Advice to Coaches

Michael Shukis

Advice to Coaches


Vern Gambetta is a strength and conditioning coach with over 54 years of experience. A few weeks ago, I came across a post of his I found valuable. After contacting Coach Gambetta, I am excited to expand on his advice.

I love Coach Gambetta's perspective in this article, but I disagree with his title. This advice is not just for young coaches and people that need to hear it—it's for everyone. These points should be required reading for coaches every year. This advice is something I wish I had when I started coaching. It is practical. It is important. And it needs repeating. Hopefully, you find something valuable you can use in your coaching. Coaching is an important role. And it is more important than ever to understand the importance and strive to be the best you can be.

The bold points below are from Coach Gambetta's post. My thoughts and expansions are listed below each one.

Be prepared to pay your dues. You don't enlist in the army as a general.

It takes time to become a good coach. You don't become a head coach overnight, and you shouldn't want to. Paying your dues means you study and learn through experience. This makes you a better coach. Remember: as coaches, we are leading people. This is an honor and great responsibility. We don't want to lead unprepared. We pay our dues by watching, studying, and asking questions.

Practice humility. No matter what your athletic or academic accomplishments are, you are going to have to prove yourself as a coach. Check your ego at the door.

Every prior accomplishment is thrown out the door when you start coaching. Nobody cares about prior success or recognition. All that matters is how you coach and treat the people in front of you. Be the best person you can be. Leave your ego at the door.

Keep learning. Keep a notebook of your ideas and observations. Write in it as often as possible. It will be an invaluable reference as you progress through your career. I have filled Moleskine notebooks in my 49th year of coaching.

This is valuable and underrated. The best coaches are the best thinkers. We learn to think by slowing down and working thoughts out on paper. It's no accident that Coach Gambetta recommends keeping a handwritten notebook. Writing by hand slows you down and makes you think. It forces you to confront what you know—and, more importantly, what you don't. Take the time to slow down and write by hand. Everyone will be better because of it. You'll learn what is going on, and you'll have a place—your notebook—to reflect on your journey.

Listen and watch. You have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth for a reason.

"I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening," Larry King famously said. Watch and listen more than you speak. You learn by watching, asking questions, and listening. Rarely do you learn by sharing your opinion. Talking means you think you know something. The best lessons are learned by paying attention and asking questions.

Dress professionally. That should not need explanation.

How can we expect others to be professional when we aren't willing ourselves? The first step in being professional is dressing the part. Take pride in being professional.

Be fit. Look the part.

Coaches must train if they want to train others. A rule of good leadership is to never ask someone to do something you haven't done yourself. In the weight room, we have the opportunity to do just that. If we don't make training and nutrition a priority in our own lives, how can we expect someone else to?

Learn the culture of the sport(s) you are working with ASAP. Do your homework.

Spend your free time studying the sport. Learn the roster. Remember people's names. Doing your research goes a long way. People notice. Immerse yourself in the culture of the sport and coach. Be able to speak their language. Remember: you are there to help—and serve—them.

Be the first to arrive and the last to learn. Earn your stripes.

The only way to learn is to spend time in the environment. If you're only around to train people, you don't have time to think and study. Coaching is about experiences and studying, and you can't do one without the other. Good coaches have a process of coaching (experience) and researching  (studying) that makes them better. Good coaches feel like there is a lot to learn.

Never let anyone outwork you. Forget what you are being paid. Get the job done.

You won't make much money in the beginning. And you probably won't make much ever. But that's not the point. Coaches have an important job to do. Be the hardest worker in the room. Not to say that money doesn't matter—it does. But it shouldn't be your only focus. If it is, you won't last long.

Do the grunt work. In fact, volunteer for it.

Don't wait around expecting to be told what to do. Nobody likes to hold hands. Take initiative. Clean the facility. Put things back where they belong. Keep your desk organized. Be the one doing the grunt work.

If you are working with athletes that don't speak English, learn the language. It will open doors for you.

Great advice. Coaches are there for their athletes, not themselves. What better way to show you care than by learning their language? This will go a long way with the coaches and athletes you work for. People notice when you invest in them.

File the theoretical peer-reviewed stuff you learned in class. You are in the real world now. On the job, it is about producing results. Make the athletes better.

Nobody cares what you think you know. What works? What makes people better? Most of the stuff you learned in school is worthless. But the process of learning is valuable. If you stop learning, you stop growing. Coaches are lifelong learners. Don't assume you know anything.

Maintain professional distance from your athletes. You are not their friend; you are their coach.

This is more of a problem today than ever. Coaches are not there to be people's friends—they're there to coach. That's a relationship built on trust and respect. Athletes must know you care about them. But that doesn't mean you're their friend. Athletes have plenty of friends. Be a professional. Be the coach people need.

Rome wasn't built in a day. Learn patience. It takes time.

The weight room is the ultimate test of patience. Results take time. Being a good coach takes years and decades. Changing your body takes time. Nothing good happens without time and effort. Don't expect to be a good coach in a few years. Strive to be better each day and know your job will never be mastered. And then you might be able to look back and have done a good job.

Coaching is a profession. Never lose sight of that.

Since coaching is a profession, coaches must be professionals. Professionals take their work seriously. They show up every day with a good attitude and get their jobs done. Professionals don't complain, make excuses, or take days off—they do the work. Treat your job seriously because it is. Coaching is important, and you never know who is watching your example.

The head coach is the boss. Be loyal and respectful.

Whether you like it or not, the head coach is the boss. They're ultimately responsible for the success of the team. Your relationship with the coach is as good as you make it. A good relationship leads to trust which leads to better outcomes on with you in the weight room. Good outcomes in the weight room lead to (hopefully) better athletes. Respect the head coach and build a good relationship.

Never forget that coaching is not about sets and reps or Xs and Os. It is about people.

Coaching is about people. It always has been and always will be. Knowing the science, sets and reps, and Xs and Os are important, but it is a pre-requisite to coaching. If you don't know what you're doing, you can't coach. To be a good coach, you must build relationships. You have to care about people. What you know is important, but you first must show you care. If you care about people, you can help them.

If you want respect then show respect.

People won't listen to you just because you want them to. There are plenty of smart, ineffective coaches. But nobody listens to them because they expect respect to be given. It doesn't work like that. Respect—like anything worthwhile—is earned, not given. If you want respect, give respect.

When it is all said and done, be sure that you have had as many experiences as possible, not one experience many times.

As a coach, you're responsible for the experiences you have. If something isn't going well, change it. Nobody is coming to save you. Nobody is going to hand you knowledge or a new job. Keep a beginner's mindset towards your work. If you don't look back ten years from now and wonder what the heck you were thinking, something is wrong.


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