Since retiring as a high school coach after 24 years, I muse from time to time about how to measure my coaching performance. The bottom line question is: was I successful? People consistently tell me I was and maybe, from their vantage point, that is so. But I am drawn to test that conclusion through a different lens.
Every coach yearns for success, which of course can take various forms. Wins versus losses is the time-honored classic measure. Wins are a benchmark for coaching prowess. Failure to win, on a consistent basis, generates a negative buzz around most any coach and puts the coaching gig at risk. What have you done for us lately? You know the saying: “sorry, we are moving in a different direction.”
The value of winning is imbedded deep in our culture. Coaches are lauded for how many wins they pocketed. When a college coach crosses a line into dark space and gets embroiled in scandal, as a form of punishment, the NCAA often strips them of coveted wins, and with an authoritative wave of the enforcement wand makes those hard-earned numbers disappear, as if they never happened. Wiping wins off their slate tarnishes success and places a stain on coaching legacy. Wins matter.
I won a fair amount of games in 24 years. Does that, without more, make me successful as a coach? I am not so sure.
Traditional success can come in smaller bites, like league titles, team scholastic awards, coaching awards and tournament wins. Banners on the gym walls count. No question, when I see my team banners on gym walls, whether for league titles or team scholastic achievement, I smile and, if I am with someone, point them out proudly. The coaching award I have is displayed in my home, and I have a framed picture of one of my teams celebrating a tough tournament win.
Do those items make me a successful coach? Perhaps—to some extent.
But there is another way to measure success, one that trumpets different values and principles, isn’t there? They can be expressed in many ways. Here are but a handful:
- How many players did I help get on the right road to becoming budding young adults and teach skills and values to last a lifetime? Conversely, how many student-athletes did I fail to reach because I was consumed with other “more important” items on the program agenda?
- Did I generally forge mutually respectful and productive working relationships with parents to better serve their children? Conversely, how many parents did I disdainfully dismiss as “helicopter” or meddlesome, which while perhaps true, didn’t mean I shouldn’t have been able to find a way to communicate effectively with them to better serve their child?
- How much allegiance did I show to the athletic program expectations my athletic directors established for all sports at the school? Conversely, how often did I try to carve out an independent path because I was on a stubborn mission to do it my way?
- Did I carefully balance coaching decisions to honor and keep in harmony program values and competitive pursuits? Conversely, how many coaching decisions did I make to win at the expense of an important program value, like discipline, team rules or character development?
- Did I consistently model good behavior with referees and opposing coaches or did I sometimes let frustration skew my perspective, losing sight of the role model function of the coaching job?
- In the day-to-day grind of each season, did I consistently maintain a laser-focus on what was best for each of my teams or did I sometimes slip and allow some moments to become more about me?
- In the overall scheme of things, when asked what I thought about my teams, did I wax about competitive achievement and underachievement, the ups and downs of athletic performance in a given season, statistics or other traditional measures of accomplishment or did I provide an answer akin to how legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg answered that question:
“I’ll let you know in 20 years.”
Some might craft these questions differently. Others might add to the list. There are many ways to come at this. High school coaches and athletic directors care about their young charges. They want what is best for them. They might not always agree on how best to do their jobs or how to prioritize values. But their guiding mission is—or it seems should be—the same: how best to prepare the student-athlete for the long-term. If high school athletic programs produce well-rounded citizens, armed with a healthy share of life skills, adults overseeing and running athletic programs have succeeded, by any measure.