University of Arkansas Head Women’s Coach Mike Neighbors was a long-time and very productive D1 assistant coach after being a successful high school coach.
He has seen from many vantage points what it takes for an assistant to contribute to a program. Scroll below to read some of his thoughts:
This is the first part of the article. I have a link to part 2 of this piece at the bottom of the article.
TRUST, TALENT, TIME
To be a good assistant coach, I believe your Head Coach needs three things from you: TRUST, TALENT, TIME
Each of these have many facets. Each of them can be accomplished in many different ways. Each of them may carry slightly more importance to certain head coaches. Each of them may carry particular emphasis based on your job duties… but in my experience, all 3 are necessary if you want to be the best for your head coach.
We will begin with TRUST for two reasons. One, it is normally the first thing head coaches mention when they talk about the loyalty factor. Two, because to me as an assistant, TRUST is what keeps us from having to be perfect on a daily basis.
For each of these labels, I am simply going to list the various notes that I categorized under each. They are in
no particular order of importance and some of the elements overlap.
Loyalty is a common word when you begin picking brains of head coaches. I feel TRUST is the highest form of loyalty so I choose it as one of the three benchmarks. In today’s times, TRUST is hard earned and valuable. When a head coach feels TRUST, you can make mistakes. You can have errors in a scouting report. You can miss evaluated a potential recruit. Because they TRUST in your intentions rather than your actions. So, let’s list some ways you can earn TRUST.
REMEMBER IT IS NOT YOUR TEAM… The team belongs to your head coach. They are the ones who are responsible for every aspect of the program. While your investment is certainly valuable, it is NOT your team. In all your actions, you are valuable but never irreplaceable. You are important but not necessary. There are 100’s if not 1000’s of people who would love a shot at the job you have. Keeping this in mind in all your actions and decisions go a long way to earning TRUST.
MAKE YOUR POINT BUT NEVER ARGUE IT… The very best assistants understand it is their job to make suggestions and the head coaches job to make decisions. State your case, back it up with evidence, and then let head coach make the decision on it. And then move on. Don’t allow your pride to be hurt if the idea isn’t implemented. Don’t sulk. Don’t debate it with other assistants on your staff or friends on other staffs. MOVE ON. A great scene from the West Wing has a presidential candidate say to an “assistant coach”… “I will give you all the time you need to try to talk me out of doing something. But once we open that door and walk out, I’ll expect your full support”. That is pyramid messaging. And that is something every great assistant coach must master.
PYRAMID MESSAGING… From the simplest thing like calling a spot on the floor the same thing as your head coach to more in depth concepts such as enforcing the culture of the program, the message from the head coach must be Echoed from the head assistant to the head manager. Each link must stay on message.
ENFORCE THE CULTURE OF THE PROGRAM… Once the Head Coach has established the culture of the program, it is the job of every assistant below to accept nothing less. We all know through experience, that we will get from our players what we tolerate from our players. So, you must never tolerate anything that is inconsistent with the culture of the program. We must get players off the fence and on point.
DON’T BE A “YES” PERSON OR A “NO” PERSON… If you have a different idea, express it. A former head coach once said to me “If we all have the same ideas, someone is obsolete.” Have the confidence and the evidence to support your opinion. But you also don’t want to take this to the extreme and all the sudden become that person that NEVER agrees and is always in the devils advocate position. While it is certainly wise to look at an issue from all angles, you will lose your effectiveness and the TRUST of your head coach if you are always on one extreme or the other.
TAKE A BULLET… Step up and admit a mistake that you make that could reflect poorly on your head coach. Maybe you miss handle an academic situation with a tutor. Before that tutor can contact their supervisor and tell them what an ass you are, reach out and take the bullet. Sometimes it might not even be your fault.
NEVER LET YOUR HEAD COACH BE SURPRISED… This one goes hand in hand with WEED THE GARDEN. While you want to keep some things from making it down the hall to the head coaches office, there should never be an instance when you head coach is made aware of a serious situation in one of your areas. Keeping them in the loop is easy with the technology we function with in 2012. Shoot them a text and let them in on things. The last thing you want as an assistant in charge of academics is for your head coach to learn of an eligibility issue. Way easier to deal with the situation as it is occurring rather than after the fact.
BE THERE FOR YOUR PLAYERS… when all else fails around you, be there for the players. Be there when they need you most. They don’t need you when they hit the game winner, they need you when they miss it. Be there when the head coach rips them a new one in film. Be there when they failed a test. Be there when they have a flat tire. Be there when they bounce their first check. But be there for them. Don’t be the first person off the court after practice in a race to get back to something in your office.
IT’S OKAY IF YOU DON’T KNOW AN ANSWER… While you always want to have the correct answer in every situation, that simply isn’t reality. If you don’t know something admit it. I followed that advice someone had given me in a Sweet 16 against Vanderbilt in 2010. Coming into a timeout with 26.7 seconds to play and the ball on the side in a tie game, I was asked what defense the Commodores would be in. Based on 12 game films and the previous 39 minutes, the answer was simple… I HAD NO IDEA!! They had given us five different looks and routinely throughout the year changed defenses in these situations. So the head coach drew up a play that would work against a man or zone. Long story short. The play worked. We advanced to the Elite 8 as a result and I had earned a level of TRUST.
NEVER USE THE PHRASE “I UNDERSTAND YOUR FRUSTRATION”… When you are meeting with a player, never let any words come from your mouth that would under cut the head coach. The second you do this in an effort to be-friend a player for some reason, you have lost TRUST. This speaks toward the staying on message with your head coach but is a specific situation that I see so many young coaches make as they are learning to separate themselves from the players. While you can say you see they are frustrated or share with them methods to cope, you can never let them for one second feel that the head coach is NOT making the best decisions for the team. Unfortunately, we all probably know coaches who have advanced in this game as a result of not doing this, I can assure you they won’t last in the long run.
TWO EARS ONE MOUTH… God gave us one two ears and one mouth for a reason… to listen twice as much as we talk. Loose lips sink ships is a saying for a reason. You have to keep your team business within the team. So many young coaches get caught up in the gossip game. Those coaches rarely survive the long run. Once you have earned the TRUST of your head coach, you are a big step toward having a great working relationship that is mutually beneficial. When you have this situation, only something out of that head coaches control will jeopardize your role as an ASSISTANT COACH… an alcohol related issue, violation of NCAA or school policy, or inappropriate relationship.
TRUST alone is not enough. We all have friends we trust with our biggest secrets that don’t possess the necessary talents to help us succeed. TALENT becomes our second point every ASSISTANT COACH needs.
LEARN YOUR CRAFT… When you are given an area of responsibility, learn everything there is to know on the area. Read books, attend seminars, seek out experts in the field, and then make them your own. If you are in charge of recruiting and don’t have computer skills, you are behind. In today’s world of technology, if you can’t create a FACEBOOK page or a TWITTER account you are behind. If you can’t organize a database you can’t function. If you aren’t comfortable on the phone with people you may not know, you are behind. If you are assigned PLAYER DEVELOPMENT and you don’t understand the psyche of the players you are working with, you are behind. If you are in charge of film breakdown and can not operate your editing system without the I.T. department by your side, you are behind. You MUST learn your craft. The best of the best are on the cutting edge of everything and are never in catch up mode. The best of the best are setting the trends that others are following. In today’s world of technology there is no excuse for ignorance
BE WILLING TO DO ANYTHING HEAD COACH NEEDS DONE… Too many young assistants rank the importance of duties in their own mind and are influenced as a result of their own perspective. If it is assigned, it is important. Being willing to things no one else is willing to do is a talent just like being able to do something no other assistant can do. This makes you valuable. The more indispensable you are to a head coach, the better your team will function and in turn the better your career will advance. No job is too small to be important to you. There is NO job outside of your “job description” as an assistant.
ANTICIPATE THE NEEDS OF HEAD COACH… this is a talent that requires some experience and trial/error. Each year as things happen in our program, I make a note in a calendar so that when the next year rolls around I have a blueprint of when things happen. For instance, each year when a season is beginning, every player on the team has aspirations of playing time. Before you have played a game, every player is hopefully of a certain number of minutes they might player or maybe that they will be named a starter. As a result, as that first scrimmage arises, every team goes through a period where some players hopes are not realized. For us that time is in late October. Therefore, we have a team building session each pre-season that helps us address this and better prepare our players for the situation. This can also be related to daily basis situations. I once worked for a head coach who always forgot their socks on road trips, so I learned to pack two. I also worked for a head coach who always forgot to bring a whistle to practice so we made sure managers sit one out daily. Most of the time, these are simple things you learn by just paying attention!!
ADD VALUE… Give your head coach/team something that adds value. Spend the off-season on a project that adds value to your program. Develop on overseas contact. Meet with academic support staff and implement a plan to check classes. Spend time with experts learning how to better use ipads within your team. Have lunch with admissions department people who can make or break your life at the college level. Vacation near a coach you respect and spend a couple of days shadowing their every move. Work with marketing department on ways to increase attendance. Read books. Add value.
HAVE POSITIVE BODY LANGUAGE… This one was a personal challenge. As a young coach, I was so invested into the wrong things that sometimes my body language wasn’t positive and quite frankly was distracting at times. I became so engrossed in games/practices at times that my body language didn’t reflect well upon me as an assistant and hindered our team from progressing. This goes to Kevin Eastman’s point of “evaluation vs emotion”… as an assistant we should be in constant evaluation mode. This is not to say there isn’t a time and place of a well timed “explosion” but it certainly loses it effectiveness if it the rule rather than the exception. The negatives of poor body language far exceed anything positive…
BE AN ENERGY GIVER NOT A TAKER… this is very similar to what we just previously discussed about body language. This is overall energy though. If your head coach is constantly spending time pumping you up, that is wasted time and energy that could have been spent on a current player, a recruit, or some other area of your program that needs attention. DON’T BE NEEDY!!!
WORK WITH THE RESOURCES YOU HAVE… ask for what you need, but realize you’re never going to have everything you want. Work with the resources you are provided and make the most of them. Your head coach will work to provide everything in their budgetary ability. But those coaches who are always talking about what others have don’t last long in this game. If you really need something the budget doesn’t allow, buy it with your own money. When ipads were first introduced, it fell during a time that we had utilized our budget for that year. Rather than wait until the next fiscal year, I bought one with my own money. It hurt the discretionary budget personally but the value it added to our team was worth more than anything I could have used it on personally. If it’s THAT important, make it happen. If you can’t, at least don’t complain about it.
BE A CONNECTOR… cultivate the ability to connect with players, recruits, administration, parents, etc. Your head coach has so many “other duties as assigned” that your ability to connect with people key to your program can be extremely valuable. If you can build a relationship with a core group of people around your program you are improving the quality of your head coach’s day as well as improving your own worth. The ability to serve as a buffer is valuable to every head coach. Many times this goes from being a “buffer” to being a “leader” when dealing with certain aspects around your team. Some people might call this brownnosing or schmoozing… it’s not, it’s a necessary component of every successful program.
This is the first part of the article. Here is the link to part 2