Leader Development

Being an Effective Team Coach

Eric Swanson

Effective coaching is about changing the future. Every coach is a coach because at some point in time he determined that he could make a difference for the destiny of a team and in the lives of individuals. He has decided that through his influence, mentoring, love and leadership, he can help people and groups of people be what they never thought they could become. Coaches believe that people and the future will be better because of them.

As leaders of a campus ministry, we operate in four roles —

  1. Direction Setter
  2. Spokesperson
  3. Change-Agent
  4. Coach

As a Direction Setter and Change Agent you are responsible for shaping the future of the movement. As a Coach you are responsible for preparing, equipping and motivating those on your team to step into that future.

One element common to all effective coaches is this: They realize that their success is tied to their ability to make others successful. Their joy is in the development and victories of those on their team. As a ministry leader, you are a player-coach — a player who coaches and a coach who plays. The measure of your effectiveness is the development and accomplishment of those on your team — motivating and preparing others to play and win. Have you come to that point?

Every effective coach assumes at least two major responsibilities. First a coach must develop the individual talents and potential of each player on the team. Secondly the coach must mold the individuals into a team so they can maximize their chances of winning. Everything that a coach does revolves around these two responsibilities. As a Missional Team Leader, your job is much like that of a coach. Your coaching revolves around developing others to be something and do something. You also must help them work together to maximize their effectiveness.

What principles can we learn from the profession of coaching, which if applied to what we do, could make us more effective? What do effective coaches do?

1. Cast and Communicate Vision

Every successful coach is able to paint a picture that taps into the aspirations of those on the team--to win the conference championship, a bowl game... the national championship. Coaches use every opportunity to communicate the vision to those around them — meetings, letters, slogans painted on the walls, pre-game talks, etc. After a while, if vision is backed up with consistent action, players begin to believe it.

When Gary Barnett took the head football coaching job at hapless (no winning seasons between 1971 and 1994) Northwestern, he stood up and promised he would “Take the Purple to Pasadena.” Three seasons later, he delivered by winning the Big Ten championship. One player expressed the vision like this -- “Coach Barnett set the goals for us, and we believed in them. He talked about ‘Belief Without Evidence’—faith in what we were doing and where all our hard work would take us. We really could see it coming.”

The vision must include, not only what the team can achieve but also what each individual can become. What is your vision? How well are you communicating it?

2. Align the Team

Alignment has to do with getting the team on board with the vision and goals and then aligning them with the means of reaching those goals. A team is aligned when everything it does is consistent with what accomplishes the vision. Most players would like to win conference championships but they also must be willing to “pay the price” of accomplishing that goal. Effective campus leaders work at getting and keeping their teams aligned toward fulfilling the goals and the vision. Everything from the mission to the daily tasks must be pointing toward the fulfillment of the same vision. Are those on your team completely aligned to the vision? How can you tell?

3. Motivate

Former Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry often described his coaching philosophy in a one-sentence job description — “To get a group of men to do something they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they have wanted all of their lives.”

Doesn’t that sound a lot like your job as a ministry leader? Good coaches know that whining, grumbling and complaining are simply the expressions of the pain that it takes to accomplish something worthwhile. You too need to understand that your leadership team and students are involved in this movement because they really want their lives to matter. They are counting on you to motivate them to keep on keeping on, to develop ministry excellence and determined faith. How do we motivate them? Some coaches like Lombardi relied on fear. Other men like Steinbrenner of the Yankees have tried to buy success through high salaries. Maybe there’s a better way.

Often we assume that pursuing our vision and our goals automatically will motivate those who work with us. We are like the sales manager who took his new salesman to the bluff overlooking town and said, “Do you see that knoll down there? Now picture a beautiful home with a couple of new cars parked in the driveway. Can you see it? On one side of the house is a tennis court. On the other side is a swimming pool. Can you see it? Well, if you work hard enough and long enough, one day that can all be mine!” More than any other factor, working together to accomplish a shared vision and specific goals is what transforms a group of individual players into a team.

An effective coach doesn’t need to be a cheerleader but he must be a master at motivating others to accomplish objectives. He or she is able to stimulate others to action. Effective coaches know their personnel and what motivates each person on the team.

4. Have a Game Plan

Every coach knows his team, studies his situation and competition and forms a plan that will help them win. The basic plays don’t change. A game plan is the sequencing of plays and the readiness for every potential game situation. During the pre-season games, football teams run every play but during the season, coaches make a game plan built around the frequency and sequence of those same plays. How does your plan help you realize the vision? Practice prepares a team to play. Planning prepares a team to win.

5. Select and Develop Personnel

The three major personnel issues deal with recruiting the right players, developing the players and placing the right players in the right positions. We recruit the right players by going after the Freshman class. This gives us four years to develop new leaders. We develop our leaders by giving them confidence, skills and experience. Third, we place our leaders in the right positions. Most quarterbacks would make poor tackles. Most tackles would make poor quarterbacks. Is everyone on your team in a place to make his or her maximum contribution to the vision and goals of the team?

6. Commit to Excellence

Tom Landry had a sign in the Cowboy’s locker room — “The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence.” Notre Dame’s Lou Holtz lists four things needed to be # 1. The first is “Making a commitment to excellence.” Vince Lombardi’s saying, “Winning isn’t everything...It’s the only thing,” simply means this — if you are going to take the time to show up and play, why not commit yourself to winning?

An effective coach keeps “raising the bar” and helps people become someone and do something they could not or would not apart from him. Ineffective is the leader who allows those under him or her to settle for mediocrity. A commitment to excellence brings out the best in people. Tolerating mediocrity sends the message that what we’re about really isn’t all that important. The path to excellence begins with “working with a critical few things that really make a difference.” Once we get these down we work on the next critical few things. Don’t try to master too much too soon. Commit yourselves to constant learning and continual improvement. Do what you do with excellence. Excellence is attractive. Do you ask for excellence from those you lead?

7. Master the Basic Skills

Every play is simply a variation of basic athletic skills. John Wooden never allowed his players to stand around. If they were not in a scrimmage or drill, they would be shooting free throws. Little wonder that Wooden’s UCLA Bruins captured the NCAA crown a record ten times. Football innovator, Paul Brown, started his lectures in training camp each year by holding up a ball and saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football!” How about you? Are those on your team “experts in the basics?” Every person on your team should work at becoming an expert in evangelism, basic follow-up, personal Bible study, leading a small group and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Effectiveness in ministry over a lifetime will be an extension of these basic skills.

8. Monitor Results

The most effective way to continually improve is to monitor results. Don Shula, who hold the all-time win record for NFL coaches says that the game is not over until the films are reviewed. “The essence of coaching is the attention to details and the monitoring of results — these are what help leaders realize visions and accomplish goals.” Unless we are measuring progress, as individuals and as a team, we will remain ignorant as to where we need to improve. “The game films don’t lie.”

Former Colorado coach Bill McCartney called each player into his office every week to review the previous week’s performance and ask what each player was going to do to help the team win. To coach good performance we need to 1) Define what good performance looks like, 2) Reward good performance and 3) Correct bad performance. It is as simple as that. Through constant feedback and positive encouragement, God can use us to help others maximize their potential.

9. Practice Flexibility

Shula writes, “I see no point in sticking with a game plan that’s not working...I’m continually out there scanning for data that will make my decision more intelligent.” Although planning is important, we must be willing to “call audibles” to take advantage of an unforeseen opportunity or to avert an unforeseen crisis. The critical path towards our goal resembles the course of a sailboat more than the tracks of a train. Our commitment to the planning process rather than a cast-in-bronze plan will be reflected in our adaptability and half-time adjustments.

10. Master Their Job

Tom Landry writes, “A leader doesn’t have to be the smartest member of a group, but he does need to demonstrate a mastery of his field. Mastery means more than just knowing information and facts; it requires an understanding of the information and the ability to apply that information.” Are you a master of your craft? What are you currently doing that will make you more knowledgeable and skillful as a leader?

11. Love Their Players

Earlier in this century, football coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg said this, “You must love your boys to get the most out of them and do the most for them. I have worked with boys whom I haven’t admired, but I have loved them just the same. Love has dominated my coaching career as I am sure it has and always will that of many other coaches and teachers.” More recently, UCLA legend, John Wooden, put it this way, “I often told my players that, next to my own flesh and blood, they were the closest to me. They were my children. I got wrapped up in them, their lives and their problems...I feel that my love for young people is the main reason I have stayed in coaching and have refused positions that would have been far more lucrative.”

Coaches, who are successful over the distance, no matter how gruff their demeanor, have a great love for their players. The players and their development, not only as players but as people has dominated the attention of successful coaches. All of us leave a wake in the lives of those we touch. Is your wake one of carnage and bitterness or love and worth? You cannot lead who you do not deeply value.

12. See People For What They Can Become

A. A. Stagg used to remark that he would tell you in twenty years what kind of team he had—“...when I find out how many doctors and lawyers and good husbands and good citizens have come off of my team.”

Good coaches, who are good because they are good people, look beyond the years of contribution a player may make to the team to what being on this team can do for the player. The test of our leadership is this — ”Are they better people than when you found them?” Lou Holtz of Notre Dame recruits young players by telling them. “You don’t come to Notre Dame to learn to do something. You come to Notre Dame to learn to be someone.” John Wooden fashioned himself more as a teacher than a coach. One of his favorite poems was written by Glennice L. Harmon, entitled They Ask Me Why I Teach:

They ask me why I teach,
And I reply,
“Where could I find more splendid company?”
There sits a statesman...and there a doctor...
A minister...farmers, merchants, teachers, laborers. And later I may say,
“I knew the lad...but then he was a boy.”
They ask me why I teach, and I reply,
“Where could I find more splendid company?”

How about you? Do you see those on your team as they are or what they can become? Former Cowboy’s coach, Jimmy Johnson would often say, “Treat a person as he is and he will remain that way. Treat a person as he can become and he will become that person.” When veteran Campus Director Roger Hershey calls Freshman to be involved in the ministry he does so on the basis of the “4/40 Principle”--"What you do in the next four years will influence the next forty.” The true test of your coaching is not what they do under your watchful eye but the contribution to the kingdom that they make over a lifetime.

13. Have Fun

John Wooden said “My goal every year was to make basketball a pleasure, not a poison.” Enjoying the game and success in the game are not mutually exclusive. Rick Neuheisel, football coach of the Colorado Buffaloes, surprised his team during two-a-day practices by leading his team into a tubing expedition down Boulder Creek adjacent to the practice field. Taking time to relax and play communicates that there are more important things in life besides playing a game or ministry. The job of ministry is never done. Don’t wait to celebrate and have fun until the job is over.

14. Develop and Play as a Team

Synergy comes from playing as a team—that the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Tom Landry writes, “The very best football players have to depend more on their team mates. All eleven men on a team have specific roles on every play. Unless each successfully does his part, the play won’t work. It’s a coordinated effort. Ninety percent performance can mean 100% failure.”

15. Lead By Example

Don Shula says, “As long as you have credibility, you have leadership to me. Credibility is your people believing that what you say is something they can immediately believe and accept. The minute your credibility is questioned in any way, it affects your leadership capacity.” John Wooden writes, “We who coach have great influence on the lives of those we lead, and the lives we lead will play an important role in their future. It is essential that we regard this as a sacred trust and set the example that we know is right.”

Eric Swanson is a former Cru staff member who now serves as a Leadership Community Director for Externally Focused Churches. He received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University.

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