The Declining Program: 6 Biggest Reasons Why Programs Slip

by Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

Has your program slipped over the last few years?

Are you having trouble maintaining the winning ways your program once had?

Getting concerned about your job security as a coach because you just can’t seem to turn things around?

While most programs have their ups and downs through the years, if your program seems to be more on the downward trend over the last few seasons there is certainly some cause for concern.

A Declining Program is one that is on the downward slope of the 5 Stages of Program Development. Your program might not be taking a drastic nosedive, but the wins are much harder to come by and the losses add up in your mind and the minds of your athletes, staff, administrators, parents, and fans. The level of success you were once able to attain is now only a fleeting and distant memory in today’s “What have you done for me lately?” kind of world.

The 6 Biggest Reasons Why Programs Slip

There are multiple reasons why programs decline. Let’s look at six of the most common ones that contribute to the downfall and demise of programs.

1. Recruiting and Selection Misses and Mistakes

One of the quickest ways to devastate a program is to have its talent pipeline dry up. As I have said all along throughout this article series, you obviously need an elite level of talent to complete with the Elite Programs in the world. Once you start to slip and suffer in the level of talent you bring into your program, you will almost inevitably see your number of wins slip as well.

“College football really is changing. Just think about the divot or the hole that you put in your roster if you have one bad recruiting year. All of a sudden your second-team tackle who was supposed to be a stud and this 'can't miss' guy, only he didn't work out and your starting tackle gets hurt, now you might have to play someone who is not capable and it's all because of your recruiting miss,” says Florida International football coach Mario Cristobal. You can’t afford to miss out on talented recruits – or worse, have too many recruiting mistakes because both will quickly cause your program to decline.

Whether you are a high school coach developing a great feeder system, a club coach trying to enhance your organization, or a college coach trying to build or maintain your program, you must consistently identify, attract, select, and keep great talent on your team – or your record will eventually show it.

2. Hubris - Arrogance Because You Think You Have Arrived

Some programs slip because of hubris, better known as arrogance. The coach achieves a certain level of success and thinks they know it all. They stop learning, stop growing, stop scrapping, and stop innovating. And because of their refusal to get better, the rest of the world eventually passes them by.

Former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh wrote about the problems of hubris in his fabulous book The Score Takes Care of Itself. Walsh said, “When you reach a large goal or finally get to the top, the distractions and new assumptions can be dizzying. First come heightened confidence, followed quickly by overconfidence, arrogance, and a sense that “we’ve mastered it; we’ve figured it out; we’re golden.” But the gold can tarnish quickly. Mastery requires endless re-mastery. In fact, I don’t believe there is ever true mastery. It is a process, not a destination. That’s what few winners realize and explains to some degree why repeating is so difficult. Having triumphed, winners come to believe that the process of mastery is concluded and that they are its proud new owners.”

Hubris and overconfidence can easily infect the players as well. As former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, whose program slipped noticeably during his final years from the championships they won in the 90’s said, “Champions are prone to see themselves as having arrived. They’ve already done what it takes to get to the top. They worked hard, listened to their coaches, and did everything asked of them. Now that the championship has been attained, they don’t need to pay nearly as much attention to all the little details. They don’t need to practice as diligently or push themselves as hard as last year because, hey, they’ve arrived.”

So be careful of thinking you know it all, even if you are a veteran coach with decades of experience and few championships under your belt. The legendary John Wooden summed it up well when he said, “When you're through learning, you're through.”

3. Complacency – Neglect the Importance of Doing the Little Things

Other coaches may not succumb to hubris, yet they and their athletes get tripped up because they stop doing the little things that were so critical to their success in the first place. They become complacent. Former NBA coach Pat Riley said, "Complacency is like a disease sitting on your shoulder, just waiting for you to let your guard down."

Complacent coaches don’t work as hard recruiting, quickly throw together a practice instead of consciously planning one, delegate too many things to their assistants, don’t watch as much video in game preparation, and don’t seem to have the same insatiable hunger and drive to get to the top.

“You see this with a lot of college coaches who’ve become very successful,” says Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino. “Usually, this has taken a long to time to accomplish, a lot of years and a lot of work, summers spent either recruiting or working summer camps, a lot of years paying dues.  Long hours and few vacations: the long road people travel to become successful.  Then they reach their mountaintop and so often many of them simply don’t want to work so hard anymore.  They feel they shouldn’t have to... Now the first thing they do is take more time off.  They see this as something they’re entitled to, a payback for all their hard work, so they don’t recruit as hard.  They don’t make that extra call.  They don’t put in as many hours...  They rely more and more on their assistant coaches to do what they used to do.  They don’t go the extra mile the way they used to.”

The athletes of these coaches pick up on the complacency and also have a tendency to mirror it with sloppy practices, uninspired workouts, and missed classes. All this complacency erodes the high standards necessary to win at the elite level and nicely greases the wheels for a slide.

4. Energy Level Not What It Once Was

Some programs decline because the passion and energy level that helped them be successful in the first place is just not there anymore. It takes a tremendous amount of energy, focus, and organizational skills to build and maintain a successful program. The long hours and grind of the coaching life can take a toll on coaches, especially as they get older, generations change, priorities evolve, and possibly health issues emerge.

Maintaining the high level of energy needed to build or sustain a winning program in today’s highly competitive, dog-eat-dog world is a significant challenge for some coaches. As former Texas women’s basketball coach Gail Goestenkors, "After a lot of soul searching... I am tired and it's not fair to this program. It's not fair to the kids to have a coach that's just tired." As she proved for so many years at Duke, Gail Goestenkors is definitely a great coach. However, the demands of trying to rekindle a once successful program can eventually sap the energy of even the best coaches.

5. Lack of Strong Team Leaders

Some programs fail to maintain their usual standards of excellence because the quality of their team leaders drops off. Coaches continually need to develop a reliable core group of leaders who help set the standards, keep the team focused, and enforce the rules. Declining programs often lack the strong leaders necessary to hold everyone accountable, especially during the critical offseason. Standards slip, issues go unaddressed, and the team struggles because it lacks effective leaders it once had who can help stabilize and sustain the program.

“One of the most significant indicators of decline is the relocation of power into the hands of leaders who fail to comprehend and/or lack the will to do what must be done – and equally, what must not be done – to sustain greatness.” Jim Collins, author of How the Mighty Fall

6. Parity in Your Sport

Finally, some programs slip not so much because of their own doing, but more so because the parity in their sports has increased. Teams that once dominated when there were only a handful of truly elite athletes available now find their programs struggling to compete because the talent is much more spread out.

So what do you do if your program has slipped? Unfortunately, many coaches understandably have a tendency to panic and try a variety of hastily thought out, reactionary strategies that usually end up only digging themselves and their teams into a bigger hole.

As Jim Collins writes in How the Mighty Fall, “When we find ourselves in trouble, when we find ourselves on the cusp of falling, our survival instinct – and our fear – can evoke lurching, reactive behavior absolutely contrary to survival. The very moment when we need to take calm, deliberate action, we run the risk of doing the exact opposite.”

Here are 10 solid, well-thought-out, and proven strategies to get you and your program back on the upswing in our follow up article called the 10 Secrets to Turnaround and Transform a Declining Program – available exclusively for our members.


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