In the midst of a coaching carousel that will have at least seven teams vying for a new head coach, this is a letter to those potential candidates from the perspective of a former player, and on behalf of all players out there who hope to land the ideal coach.
Have a Vision
Every player introduced to a new coach wants to know what that particular coach’s vision is for the team. This goes for both long-term and short-term concepts.
Is this team going to be a high-tempo, explosive team? What are the key areas of emphasis for victory?
Let your goals be known early and often. Players want to know the general plan for the organization and the steps involved to get us where we need to be. Nothing happens overnight and every season in itself is a process of building and preparation towards an inevitable outcome yet to be determined.
Players can sense when a coach is without a vision or appears to be making things up as he goes along. Don’t be that coach.
Let Your Expectations be Clear and Consistent
This somewhat overlaps with having a vision but is more focused on the actual rules and guidelines a coach establishes for his team. From player conduct, practice tempo, scheduling and everything in between, a coach needs to be able to preemptively lay out what he expects from his players and fellow coaches.
These expectations also need to be something attainable and consistent throughout. If a coach is constantly redefining his expectations and constantly wavering on established parameters, it can destroy a team’s functionality.
This is something most inexperienced head coaches will likely struggle with the most. Unfortunately, as a new coach tries to figure out how their team will operate, they’ve likely already compromised their perception of consistency from the player’s point of view. As a result, the entire team is forced to navigate through that head coach’s personal growing pains.
A crucial component to a head coach is having the ability and commitment to the ideal that he will never let any agenda take priority over the betterment of the team. This means he will always put the best players out on the field regardless of their big-name status, contracts, draft status, or what have you.
This is oddly not always standard practice in the NFL, though it very well should be. Any coach who fully buys into this concept is undoubtedly giving his team an edge on the competition.
Be True to Yourself
There are few things more off-putting than a head coach who ironically tries to gain the respect of his players by pandering to some misunderstood cultural vernacular or by contriving some shallow, transparent persona that reeks of falsification.
Just be yourself and make sure to allow whoever that is to shine through loud and clear. This truly is the only way to be an effective leader of grown men.
When a coach is too guarded and reserved, it tends to come off as insincere and withdrawn, all part of a lesser attempt to maintain control and respect over those you wish to coach.
Rex Ryan certainly has his flaws as a head coach but one of his ultimate strengths is his ability to be 100 percent true to himself. Rex is perhaps the most candid coach I’ve ever had the privilege to play for.
Although doing this may have its natural drawbacks, the overwhelming outcome is positive for sure. It truly allows for his players to relate with him, to believe in him, trust him, and ultimately, want to play for him
“If there is no truth, there is no trust…They (players) have to know where they truthfully stand and what they need to do to get better” – Mike Sherman
Be more than just a Dictator
A coach who is unwilling to listen to his players and cannot see past his own independent perspective is likely to get himself in trouble with those players. Professional athletes have made it this far and have even become stars in the league for a reason. Any coach who is unwilling to listen to those players is doing himself and the team a great disservice.
Unfortunately, many coaches out there happen to be insecure in their positions and slip into a bad habit of defending themselves unnecessarily by shutting down to any feedback.
When I played in New York, it seemed the Jets' locker room felt this way about Eric Mangini and it eventually contributed to his firing. He seemed to struggle or resist every suggestion from his team captains despite their constant pleas for certain changes.
This was regrettable considering Coach Mangini really is a fantastic football mind and an excellent strategist.
Motivate with Passion and Courage
If we happen to be down at halftime and not playing very well; heads hanging and the team all but defeated, every player in that locker room wants a guy who can stand in front of the team, firm as a rock, and tell the guys exactly what they need to hear to fire them up.
But he must also have the ability to make the necessary adjustments to the game plan which puts his players in the best position for success.
The ideal coach should have the ability to think outside the box, be creative, and carry a set of brass balls the size of Texas. The coach who demonstrates he’s willing and able to put his neck on the line for a victory is a coach who will quickly gain the respect of his players while indirectly creating a mentality for his team that gets infused within the players.
Many coaches in the NFL simply make decisions with a mindset geared towards playing it safe and not to lose. This concept could be symbolized in strategies like the prevent defense and punting the ball on 4th-and-1 in enemy territory.
Although they have value in the proper context, sometimes a coach can be so conservative that he actually gives the game away to a braver coach willing to take it. More respect is earned for the coach who will do the taking.
Players have always been drawn to and motivated by courageous and passionate coaches, guys such as Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh. This attitude does in fact trickle down into the players and is quite observable on game days.
Another crucial element to this which applies strongly to both aforementioned coaches is their ability to motivate with positive forces rather than through fear. Professional athletes typically have all the self-induced fear they will ever need, adding to that can just deplete confidence, causing performance anxiety.
The more productive route is to stress the positives, even in the midst of being critical towards a specific aspect of performance.
With that said, it’s also important to never throw a player under the bus. Assume responsibility for your players' actions and performance in public. But don’t be afraid to hold players accountable in private or amongst the team.
Know Your Players Both on the Field and Off
A coach who truly knows each player’s strengths and weaknesses and does everything he can to get the most out of each player is a coach who will have a great deal of success. This may seem obvious or cliché, but he should be able to find ways to help minimize each player’s weaknesses by addressing them honestly, constructively, and with a feasible plan to improve upon them over time.
In addition, players are far more likely to buy into you and your program if they feel as though you truly care about them as individuals. Team-building exercises and events are preferred and go a long way in building chemistry.
But it’s equally important for the head coach to be just as involved in such activities by making time to mingle with his players.
One of the best ways to break the ice and allow for a more dynamic relationship with your players is to have a sense of humor and let it shine through. Getting a few laughs out of the room during long meeting hours can be invaluable throughout the tedious grind of an NFL season. Without this element, the team is likely to wear down and simply cash it in before the winter snow falls.
Always Remember that Football is Best Played When Having Fun
This might be the most important thing to remember of all. If a head coach removes the fundamental aspect of fun from the game, he’s essentially stealing the most potent and natural motivating force for improvement available.
Not only is fun a great motivator, it is also critical in establishing and maintaining team chemistry. Most coaches severely neglect the vital aspects of fun and how it pertains to their profession. The general perception among coaches seems to be that fun is implicitly linked to football itself, when in actuality it’s an extremely fragile component.
Fun must be generated by breaking through the monotony of daily routine and strenuous conditioning by keeping things fresh and exciting. Drills can be better geared towards fun. And whenever possible, make whatever activity, lesson, or drill somewhat competitive. This tends to be a strong incubator of fun.
After all, fun will be the greatest ally to a winning football team and the lubricant for all other functions to a successful season.