After over a decade of coaching, I finally sat down to think about the coaching mistakes I made over the years and how I would have done things differently if I started over. Now I wouldn’t consider my first year a failure or a resounding success. It was fun and I survived, but it certainly could have been better! So here are my top 10 mistakes, and I hope you can take away a few lessons for your own coaching career!
Mistake #1: I constantly worried about what other people thought about me
One of my biggest coaching mistakes is really an issue for me in every aspect of my life. I wish I didn’t care about what other people think, I know I shouldn’t, and yet I can’t stop worrying about it. My inner dialogue is usually something like, “Why did she say that? Does that coach really think I’m making the right decision or is she just trying to be nice? What would (insert coach I admire) do?”
So while the rest of this list has mistakes I made and then corrected once I was aware of the problem, I can’t say I ever fully stopped worrying about what other people think. I did, however, get better with time and confidence. So if you have a similar inner dialogue, I encourage you to stay focused on you, your values, and your goals, and try to let it go. Easier said than done, I get it. But it gets better with practice! (Learn lots more about self-talk here).
Mistake #2: I also worried about what my athletes thought
Again as a natural consequence of my personality, I worried about what my dancers thought. “Did she understand that I was pushing her because I believe in her?” “I know they don’t understand the stress I’m under right now outside of practice, but I hope they don’t think I’m a mean coach.” One of my big coaching mistakes was that I spent way too many nights thinking about my actions and words and how my dancers interpreted everything. With time and wisdom, I definitely lightened up, but I will admit I was probably more concerned about it than most of my peers.
By the end of my career, I learned that if it was something little, I needed to just let it go. However, if it was something I was really worried they might misinterpret, I should just talk to them directly. Usually, I got the common teenage response of “no big deal,” or “I don’t even remember that,” but there were a few times I was able to have a wonderful heart-to-heart with a girl because I opened up about my thoughts and she reciprocated. So while some coaches would advise you to never worry about what your athletes think and to just focus on making the right decisions for the better of the team, I would agree with a caveat. If you can’t let it go, maybe she can’t either and you are the adult so bring it up and model how to have a difficult conversation with real emotions.
Mistake #3: I was convinced I could do it all alone and do it perfectly
I coached by myself for the first 6 years, and looking back there were so many things I didn’t need to take on myself but felt I had to or it wouldn’t be perfect. It even got so ridiculous I was convinced that hand sewing game day bows for all 21 girls was a good use of my weekend. Really?!? Not only did it take way too much time, but they were nowhere near the quality of bow you can get from people who actually do this for a living. Sometimes you need to know when to outsource the little stuff.
Over the years I started asking for more and more help, and I truly believe my team thrived because of it. I asked parents to host team dinners before games. Seniors volunteered to drive and pick up the shipment of jazz shoes that just came in. I nudged captains to make fun handmade gifts if they wanted something special for the homecoming game. In later years I asked a parent to be in charge of meal planning at nationals… the list goes on. There are so many little day-to-day things that you can delegate. Depending on your team and the type of athletes and parents you have what you choose to delegate will change, but the point is you can’t do it all alone and you shouldn’t!
Mistake #4: I didn’t have a designated photographer/videographer
Coaching mistakes: no designated photographer or videographer. This was such a big lack of delegation on my part it deserves its own number on the list. Sure, lots of parents probably film performances or take pictures, but have you ever finished watching a great basketball game dance or sideline cheer and then looked around to see if anyone filmed it only to realize no one did? I can’t tell you how many times I wanted a video of a specific performance from a competition or game and asked parents to share only to receive 5 different videos in terrible quality from odd angles or with people talking over it the whole time.
At the beginning of the season, ask who has a high-quality camera and is willing to be the designated photographer/videographer. I don’t mean other parents can’t film, but if it’s assigned then you know who to ask, they know you will be looking for a quality video of the whole team (not just their darling daughter in the corner the whole time), and you can even make arrangements to make sure they have priority seating that serves you both.
Mistake #5: I didn’t understand the importance of a pre-season all team and parent meeting
Asking for a videographer as mentioned above is just one of the many things you should discuss at the beginning of the season. While I always had an initial team meeting, it definitely evolved over the years with each of the hard lessons I learned along the way. It is so important to have a thorough meeting with both parents and athletes before anything else gets off the ground. Establish the team values and mission. Clarify the schedule and your expectations. Inform them of costs and rules and regulations. Make sure they know how to communicate with you (my favorite: if you’re upset you have to wait 24 hours before calling me, no matter what) and answer all questions. This meeting can be long and dull, but I can’t tell you enough how many headaches it’s saved me in the long run.
Along with the pre-season meeting, a goal-setting meeting was also incredibly valuable! After years of coaching and high education, I’ve learned the mistakes to avoid when your setting goals with your team. Don’t make the same mistakes I did early on, download the free cheat sheet “5 Rookie Goal Setting Mistakes – and how to avoid them!”
Mistake #6: I didn’t always consider long-term plans
It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘now’ of the season and forget the big picture…coaching mistakes! Homecoming is next week, we need to make sure that’s ready to go… our first competition is next month, are we ready?… but somehow we forget that the first competition is a stepping-stone towards our real competitive goal later in the season. Rookie coaching mistakes: lack of big-picture planning and future-focused thought. Sit down at the beginning of the season and make a general outline of the whole season. Map out games, pep-assemblies, fundraisers, competitions, days off school, etc. I don’t work for the school I coach at so there were many times my girls would say, “We don’t have school Friday, do we still practice at 3:30?” Oh… oops.
Taking the time at the beginning of the season to lay out the whole year gives you a much better handle on what to expect and how to plan accordingly. How many weeks before your first competition do you want your choreography done? Write it down. Then how many weeks do you (or your choreographer) need to choreograph? How many weeks will it take to get the music in? How many weeks to get the costume?
Think through all the contingencies and write down a master calendar to keep you on track. That way, when you need to register for your state championships and order the new team jackets you promised the girls during the week of your big fundraiser you won’t forget anything. (Once you make the calendar, refer back to #3 about delegating and start assigning jobs where appropriate!) Better yet, make sure you start off the season with the best possible Goal Setting Strategy Meeting!
Mistake #7: Don’t assume newbies know what they’re doing
This seems obvious, but as a veteran coach, it became a real issue for me. I took for granted that just because I had been through a few million football run-throughs and national anthems that my girls would know what to do. It’s tradition, it’s what we’ve always done, they’ve seen it, they get it… Nope! Your new dancers need guidance and help just as everyone before them did.
Give them buddies, or families on the team to help with these little questions. Spend a few minutes of practice time asking your veteran athletes to explain the procedures to your new girls. Don’t assume they know how to wear their hair, or that there are rules about what kind of cold-weather gear they can wear to a game. Spell it out for them or you will have confused little newbies running around who are afraid to ask questions and that’s no fun for anyone.
Mistake #8: As a veteran coach, I got stuck in tradition and didn’t acknowledge that some things need to change
I spent so many years creating valuable traditions on my team. Events, little ceremonies, gifts, rituals, and sayings, all of which I was very proud of and truly believe made a big difference. In general, I fully believe in the importance of traditions. From a psychology point of view, we know they create a sense of cohesion and unity on a team, a sense of US vs. THEM that can be healthy and positive. However, there are times when I made the mistake of getting stuck in a tradition just because it was a tradition rather than evaluating if it was really helpful for the CURRENT team.
For example, my team had the tradition of 3 captains on the team, two seniors, and one junior. It worked exceptionally well for years. But then I had a season with only three seniors on the team who were all wonderful leaders. I wrestled with it for weeks (and I know they did too). How were we going to choose? Would they still work well together all season if two were captains and one wasn’t? Then I finally realized, just because it’s the way I’ve always done it, doesn’t mean it’s the way it should continue. So that season we had three senior captains and it was one of the best leadership teams I’d ever had. (Check this out for more on choosing captains.) Unfortunately, there are many decisions along the way that I regret because I was so stuck in tradition.
Take stock at the end of the season and check in on your traditions. Do any of them need to be tweaked? Or dropped altogether? Do you have too many that they begin to lose value? Incorporating a new tradition can bring in a new spark to the team too; it may be just what you need.
Mistake #9: I didn’t recognize the importance of taking a break
I mean both for me as a coach and the team, but here I’m focusing on the athletes. (Click to learn more about self-care as a coach). Dancers and cheerleaders are intense, hard-working, often year-round athletes. They need to give their bodies and minds a rest. So go ahead and take 3 days or a week off after nationals before you dive back into basketball season. Personally, I never held practice during finals either semester. I preach academic focus. Therefore they deserve the time to be attentive to school and they come back to practice ready to focus on the team.
This goes for individual practices now and then too. Just stop for 15 minutes and let one of them tell a funny story. Or have them play a silly game (we loved doing a few rounds of Heads-Up). Trust me, if you stop for even 5 minutes and release the pressure of the day-to-day, you will see better focus and motivation that will make the rest of your practice much more productive than what you would have done in those 5 minutes anyway.
Mistake #10: I was my own worst critic
Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. No one is the perfect coach, teacher, mentor, or person for that matter. We all make coaching mistakes and you will too. My best advice to my team was always: “The best thing you can do after a mistake is to acknowledge it, apologize when appropriate, and try harder the next time.” I was a very seasoned coach before I learned to take my own advice. I hope you hear me when I say it’s ok to make a mistake. Just acknowledge it. Recognize why it happened or what you could have done differently, turn it into a lesson, and commit to growth instead of harping on the error.
This one is really important, so I wrote a whole post about it: To the Coach Who Will Settle For Nothing Less Than Personal Perfection