Martens, a prominent sport psychologist and author, has suggested that coaches have three primary objectives: winning, having fun, and developing athletes (physically, psychologically, and socially). All of these objectives are important, but your coaching philosophy will decide which objective is the most important to you.

Read the following scenarios and decide what your normal response would be to each situation:

With the game tied and your leading scorer on the bench for disciplinary reasons, do you put him/her in to help the team win?

The referee makes what you believe to be an incorrect call that could cost your youth team the game. How do you behave towards the referee? What do you say to your athletes?

One of your athletes is injured during a crucial competition and is limping noticeably. Unfortunately, the back-up for the position is also injured. What do you do?

Your answers will help you understand your objectives and basic philosophy as a coach. By sticking with a well-developed philosophy, what might appear at first to be a difficult situation has a simple solution. Your responses should not be decided or influenced by the situation but, rather, by your guiding philosophy. Do you typically place winning in front of the best interests of your athletes? Or do the athletes come first?

The Importance of a Positive Philosophy

Curtis Tong, a coach and sport philosopher, says,

"In our effort to win, we must never forget that victory is a means not an end, that our basic purpose is to help young people grow into decent, kind, and sound men and women".

If you value excellence, you value the challenge of trying to win, as winning is one measure of excellence in competitive sport. But as many great coaches, such as John Wooden, have pointed out, winning is the result of doing many small things
correctly. It does not occur by focusing only on winning. To keep winning in perspective it is essential to avoid getting caught up in the "production syndrome," where all that matters is the end result. Such a focus can have a negative, damaging impact on the athletes because it may compromise their development as athletes and individuals. What is of significant importance is the process involved in winning. The often misquoted statement by Vince Lombardi briefly summarizes this notion, "Winning isn't everything, but striving to win is."

By adopting the philosophy that the individual's continued development is of the most importance, the athlete's journey towards success will be a valuable, enjoyable experience. And, not surprisingly, when it is communicated to the athlete through words and action that they are valued, the outcome will take care of itself. Joe Gibbs, ex-coach of the Washington Redskins, once said, "People who enjoy what they are doing invariably do it well". From local youth leagues to the professional level, athletes mention having fun and feeling valued as a person as significant reasons for participation:

"I've always played baseball because I love the game. So regardless of whether I hit a 440-foot home run or strike out, the game will always be fun. All I want is to get some quality cuts every at-bat".

It is doubtful Bo Jackson, who made this statement several years ago, would have endured the pain and hardship of rehabilitation simply to win one more game. He did it because he enjoys the process involved in being a competitive athlete.

So, as a coach, think about how you can develop and live by a philosophy that has the best interests of the athletes as a priority, one that views the true meaning of winning as a process, not a product.

Long after the season is over or the athlete has finished his/her career, the outcome of competitions will be forgotten. What will be remembered over the years is the process involved in pushing oneself, making sacrifices, setting and striving for goals, experiencing and coping with success and failure, and enjoying the company of others with similar goals. Success as a coach will come from the gratification of knowing you had a significant influence on the positive development of your athletes as individuals.


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