10 lessons learned from 20 years of coaching

by Jeff Smith

It's funny how birthdays make you reflective, especially milestone days like the big 5-0. (Guess I've officially passed middle age.)

One of my favorite sports quotes.

One of my favorite sports quotes.

Today I found myself looking back at two decades and nearly 60 seasons as a coach as the calendar indicated I was another year older (and hopefully a little bit wiser). Coaching has taught me countless competitive and life lessons through nearly 1,500 games, a few thousand practices and hundreds of camp dates, clinics and private lessons. Wisdom gained is only of any worth if it's shared with others, so here are 10 of the many truths I've learned over the years from the sidelines.

10. Body language and attitude matter

Watch the most successful teams on the court and sidelines. They all have a certain "look" about them. Their body language exudes confidence and determination. No matter the situation, they look poised and have the appearance of an unflappable team that believes deeply in one another. (The "eye of the tiger" as the Rocky movies put it.) Their body language remains confident, even when they're behind on the scoreboard. Their body language and attitude makes a difference -- within the team and in what their opponent sees from the other side of the net.

9. Be physically loose and mentally tight

The most successful teams master the delicate balance between playing loose and free yet with laser-like focus on the task at hand. It's a difficult tightrope for some teams to learn to walk, but those that do perform at or near their best most consistently.

8. Matches and tournaments are mostly won in the practice gym

From coaching an 18U national team through to fifth and sixth grade, the strongest teams I've been around were also the hardest-working teams in practice. In fact, I've never coached a successful team that wasn't a fantastic practice team. The worst team record-wise that I've coached was, ironically, the worst practice team I've coached. Practice the way you want to play rings loudly with truth.

As a coaching colleague once told me, practices should be so competitive, productive and challenging that games seem easy by comparison because your team is so well prepared for anything it faces in a match or tournament.

7. Physical touch brings your team together and makes them play better

I can't back this up with scientific research, but I've found that having my players high-five, fist-bump, pat each on the back and huddle up with their arms around one another collectively produces a closer-knit, tighter squad that supports each other. It's one reason why I give my players a fist bump whenever they come off the court in a match. That physical connection communicates encouragement, support and unity, that we're in this together.

6. Coaches need encouragement, too

I don't think it's a coincidence that my greatest coaching seasons occurred when I received the most encouragement, gratitude and support from players, their parents and fellow staff. Coaching can be a very draining profession. Like teachers, coaches spend most of their time pouring into their athletes and not getting poured into. It's like constantly drawing money out of a bank account; you also need to make deposits into the account or else the account will eventually run dry.

Parents and players who recognize this reality and pour into their coaches keep those coaches constantly filled up so they can coach out of a full account and not an over-drawn one.

5. Athletes respond best to guided discovery

As a journalism major and former news and sports reporter, I was taught the power of asking questions to draw people out and to guide them to discover solutions to problems. There is a time and place for telling players what they need to do to be successful. But the art of guided discovery makes a greater impact with the players on your team.

Last Sunday I substitute coached one of our 16U teams. After winning our first match of the day, we built a seemingly insurmountable lead in our second match before tightening up and squandering a late 9-point edge, eventually losing 28-26. In our huddle afterwards I could've lectured the team about what we did wrong and what we need to do to get back on track. But the players had a sense of what needed to happen. All I had to do was ask a couple of guided questions and they figured out the rest on their own. They then promptly changed their mindset, went out and won the next two sets, including a 26-24 nail-biter, to close out the tournament in style.

4. End every practice on an upbeat note

I've broken this rule from time to time, but by and large I've learned through experience that, to keep your team looking forward to practices and maintain a high level of enthusiasm, athletes -- especially girls, in my opinion -- need to walk out of the gym after a challenging practice with a strong sense of community, positive energy and feeling valued.

This is one reason why I end each practice playing a short, fast-paced game like a form of queen of the court or a team-building activity followed by a post-practice huddle where I give two or three players the hustle award and best attitude award for that practice. These two traditions provide positive reinforcement, camaraderie, high-energy fun and affirmation, qualities that every athlete needs.

3. You can't coach every athlete the same way

This is where a degree in psychology would come in handy for a coach. Each athlete you work with is their own unique self. In some respects you have to coach all your players the same way, but you do have to tailor your individual coaching to each athlete.

That's why I support coaches coaching the same group of players for two or three years in a row. I even coached some athletes for 4-5 years back when I coached at a school earlier in my career. This gave me the opportunity to really get to know my players well and learn what makes them tick and how to best motivate and teach them, something that is difficult to do in one short school or club season.

2. The most successful teams are like families

This is a universal truth covering both girls and guys teams. The closer knit a team is, the better it generally plays on the court. It's more supportive of one another through challenges and adversity. It pushes each other more enthusiastically in practices. And it looks forward to practicing and competing together, motivating one another to play and give their best each day. Fostering an environment of friendship and support is critical to a team's success.

1b. Athletes read their coach like a book

Several years ago, I was coaching a team in a private school state tournament quarterfinal match against the defending state champs. In front of a packed gym, our team started slowly, falling behind 10-2 early. The girls were overcome by nerves and made one tentative mistake after another. One player even began crying on the court. I got frustrated, called a timeout and chastised the team for the entire huddle. My frustration was evident in my body language, tone of voice and the words I spoke. Our team left the huddle and continued our downward slide, eventually losing meekly in two sets.

Lesson learned.

A year later, in the exact same situation as the prior season, our team struggled with nerves again in front of a raucous audience. This time I focused on projecting a sense of calm, confidence and enthusiasm, which isn't easy for us as coaches when our teams are in meltdown mode on the court. I cracked a joke in one timeout and told the players to embrace the moment, how much fun it was to get the chance to play in an important match like this, and to focus on having fun and celebrating like crazy every time we won a rally.

The team fed off my poise and positive energy, went on a huge run that stunned our opponent and rallied to win in three tight sets. Poise and positivity won the day.

1a. Coaches can't control everything

The most recent lesson I've learned is that, no matter how many different buttons I try to push, many times the coach has very little impact on how their players fare on the court. Recently a team I was coaching blew a 9-point lead and lost by two points in spite of my best efforts. I used my timeouts at seemingly just the right time. I projected confidence and belief in the team. I offered changes in strategy for how to counteract what the opponent was doing. I exhibited poise on the sidelines, even as we made one unforced error after another.

None of it mattered. Coaches do make a positive difference with their mindset, mentality and actions, but in the end it's a players' game. Ultimately the match is decided on the court, not the sidelines. We're the supporting actors in this play, not the lead characters. And that's the way it should be. The players should be in the spotlight, another lesson learned over 20 years.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.