Defining Success

January 29, 2015
Are your coaches' definitions of success the same as yours? This athletic director makes sure everyone is clear on the criteria by using an evaluation rubric.
By Dr. Philip J. Willenbrock

Philip J. Willenbrock, EdD, is Athletic Director at the Evergreen Campus, a high school within Highline Public Schools near Seattle, Wash. He has served as a head football coach at both the high school and college levels, as well as an adjunct faculty member at Seattle University. He also acts as a consultant, providing leadership curriculum, team leadership assessments, and team leader seminars. He can be reached at: [email protected].

As athletic directors, we often stress to our coaches the importance of outlining expectations. Problems can quickly arise when coaches don't spell out rules to student-athletes and parents at the start of the season. From behavior guidelines to what it takes to earn a letter, team members must be clear on what will be rewarded and what won't be.

To practice what we preach, it's just as important for athletic directors to make it clear to coaches how they will be evaluated. Before they develop their first practice plan, coaches should know exactly what they are expected to achieve. The criteria for the end-of-season review need to be outlined if we hope for coaches to embrace and fulfill them.

But what type of evaluation system can clearly spell out expectations when there are so many nuances to coaching? A structure I've implemented in our athletic program is an evaluation rubric, which outlines very specific criteria and what it takes to meet them.

Recently, many school districts have adopted rubrics to serve as a checklist for defining good classroom instruction. Administrators have found it to be an effective tool for assessing how closely a teacher's lesson plans align with the district approved curriculum. The same can be done with coaching evaluations.

While coaching presents different challenges than classroom teaching, using a coaching evaluation rubric provides administrators and coaches a consistent road map for review. In the classroom, teacher performance isn't evaluated solely on test scores, and in similar fashion, coaching effectiveness should not be judged only on wins and losses.

To construct our rubric, I researched texts covering many fields, focusing on those that included leadership, athletics, coaching, and management. One key thing I wanted to evaluate was the coach's leadership skills, and I relied heavily on the book Leading Teams by J. Richard Hackman to develop this aspect of the rubric. His approach to team leadership aligns closely with what we ask of our head coaches and adds to the validity of the rubric.

While coaches do need sport-specific knowledge to be effective, I believe leadership qualities remain the most critical factor in determining long-term program success. Thus, our rubric focuses more on leadership than the athletic performance of the team.

The rubric should be reviewed with coaches before the season starts, and perhaps even during the hiring process. It is our duty to inform, and clearly explaining how we will evaluate both prospective hires and current staff clarifies our expectations. It also makes the end of the season evaluation meeting scripted, systematized, and a more effective learning opportunity.

The coaching rubric we use includes a four-level scale of below standard, approaching standard, meeting standard, and exceeding standard. The coaching essentials included in the rubric are: team cohesion, creating a culture, player development, and role modeling. I believe that coaches in all sports must be proficient in all four of these areas to be successful. Below, I detail the specific criteria outlined in each coaching essential and provide a definition of what "meeting the standard" entails.

This coaching essential focuses on ensuring the team has direction and runs smoothly. Coaches must have a team structure and rules that work well, and there must be a sense that everyone involved with the program works together. Does the coach truly have a team or just a collection of individuals? Here are the criteria we use and how we define meeting the standard.

Clear direction: The coach has a publicly posted program statement, as well as clearly communicated long- and short-term objectives. Daily practice plans relate directly to the stated objectives by teaching skills in an effective and efficient manner. The selection of team members and playing time is done thoughtfully and based on team goals.

Rules and policies: The coach has rules in place for student-athletes that are clear to all and follow school, district, and state guidelines. There is also opportunity for team members to collaboratively develop additional policies they feel are important. If an athlete breaks a rule, the coach addresses the issue immediately, communicating with administrators and parents.

Explicit authority: Through his or her actions, the coach gains the respect of team members and parents. Athletes exhibit positive body language, listen well, consistently do as instructed, and maintain eye contact with coaches when being spoken to.

Stability: Player retention is above 90 percent after cuts have been made. Team members are rarely ineligible for contests and rarely miss practices or games whether excused or not. Student-athletes want to be at practices and games. There is also continuity among assistant coaches.

Appropriate traditions: The coach initiates at least two team events that include family members and promote positive team bonding. Coaches provide appropriate supervision during all team functions and work with team members to ensure there is no hazing or inappropriate initiations.

Communication: The coach listens well to players and parents and responds to concerns in a professional manner. In addition, he or she informs administrators of any parent or player meetings that involve potentially explosive issues.

Annual, seasonal, and monthly schedules are developed six months in advance. In-season weekly schedules are presented six weeks in advance. Daily schedules are updated one week in advance. The coach works hard to communicate changes to avoid scheduling conflicts for athletes and their families.

I feel it's important to evaluate the coach's ability to create a positive culture on the team. This ensures coaches are working on their motivational skills and teaching both respect and responsibility. It also addresses underlying themes of player expectations and interpersonal relationships.

Culture of motivation: The coach communicates the desired team direction and keeps athletes energized on a daily basis. Athletes are motivated through individual and team goals that are attainable. Players are energetic, excited, and focused on reaching their full potential. Practice and training sessions have limited down time and display variety and adaptability to keep team members fully engaged.

Culture of respect: There is a clear understanding of the roles of every team member and all are valued equally. Players are treated fairly regardless of talent level and there are no "put-downs" of teammates. The coach reinforces anti-hazing and anti-trash talking or respect themes weekly.

Culture of responsibility: Players turn in grade checks, equipment, eligibility forms and any other required items on schedule. Coaches complete their paperwork on time and respond in a timely manner to questions or requests from administrators.

Culture of safety: The coach embraces the responsibility to provide supervision of athletes at all times. There is a focus on safety first and the coach watches for anything that could possibly lead to injury.

Developing student-athletes is the heart of what a good coach does. The rubric covers several different areas that define how individual players and the team as a whole should progress.

Progressive teaching: Practices and drills are designed in a progressive format to help team members develop and improve. All assistants teach basic drills in a consistent manner. Coaches use a drill sheet in practice to make sure they don't leave out important parts of the lesson plan. Film of practices and games are watched with players to help them understand what they are being asked to do and to stimulate learning.

Fulfilling potential: The coach is able to effectively develop a team to reach its full potential collectively and individually. He or she maximizes student-athlete effort while providing an appropriate level of performance strategies. The coach is able to see the gap between where a team/player is currently and where that team/player can become. Strategy, motivational tactics, and approach are adjusted as needed.

Support systems: There are auxiliary systems in place that help student-athletes be the best they can on and off the field. These include:

- Strength and conditioning programs that include speed, agility, and quickness training and testing procedures
- Leadership development
- Academic support
- Post graduation opportunities and college recruiting.

The coach makes sure that players avail themselves of these services. Systems are in place to reward athletes who utilize the tools.

Feedback: The coach meets one on one with each player at least twice a year for a minimum of 10 minutes. Players are informed honestly regarding needed areas of improvement and steps they can take to perform better. The coach is available every day to offer feedback after practice and is perceived as being approachable by players and parents.

Rewards: All team members are recognized individually at least once per season and there is a weekly and annual system of athlete awards. The coach communicates well with the media so that players get recognition locally, always reporting game statistics accurately and welcoming interviews.

We expect our coaches to be role models to our student-athletes. This requires them to be aware of their words and actions and committed to setting a high standard.

Sportsmanship: The coach treats officials with respect and has thorough knowledge of the rules of fair play. Team members exhibit excellent sportsmanship and citizenship and never play out of control or disrespect officials or the game at any time.

Ethics: Even outside of athletics the coach is beyond reproach. He or she has the maturity to keep emotions in check and resist negative impulses. The administration never hears of inappropriate treatment of students because the coach values his or her role as an educator. He or she takes the time at each practice to teach life lessons and always communicates in a respectful manner.

Cultural competency: The coach understands how bias can affect relationships on a team and within a community. He or she works on developing cultural competency and teaches athletes how to be respectful of people from different backgrounds.

Authenticity: An authentic coach is honest in communicating and interacting with both players and parents while being sensitive to the needs of the individuals in the program. Team members feel the coach is concerned about their development and that their individual talents are recognized and nurtured.

Positive nature: The coach brings a passionate, optimistic, and enthusiastic approach to his or her work each day. He or she does not hesitate to ask for administrative guidance when needed and takes constructive criticism well.

Working with assistants: Assistant coaches are an integral part of the team. The head coach provides helpful feedback to assistant coaches and completes assistant coach evaluations within two weeks of the season's end.

The above criteria are the centerpiece of every coach's annual postseason evaluation meeting with me. Upon the completion of the season, I review all the notes I've made about the program, then fill in the rubric, determining if the coach is below standard, approaching standard, meeting standard, or exceeding standard for each criteria. I give a copy of the completed rubric to the coach.

To begin the meeting, I ask the coach for his or her thoughts about the season. A key leading question is, "If you had the season to do over again, what is one thing you would have done differently". This opens the dialogue and puts the coach at ease in what can be a taxing event, even for the most confident coaches. Ideally, you want the coach to recognize his or her strengths and weaknesses--having him or her talk first sets this in motion.

Next, I choose one of the coaching essentials that I feel the coach excels at and invite him or her to talk about it. I ask the coach what he or she does to maximize the effectiveness of this element. If there is one criteria within the coaching essential that did not meet or exceed standards, I'll provide my ideas on how the coach can improve.

The meeting progresses with the two of us talking about each coaching essential and the criteria within it. I ask questions and clarify any problem areas. The key is to get the coach to articulate why he or she did not do well in a certain performance area, so I can better mentor him or her to improvement. I'll ask the coach what steps he or she will take to develop weaker areas and how I can help them.

From there, I have coaches who are good in one area mentor others who are weak in that area. This mentoring helps build a culture of trust and openness within the athletic department. Sometimes the mentoring can be a formal program, but often it simply entails having one coach observing the other for a limited time or one coach speaking at a staff meeting about an area he or she excels at.

As an athletic director, I try to develop and mentor coaches in the same way a principal develops and mentors teachers. A rubric helps achieve that by clarifying a standard expectation in the essential elements of the job. Not only will your coaches appreciate the clarity of this process, but the end-of-the-season evaluation will be a true developmental tool for the coach and the entire athletic program.

Below is a quick look at the criteria we evaluate coaches on for each of the four Coaching Essentials.

Team Cohesion
Clear direction
Rules and policies
Explicit authority
Appropriate traditions

Creating a Culture
Culture of motivation
Culture of respect
Culture of responsibility
Culture of safety

Player Development
Progressive teaching
Fulfilling potential
Support systems

Role Modeling
Cultural competency
Positive nature
Working with assistants

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