How to Build and Sustain an Elite Program

by Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

Would you love to build an Elite Program?

Virtually every coach dreams of developing an Elite Program that wins championships and everyone's respect along the way. An Elite Program is one that has a legitimate chance to compete for and win championships on a consistent basis.

Given all the formidable competition you must face, building and becoming an Elite Program is obviously an extremely difficult stage to climb to and an even tougher one to sustain over time. But an Elite Program is one that brings tremendous rewards in terms of success, respect, impact, money, and legacy.

As we continue our examination of the 5 Stages of Program Development, this article takes an in-depth look at what it takes to build and sustain an Elite Program.

Elite Program Description

As mentioned, an Elite Program is one that has a legitimate chance to compete for and win championships on a regular basis. It is a high-level program that almost always has highly talented athletes, great coaching, a solid talent pipeline, strong tradition, an avid fan base, positive media coverage, and respect from colleagues and administrators alike.

In terms of levels and sustainability of success, Elite Programs can be further sub-divided into a Top 10 Program, a Championship Program, and a Dynasty.

Top 10 Program

A Top 10 Program is an Elite Program that has ascended to the upper echelon of programs nationally or in the state. This program has won consistently and has positioned itself to win a championship.

Championship Program

A Championship Program is an Elite Program that has actually won a state or national championship and competes for them on a regular basis.


A Dynasty is a highly Elite Program like Carolina women's soccer, UConn women's basketball, or Penn State women's volleyball that has won not only one championship, but multiple championships within a recent period of time. The program epitomizes sustained, high-level excellence and often even dominance over its competitors. Winning a single national championship at the college level or state championship at the high school level is tough enough in today's highly competitive world. So winning multiple championships and developing a dynasty truly is a rare and special accomplishment.



While seemingly the perfect position to be in, an Elite Program still has a number of sometimes over-looked and under-appreciated challenges that must continually be understood, planned for, and overcome on a regular basis. Despite having numerous advantages, an Elite Program is still in a precarious position. Sustaining it over time is challenging due to the ever-changing nature of athletics.

Here are eight challenges Elite Programs must overcome.

1. Intense Competition

With only one team that is able to raise the championship trophy at the end of the season, there are a slew of highly talented and motivated teams from all over the land competing for only one spot. Hundreds of coaches and thousands of their athletes are working hard every single day to become champions. Therefore, the competition for being the best is extremely intense and sometimes cut-throat. You must be willing to go toe to toe and relentlessly compete with the very best in your profession to have a chance to be among the elite. Being an Elite Program is definitely not for the faint of heart.

2. You Get Everyone's Best Shot

Not only are the other Elite and Rising Programs looking to dethrone you, but your game becomes THE GAME OF THE YEAR on everyone's schedule. Game in and game out practically every team you face, whether they are in the Rising, Elite, Declining, or Problematic Stage, is highly motivated to beat you as a way to try to prove themselves. Thus, your athletes must come mentally ready to play and compete every day no matter what the situation.

3. Little Margin for Error

When you are at or near the top, there are few places to go but down. Most everyone has heard of "regression to the mean," which means it is much easier to slide to average than it is to sustain a high-level program. Without your constant focus and vigilance as a coach and team, it is easy to slip down the standings. If winning were easy, everyone would do it. To advance in tournaments and win championships, you have little margin for error as you must go through other highly talented teams that aren't going to commit many glaring mistakes and beat themselves. As they say, "winning is a game of inches," and you must fight for and win every inch you can get because they do make a significant difference.

4. High Turnover Rates

In college, high school, and even professional sports, there is extremely high turnover of personnel on a regular basis. On average, most colleges and high schools lose 25% of their total talent EVERY SINGLE YEAR and virtually 100% every four years (or worse yet, two years for junior colleges). Very few businesses could survive 25% turnover on an annual basis, let alone 100% every four years! Therefore, building and sustaining an elite program over many years is exceptionally difficult because you must continually replace your top talent. One weak recruiting year can definitely impact your program.

5. Key Injuries

Injuries are a part of every sport but can be especially difficult for Elite Programs vying for championships. Losing one of your key performers at the end of the season is undoubtedly a major obstacle to overcome. While it is not impossible to win without them, losing a key athlete at an inopportune time can be a major blow to a team both physically and psychologically.


6. Maintaining Motivation

Once you have climbed to the top of the mountain, it is easy for some to become satisfied. You can spend so much energy just getting to the top that you can feel like you have finally arrived and suffer a letdown. Maintaining your own and your athletes' ongoing motivation throughout the course of a long season can be challenging at the Elite level. It is easy to become complacent.

In studies of athletes and coaches who have won championships, 71% have said it is much tougher to win additional championships than it was to win the first one. Just like playing King of the Mountain as a kid, those trying to get to the top of the mountain typically have more to prove and are hungrier than those who have already arrived on top.

7. Greater Visibility (and Liability)

Being an Elite Program, you are more likely to get more media coverage for your team. While this might seem like a big advantage, greater visibility can be a double-edged sword. The advantage of greater media coverage provides increased exposure for your team when things are going well and certainly helps with recruiting. However, the challenging aspect of high visibility is that many more people are looking for a chink in your armor in an effort to bring down your program. You, your staff, and athletes must be extra vigilant about doing anything that could be posted on social media and potentially hurt your program.

8. Unethical Competitors

Finally, with the stakes of winning being so high, you will likely compete against some opponents who are willing to bend and break rules, gain unfair advantages, and cheat their way to the top. With all the money, power, and prestige involved in big-time college sports today, unfortunately there are some coaches and their supporters who illegally pay their athletes, provide them with inflated grades in the classroom, conduct extra practices, encourage them to take performance-enhancing drugs, cover up positive drug tests, and use unsportsmanlike tactics on the playing fields to protect their talent and gain an edge.

There are sadly times when you must compete on tainted and tilted playing field against unethical coaches, administrators, and boosters who try to cut corners and stay two steps ahead of the law. Trying to win a championship while competing against programs that cheat can be very frustrating and disheartening to all the coaches who are trying to win the right way.

So what then are the biggest keys to making it to and staying at the Elite level?


12 Essentials for Building and Sustaining an Elite Program

Our Championship Coaches Network members can discover the 12 Essentials for Building and Sustaining an Elite Program.


    Sign up for info to help your team!