Good coaching is part art, part intuition, and mostly the product of years of hard, deliberative work. Every coach has a different journey but most learn from working with other coaches–before becoming a good head coach you must first become a good assistant coach.
We created the panel Building A Healthy, Effective Coaching Staff: Creating a Culture in which Coaches Want to Stay for the 2021 WRCRA Conference after a friendly conversation with Julie McCoy (former US 7’s Coach and owner of the ARPTC). Julie raised two questions: What are the characteristics or qualities of a good assistant coach? What makes a head coach a good mentor to an assistant coach? One notion that stuck with me was that coaching is a profession that utilizes a range of senses and coaches must learn to hone those senses.
Coaches are constantly watching, listening and moving, often in collaboration with assistant coaches, players, opposing coaches and spectators. While they are responsible for relaying knowledge and helping players understand how to use that knowledge in different contexts (game schemes), the day-to-day work of coaching entails helping individual players, units and teams understand where they are progressing and where they are falling short. To do this, coaches watch players, review notes from practices and games, read journals and articles, break down film, and speak with players directly. These conversations require coaches to listen carefully. These conversations might seem brutal to non-athletes - full of constant scrutiny and faultfinding - but athletes and coaches accept that sport is full of low-to-high-stakes interactions and critical feedback is the engine that drives improvement.
The balance between coaches and athletes is a specific kind of learning arrangement, one in which athletes are open to developing the full range of their senses and abilities, and trust coaches to help them fulfill that potential. It’s a relationship predicated on coaches holding power. But good coaches know and expect that the balance of power will shift as, over time, players gain a level of mastery in decision-making and can control aspects of the game. One of the best experiences for coaches is when players reach a level of competency that allows the coach to come to the player for information. It should be a similar experience for assistant coaches, being part of a coaching staff should be an apprenticeship that evolves from ‘being mentored’ into ‘being a partner’.
Unfortunately in most states, there is a shortage of qualified coaches and many teams feel fortunate to get any coach. If coaches are available, a common staffing tactic for teams is to have two coaches, one for the forwards and one for the backs. Each coach specializes in ‘half the game’ and they negotiate the game plan from there. This makes sense and is expedient but this approach is also limiting and can contribute to siloing and, by extension, limiting the development of coaches. While coach education programs are helpful in introducing coaches to ‘how to teach and manage,’ there are so many skills coaches can only learn on the job and if they are fortunate, under the wing of a talented head coach.
When choosing coaches for the panel, I thought about coaches who would be great to work under. Coaches who are good teachers and able to juggle the demands of the short term with a vision for the future. Coaches who are balanced and thoughtful. The coaches - Stacey Bridges, Katie Dowty, Sunny Meyers, Ricardo Ramirez, Kitt Wagner and Koma Gandy - all are well regarded by their peers and have a range of coaching experiences from youth to college to club to the Women’s National Team. Beyond the challenges of building their own programs and managing expectations, they take the responsibility for the ongoing development of their coaching practice very seriously - they are always learning. They also understand that at every level of women’s rugby we are struggling to attract and retain coaches. They think about the ways we enhance or limit the development of young coaches through the traditional coaching pathways we employ. And they are invested in creating cultures that are attractive and effective for coaches and athletes. They are innovative, hard working, smart and often, exhausted.
After talking with the panelists, I thought, we should use a similar approach to developing coaches as we do to developing players. Why not watch, listen and study assistants in the same way we do athletes? And invite assistant coaches to watch, study, listen and provide collegial feedback to the head coach. All with the aim of personal and professional growth. If we think about elevating the assistant coach role and better understanding how to develop coaching staffs, coaches may be better able to weather the storms of the profession and, together, create cultures where coaches want to stay.