The 7 Secrets of Sport’s Most Successful Coaches

by Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

What skills and qualities differentiate sport's most successful coaches?

Over the past 25 years my team and I have had the amazing opportunity to work with and learn from hundreds of championship coaches from virtually every sport out there including Anson Dorrance, Mike Krzyzewski, Pat Summitt, Bill Walsh, Mike Candrea, Jenny Levy, John Dunning, Muffet McGraw, Red Berenson, Jerry Kindall, Roy Williams, Megan Marsden, Jerry Yeagley, Karen Shelton, Frank Busch, and numerous others. While of course they all possess different personalities, training philosophies, and offensive and defensive strategies, they all share seven similar qualities that are the hallmarks of their high-level success and immense credibility with their athletes, staff, administrators, and supporters.

We call these special leadership qualities the 7 Secrets of Successful Coaches. These seven skills and attributes are exactly why their athletes view these championship coaches as so credible and, as such, respect them, trust them, and would willingly run through a wall for them. If you too aspire to become a better leader and take your program to a championship level, examine the seven secrets to enhancing your leadership credibility and honestly rate yourself on each one.


1. Character-based

Credible coaches continually seek to do the right thing. They are honorable people with high ethical standards and great integrity. They tell the truth to their athletes and never manipulate or play mind games with them. They conduct themselves in a professional manner and take pride in representing their teams and schools with class. Credible coaches look to surround themselves with people of solid character because they know that character is just as important as talent in the long run.


"Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy." General Norman Schwarzkopf

How would you rate your character?

How would your athletes assess your character?


2. Competent

Credible coaches have a thorough understanding of the strategies and fundamentals of the game. They know how to make the appropriate adjustments and are seldom out-coached. Despite their solid understanding of the X's and O's, they are highly inquisitive people who continually look for innovative and improved ways of doing things. They are lifelong students of the game. Further, they understand that admitting their limitations and mistakes is actually a sign of strength, not weakness. Even though they are highly capable and often revered people, credible coaches tend to remain humble and keep their success in perspective.

"You must be a student of the game and a lifelong student of the game. Even toward the end of your career, you're looking for the newest innovations and creations in your sport, and the newest message of teaching and programming your athletes." Bill Walsh, San Francisco 49ers Coach

How competent are you as a coach?

How would your athletes rate your competence?


3. Committed

Credible coaches are highly committed people. They create successful visions for their teams and are more than willing to put in the time required to make them happen. They have a true passion for sport and coaching which fuels their intense drive and enthusiasm. They also have incredible reserves of energy and resiliency which enables them to weather the inevitable storms of adversity. Credible coaches tend to be highly competitive people who really enjoy competing and winning at the highest levels.

"I expect our teams to work just like I do. They know I'm here early and stay late. I watch film with them. Whatever it takes." Pat Summitt, Legendary Tennessee Women's Basketball Coach

How would you rate your commitment?

How would your athletes rate your commitment?


4. Caring

Credible coaches care about their athletes as people. They sincerely want the best for their athletes in all aspects of their lives and are willing to help them in any way possible. Credible coaches invest the time to get to know each of their athletes on a personal level, showing an interest in their athletes' families, friends, faith, and future goals. Further, this caring does not end when a player's eligibility or career is over, but often extends throughout a player's lifetime.

"People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care: that is the critical element in coaching." Anson Dorrance, North Carolina Women's Soccer Coach

How much do you care about your athletes?

How much would your athletes say you care about them?


5. Confidence-Builder

Credible coaches continually build their players' confidence. They plant seeds of success in their athletes' minds and convince them that they can and will be successful. Credible coaches have a special knack for making people feel good about themselves, capable of achieving almost anything they set their minds to. They are demanding and set high standards yet are patient enough to help athletes develop and improve. When athletes do fall short, as all of them eventually will, credible coaches use a good balance of being challenging and supportive to help people get back on track.

"One of my jobs as a coach is to try to build confidence in young people. Confidence is probably the one area we spend more time on; because the more confidence the kid has, the more fun they have, and the more successful they will be." Mike Candrea, Arizona Softball Coach

How well do your build your athletes' confidence?

How well would your athletes say you build their confidence?


6. Communicator

Credible coaches are excellent communicators. They are open, honest, and direct when communicating with individuals and the team. They continually remind and refocus people on what they need to do to be successful. Credible coaches seek to involve their athletes as much as possible and value the input they receive from them. They have the remarkable ability to truly listen to their athletes. They take the time to understand where people are coming from and are able to make decisions accordingly. Because of their ability to listen, credible coaches are often aware of concerns and conflicts and proactively address them before they become major problems or distractions.

"A good leader listens - and more so than that - gives time to listen. The bigger the leader, the busier the leader, the harder it is to take the time to listen. You have to get it in your mind that you have to listen - that there couldn't be any time better spent than listening." Mike Krzyzewski, Duke Men's Basketball Coach

How well do you communicate and listen to your athletes?

How well would your athletes say you communicate with and listen to them?


7. Consistent

Credible coaches develop a sound philosophy of coaching. This philosophy remains stable over time, but they are flexible enough to adapt to changing situations or personnel. Credible coaches bring a consistent mood to practices and games, regardless of whether their team is winning or losing. They control their emotions in the heat of battle and convey a sense of consistency to their athletes by not letting the highs get too high or the lows get too low. Further, they maintain a consistent approach to the rules and standards of the team. They tend to have few rules, but are consistent in how they apply them whether a player is a starter or reserve. Finally, credible coaches tend to be highly organized people who take their practice and game preparation very seriously.

"If I come in to practice on a downer, that's exactly how the players will respond. My job, no matter what has transpired before 3:00, is to come in focused and ready to go. They deserve that. They deserve my best effort and that has to be consistent. If we we expect consistency for them, they have to see it from us." Mary Wise, Florida Volleyball Coach

How consistent are you as a coach?

How consistent would your athletes say you are?

As you can see, these seven secrets are what make these coaches so special. Invest the time to rate yourself on each of the 7 Secrets of Successful Coaches, and if you are courageous, ask your athletes and athletic administrators how they would rate you. (ADs you should be evaluating your coaches on these seven qualities regularly and using them when hiring new coaches.) If you are deficient in these critical leadership areas, you will have little credibility with your followers. If you have them operating at a high level, your athletes will run through walls for you and likely perform to their full potential!


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