How to Ace Your First Year of Coaching

A Penn State volunteer assistant coach talks us through this unique time in a coach’s journey

Mark Selders
JJ Goddu looks over the shoulder of legendary Penn State head coach Russ Rose.

When I first received word that I would be joining the Penn State women’s volleyball staff as a volunteer assistant coach, I was ecstatic. I knew that accepting the offer would be huge in terms of my professional and personal development – and it has been. Getting the opportunity to work with one of the best teams in the country and AVCA Hall of Fame head coach Russ Rose is both educational and fulfilling. However, not all of it is easy. In fact, it’s pretty challenging.

As a first-year volunteer assistant coach at PSU, I must find ways to add value to an already established and immensely successful program. So, what exactly is my role? What is the role of any first-year coach with strong career aspirations, for that matter? And how can we maximize the benefits we bring to the organization as a whole?

I have found that the potential ways of contributing aren’t nearly as clear-cut or structured as I first expected. But that is not to say that young coaches can’t create a role for themselves. There are many ways to bring value to the program as a new coach, all of which we as young coaches must be open to exploring. Here are a few suggestions I have gleaned from my experience at Penn State.

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» Own the responsibilities you are given from the outset. These are largely defined by the situation at hand and vary significantly from program to program, as each team has its own unique set of needs. My position at PSU is defined by a number of different responsibilities that include playing and coaching in practice sessions, individual player training, film breakdown and analysis, scouting opponents via Data Volley, logistics and operations, and general administrative duties. Some of these responsibilities, like team training, represent a rather universal duty (most programs need or want as much feedback and help in the gym as possible). Other demands, however, may be more specific to the program, such as being in charge of video exchange or managing social media accounts. The specific needs of the program will be the foundation of your role as a young assistant.

» Foster strong relationships with all members of the team, including staff and players. This may seem simple or obvious, but effective teamwork depends largely on trust. There is value in building meaningful bonds with the people you’re around every day. The most important point to get across to your players and staff is that you are there to help the team get better. This, in turn, should serve as the basis for every coaching-related self-evaluation. “Did I make anyone better today?” If so, who? And how? This should always be your objective, regardless of who you are working with.

» Manage age and gender. Both factors are important parts of the coaching equation, as they impact your relationships with the players and the context through which feedback is exchanged. Being close in age makes it easy to relate to and interact with your players, but this can become an issue when developing respect and establishing a distinction between you and those you are coaching. This has been one of my greatest challenges. I instinctively share a peer-to-peer relationship with the players but must simultaneously establish a level of professionalism that demands their respect. Gender also dictates how we must relay feedback to players. Coaching men and coaching women take different strategies, and it is important to acknowledge this fact from the outset. Responses to suggestions, capacity for absorbing and using scouting information, and confidence-building conversations will, most likely, be disparate processes for men and women. As a general rule, I think it’s safe to trust one’s instincts, but I would also encourage asking the rest of your team’s staff or other assistants how they approach these differences.

» Focus on the process. Things can get frustrating when you try to rate your personal performance based on the overall team’s performance. It is important to understand that you are only one part of the big picture and that many of your contributions will be largely intangible and will probably go unrecognized. Don’t try to make a revolutionary impact. Instead, look to add value in the margins by doing small things. For example, work in practice with the players who don’t get as much attention from the rest of the staff or take the tedious task of uploading/downloading film off the hands of your Director of Operations. There isn’t much glory in any of these things, but the aim is to make everyone else’s job easier so that the team can be more effective as a whole.

» Commit to your role. Acknowledge that you are the rookie and often at the bottom of the food chain. As a graduate, volunteer, or first-year paid assistant, understand that you have to crawl before you can walk. Do your best to take criticism in stride and don’t be offended when someone asks you to take care of something trivial or simple. Like in any other line of business, you have to earn your stripes, and this often means doing things nobody else wants to do. I have found that working on these small tasks is where much of the learning process takes place.

» Have fun and be creative. Many of us—particularly volunteer assistants—coach volleyball because it is what we are passionate about. Being stressed out or getting frustrated has a time and a place, but remember that you are doing what you love and take a moment to appreciate that fact. Be creative by doing the things that others only talk about but never get around to. For example, our All-American setter had little difficulty consistently putting balls through one of our standard hoop targets. A staff member mentioned one practice that the hoop was too big, so a few nights later one of our managers and I took a field trip to Home Depot to piece together a smaller one. After several hours of in-store planning, construction, and consulting with numerous employees, we finally pieced together an octagon-shaped hoop using PVC pipe and Velcro. We brought it into practice the next day and the problem was solved. Our setter continues to be frustrated by her inability to set more than three consecutive balls through the new hoop, but I guarantee that her location will be masterful in a few months.

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These points represent only a few things I have identified in my own experience as ways to maximize my effectiveness as a volunteer assistant at PSU, and I’m sure there are many more that I have yet to learn about.

As young coaches, our function is ultimately defined by the word “support.” As such, we must discover and commit to all of the ways that we can make others better. Some of these actions are structured and relatively universal. Others are loosely defined and based on the specific program’s needs.

Regardless of what the actual duties entail, the approach we choose to bring to our role determines what we get out of the experience. For those of us who aspire to be head coaches one day, the price of working hard and long days, sometimes for free, will be more than compensated for by the knowledge, experience, and fulfillment we will bring forward into our careers.

Originally published in January 2014

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