6 keys to success for aspiring coaches: “Work on your craft”

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Texas associate head coach Tonya Johnson/UT photo

By Amy Farnum Patronis for VolleyballMag.com

So you think you want to be a college volleyball coach. Sounds like a great idea, but how do you break into the profession?

Those who want to be doctors go to medical school. Aspiring attorneys have to pass a grueling exam before they begin to practice. But there isn’t a prescribed path to becoming a college coach.

VolleyballMag.com spoke with five African-American women coaches who have come up through the ranks to have successful coaching careers. Here’s the advice they passed along:

Learn what coaching really entails

Tonya Johnson, who played at LSU from 1987 to 1990, advises aspiring coaches to find out what the profession is really about. Johnson, associate head coach at Texas who served five years as Georgia Tech’s head coach, recommends learning about the non-X’s and O’s part of the game like recruiting, paperwork, budgets and travel. After all, a head coach is essentially the team’s CEO. 

“It’s not about just showing up at practice and then coaching in matches,” Johnson said. “There is so much more to it, especially once you get to this level. People need to be more informed in terms of what the demands are this profession requires. Females, in general, we get in thinking it will be great thing, but then we get out at a fast rate.”

Vicki Brown, a first-year head coach at the University of San Francisco, said the best advice she got when entering coaching was to know that it is a day-to-day grind.

“Go in with that expectation and know you can’t do everything in one day … it’s just too much work,” Brown said.

Get some coaching experience
Butler head coach Sharon Clark started coaching club volleyball while she was a player at Cal State-Sacramento. She went on to coach Division II’s Humboldt State and UC-Davis. She tells student-athletes to start coaching right away, whether it is with club teams or in youth leagues.

“Work on your craft,” Clark said. “It’s about getting yourself out there and doing it. It’s very different than being a player, so there is a process to learn it.”

Brown agrees.

“If you really enjoy playing and have some interest in coaching, check out the different ways you can get into coaching. Try club. If you’re interested in collegiate coaching, give it a try. Not every player is meant to be a coach.”

Build your network … and lean on it

The AVCA (AVCA.org) offers coaching education and development programs regularly. Make sure to take advantage of these opportunities — conventions, clinics and workshops are all great places to get to know veteran coaches and meet the people who are making the hiring decisions. Like any profession, the most successful coaches are the ones who know that relationship building is an important skill.

Networking is also a natural way to meet potential mentors, and when you’re learning the coaching profession, those mentors can help you answer some of the countless questions you will have.

Penny Lucas-White, the head coach at Alabama State who has done stints at Memphis and the Air Force Academy, said she asked lots of questions while coming up the ranks.

“How do I teach players how to communicate effectively? How do I delegate? How do I lead? How do I provide guidance and still get what I want? All of that had to be learned from mentors. I went out and asked both women and men to be mentors of mine.”

Lucas-White, who was one of the original authors of the AVCA’s NCAA Minority Coaches grant “Live It, Love It, Coach It,” has paid it forward over the years.

“The point (of the grant) was to grab them by the hand and help them navigate through the industry,” Lucas-White said. “Pick up the phone if you need a recommendation. Pick up the phone if you’re having a problem. I’m not saying I’ve had all the right answers, but I’ve always answered my phone.”

Be fearless

First-year Arizona State head coach Stevie Mussie has won NCAA titles as a player at Washington and as an assistant coach at Penn State. She said the best advice she could share was not to be scared.

“Don’t be scared that you’re not going to do it perfectly,” Mussie said. “Coaching is never easy because every kid is different. The impact you might have on their lives is well worth the fear.”

Find the right fit

Johnson said young coaches should be selective when trying to move up the ranks. One of her requirements was the job location, but everyone is different. Johnson wanted to stay in the South, and she served as an assistant coach at her alma mater, LSU, and then Kentucky before heading to Texas.

“It has to be the right fit,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you should be a head coach just for the sake of being a head coach. I think it’s about finding the right fit and the right school where you can set yourself up for success.”

Build your support system

Lucas-White stresses the importance of a work-life balance in the coaching profession. The mother of three said that surrounding yourself with family and friends is key to a long coaching career.

“Being able to have a family and being able to coach — people say you can’t do it — but I beg to differ,” Lucas-White said. “I think it can be done, especially with a great support system. I was fortunate to have a wonderful, strong-knit support system. That was crucial to my growth and my development as a coach.”

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