5 Phases of a Coach’s Philosophy

by Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

Like most things in life, a coach’s and leader’s philosophy evolves over time. Many coaches admit it takes a good 10 years of evolution before they arrive at a coaching philosophy that is comfortable for them. Ask most coaches and they will tell you they approach things differently after years of experience than they did their first season, and rightly so. Through trial and error, learning from mentors, reading books, attending clinics, talking with fellow coaches, and a good amount of soul searching, a coach’s philosophy and style develops over time.

Former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre is a great example of a coach whose philosophy evolved after several years of coaching. After getting fired three times in previous jobs, he credits attending a four-day personal development seminar as the catalyst to changing his approach and philosophy to become a more credible coach in his book Chasing the Dream.

As a result of observing and talking with coaches for over two decades now, we've identified five typical developmental stages that coaches experience during their careers. Take a look at the hallmarks of each one as you seek to determine which phase you are in currently.


1. Survival Phase

As the name suggests, a coach’s primary focus in this initial phase is simply to survive and eventually advance. Typically these are assistant coaches at the middle school, high school, and college levels and the parents or teachers at the youth levels who are relatively new to coaching. While occasionally these coaches may think they know all there is to know, they obviously have much to learn not only about the game itself but also all the other hidden responsibilities which go along with coaching.

The two major mistakes we see in this Survival Phase center on friendship and power. On the friend side, some coaches in the Survival Phase erroneously think they must be liked by every player at all times. In an effort to be liked, they often avoid challenging athletes enough and let them get away with things they shouldn’t. As legendary North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance says, “I think one of the great mistakes that all the young coaches make as they are entering the profession is the feeling they have to be liked. And what ends up happening is they end up trying to win a popularity contest, and they end up sacrificing the respect of the team.”

On the other hand, some new coaches feel that the only way they can get respect is by forcing it upon the athletes. These power-hungry, insecure coaches try to impose their methods on athletes with the thought that toughness equals control. However, respect must be earned from your athletes, not forced upon them.

“The whole learning process of 27 years was really a trial from the beginning. I had never conducted a practice when I got the job. I was 22 years old and in a panic. I remember watching the first game and I was clueless about what the other team was doing because I could only see us. I just had a very narrow focus and I think it was a ‘my way or the highway’ mentality.”
Pat Summitt, Legendary Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach

“You know I thought I had all the answers when I first started coaching and now after thirty years I realize I didn’t know much at all.”
Jerry Yeagley, Legendary Indiana Men’s Soccer Coach


2. Striving for Success Phase

In the second Striving for Success Phase, coaches primarly focus on building a winner and making a name for themselves. Coaches in this stage spend long hours developing their programs so that some day they can compete with the elite teams in their sport for championships.

In this phase, many coaches look to take traditionally poor or mediocre teams and build them into contenders in a relatively short period of time. If they can do this, the reward is often a more prestigious and higher paying job at another program. In essence, coaches look to find athletes and build programs that will help them climb the career ladder.

These coaches are often intensely and sometimes maniacally driven to prove they are good coaches, not only to their colleagues but also to themselves. The potential problem with this Striving for Success Phase is that sometimes coaches are primarily concerned with their own personal success and not always the welfare of their athletes. Their own ego can be a stumbling block to the success they desperately desire. Be careful not to use your athletes as the rungs on your ladder to success. Athletes can tell whether you are in coaching for the right reasons or in it for yourself.

"The coach must account for his ego. It can wreck a team or an organization. That is being distracted by your own importance. It can come from your insecurity in working with others. It can be the need to draw attention to yourself in the public arena. It can be a feeling that others are a threat to your own territory. These are all negative manifestations of ego, and if you are not alert to them, you get diverted and your work becomes diffused. Ego in these cases makes people insensitive to how they work with others and ends up interfering with the real goal of any group efforts." Bill Walsh, Legendary San Francisco 49ers Coach


3. Success & Significance Phase

Coaches in the Success & Significance Phase not only seek success for their programs, but equally as important, they seek to have a significant impact on the personal lives of their athletes. These coaches play to win but they also have the perspective to understand that the most important game their athletes will ever play is the game of life.

Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski says, “If the only reason I coached was to win college basketball games, my life would be pretty shallow. I coach not only because I love it, but because I have the chance to teach and interact with young people.”

Credible coaches are significant because they value their athletes as people, not just as athletes. In doing so, they build strong bonds with their athletes that last long beyond a person’s playing career. Their athletes seek their counsel not only to become better athletes but also better people.

“I think through the years my philosophy has changed. I was very result-oriented early on in my career and after I won that first championship, I think I became a better coach because I became more well-rounded. I see a lot of coaches who are so obsessed with winning that first one that they tend to lose track of the big picture.
Mike Candrea, Arizona Softball Coach and USA Olympic Softball Coach

“At first it was very important to win and I felt I needed to do whatever it takes to win. Now I am still as competitive as ever and I want to win as much as ever, but now the more important rewards for me are the relationships.”
Jerry Yeagley, Legendary Indiana Men’s Soccer Coach

“Try not to become a success, but rather try to become a person of value.”
Albert Einstein


4. Satisfied Phase

A fourth phase that we have seen some coaches enter is what we called satisfied. This stage tends to happen after coaches have reached their goal of winning a championship. Or it also can happen when a coach finally gives up the goal of winning a championship after several years and becomes content being a little above .500. In this stage, coaches tend to lose their intense drive, passion, and competitiveness. They don’t work quite as hard as they used to and display less enthusiasm for the job. It’s almost as if they go through the motions and put in the time necessary, but fail to be totally committed.

Although this stage might be comfortable for the coach, ultimately it does their athletes a disservice because they are led by someone who settles for mediocrity. We all know of coaches who are in the Satisfied Phase. They have hung on after winning a championship and aren’t willing to put in the continued work and dedication to stay there. Or they have abandoned their chase for the top and have settled for being in the middle of the pack because they just don't think they have the budget, athletes, or facilities necessary to compete with the best. Either way, it is often human nature to eventually become satisfied and content.

"If you're not willing to evolve and you get comfortable in what you're doing, then you get passed by."

Jim McElwain, Former Florida Football Coach


5. Spent Phase

The Spent Phase is when a coach is burned out. The many demands and hassles of the job seem to outweigh the benefits. The coach is sapped of energy physically and mentally and becomes overwhelmed by all the challenges. 

Unfortunately, this stage is not that uncommon and has hit such notable coaches as former NFL coach Dick Vermeil and former men's college basketball coach Dick Bennett. Because coaching is such an intense and demanding profession, coaches are super susceptible to burn out.

With an increasing number of challenging and selfish athletes, cut-throat and illegal recruiting, impatient administrators, fickle fans, biased and intrusive parents, budget constraints, and meddling media, it’s no wonder many coaches get frustrated by and fed up with all the extra stress that goes into coaching in today's world.

Coaches who find themselves in this stage need to do some serious soul searching. Hopefully after examing the situation and talking with some colleagues, spent coaches can find a way to rekindle their passion for coaching as well as effective ways to minimize the stresses and demands. Or you might find that it is time to get out of coaching and put your energy into a new direction that is more fun and fulfilling for you.

"I just simply was drained. I just simply could not keep up and it began to bother me."

Dick Bennett, Former Wisconsin Men's Basketball Coach



So, if you're a coach, which phase are you in right now? And if you're an AD, honestly assess which phase you are in as well as which phase you find each of your coaches. Obviously, whatever phase the coach and AD are in has a HUGE impact on the athletes, coaching staff, and entire program.

For more info on the 5 Phases of a Coach's Philosophy as well as how to become a more effective and credible leader, check out our 7 Secrets of Successful Coaches book.



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