By Patrick Elliott, PhD

You’re sitting alone in YOUR new empty office. Finally… a moment to clear your head. The press conference is over. Your family and friends have left and you have silenced your cell-phone, (which has been chirping constantly since the announcement of your hiring was tweeted out). You’ve envisioned this moment for a long time and now it’s here – you have earned this through your hard work, commitment and sacrifice. As you take a deep breath, you find yourself asking what’s next?

Welcome to your first head coaching job

As your sitting there, you may be overwhelmed with thoughts of relocation and family logistics, temporary housing, hiring your staff, meeting your new team, returning calls and texts, and of course recruiting, recruiting, recruiting.   

Over the next several days and weeks you may be asking questions like:

  • Why would they schedule that game? How do we get out of it?
  • What have I inherited? How good is my new team?
  • What kind of athletes do we need?
  • Where do I park? eat? Get my ID?
  • How did that person (usually someone looking for an assistant coach job) get my phone number?
  • How do I order gear?

This article highlights nine strategies for managing your transition by providing tips for navigating your first 90 days as first-time college basketball head coach. I call it the “9 for 90”. I personally refer to these strategies regularly as a compass for my own role as an AD, and with the coaches at my institution. Additionally, I utilize these foundational principles with my consulting clients (professional sports executives and coaches).

The 9 strategies listed below will show you the areas to focus on and why. It does not include daily basketball or training activities, because well – that’s your thing – and it’s the easy part. Obviously, each institution is unique, with their own priorities which will require your attention. But the following guide will provide you with a foundational starting point.  

But first, why are the first 90 days so important for a new coach?

Because what you do early on during a job transition is what matters most. Your athletes, colleagues and your administration form opinions about you based on limited information, and those opinions are sticky—it’s hard to change their minds. Think first impressions ……. As human beings, we tend to be hyper-focused on new people in our daily environment, it’s part of our survival instinct. Once we think we have a “good read” on him or her, we pay less specific attention and subsequently “generalize” their behavior. And, we do this based upon only a small “sample size” of interactions. So, shape others early impressions of you to the best of your ability. 

“9 Success Strategies for the First 90 Days” (and Beyond)

Be Yourself

Your institution hired you for YOU. Athletic administrators spend many hours during a search vetting candidates in an attempt to understand their personality traits, behaviors and reactions. Thus, you were hired for more than just a person’s hunch that you would be successful. Your capacity to be a leader was assessed in the search process including how you conduct your business, interact with others and represent your stakeholders. You may think that because you have a new title and role, you have to take on a new persona. But that is a false belief. Though much about your transition to the head coach’s chair will be new to you, changing who you are and how you act should not be one of them.

Know Yourself

The great business author John Maxwell said “You must know yourself in order to grow yourself.” What pushes your buttons? What are your tendencies? How do others see you? What do you project to others – tone, body language, mannerisms? How can you improve in these areas? It all matters. Remember as a head coach, others are always looking. Thus, if you can adjust your behavior to better influence, motivate and lead others in every type of situation, the respect that you command from others, as well as your own leadership capability, will grow exponentially.

Additionally, knowing yourself means understanding your strengths and weaknesses, your passions and fears, your desires and dreams. It means being aware of your eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, your likes and dislikes, and your tolerances and limitations. Once you can accurately perceive yourself and your habits and tendencies, you can adjust when necessary so that you are always leading with influence, vision, enthusiasm and purpose.

Build Strategic Relationships

People are your greatest resource and most significant variable as a head coach – especially on a college campus. They do far more than win games for you. Building quality relationships goes beyond your student-athletes, recruiting contacts and peer coaches. 

Your everyday success as a coach will require that you forge quality relationships campus-wide. Ideally, you should create alliances with other areas on campus that will enhance your ability to run your program. Many times, these professionals will become your most important ally in timely and difficult situations. In your first 90 days you should meet will all of the following representatives. 

  • Each Athletics Department unit
  • Each Athletic Department administrator
  • Team support services & physician
  • Head of University police/security
  • Admissions
  • Financial Aid
  • Housing
  • Dining Services
  • Health Services
  • Provosts office
  • Alumni office
  • Development office
  • PR office
  • Business Office
  • Human Resources
  • Key donors
  • Key campus partners (corporate, community, etc.)

People around campus will actually be genuinely excited about meeting the “new head coach”. After the meeting, follow-up with a thank you email/note and a kind word. This goes a long way toward establishing trust and communication. Remember – word gets around fast on a college campus – so your efforts will reach many people. Make people feel good about meeting you.

Construct a Winning Staff

You will feel pressure to hire your staff right away, as well as interview people as “favors” to friends, mentors, other coaches etc. Always remember, it’s your program and whoever you surround yourself will make you or break you. I know it sounds harsh, but I see it every day. Once you hire individuals, it is not easy to reverse that hiring decision, so do your homework and be as deliberate as you need so that you get it right the first time.

You may have determined your staff already and that’s great. But for your own sake – make sure that they will compliment and supplement your strengths, and that they will be loyal to you and your vision for the program. At the end of the day, your win-loss record and all other program outcomes will be on you, not them.

In order to determine your staff, you must identify the traits and skills that you value, including:  

  • Personality
  • Basketball acumen
  • Recruiting ability
  • Personal integrity
  • Work ethic
  • Loyalty
  • Ability to engage with student-athletes/ others
  • Honesty
  • Representation
  • Communication
  • Other essential skills

You will also need to determine roles. What will be delegated to whom? This may be determined by position and by skill set, but be attentive to putting the right tasks with the right individuals. These may include:

  • Student-athlete mentoring
  • Coordinating recruiting
  • Scheduling
  • Scouting
  • Uniforms, equipment
  • Travel/Meals
  • Daily academics
  • Recruiting calendar/ logs
  • Video editing
  • Strength and Conditioning
  • Compliance
  • Paperwork

Do Not “Leak” Positive Energy

I’ll briefly be a “physics nerd” to discuss a trait that I think is critical for any coach. I call it the use of Positive Energy. Stay with me here ….

Positive Energy is an attitude choice we make and reflects the “1st Law of Thermodynamics” which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, just changed to a different form. This means that throughout our Universe there is a pre-determined amount of energy. It also means that You too have a limited (pre-set) amount of daily energy, and that you get to choose its form (either positive or negative). What “form” is your energy going to take with your thoughts and actions? Positive or negative? How are you going to show-up to people? Over the course of your work day, what is the percentage of positive vs. negative energy you will expend? Sometimes, thinking and behaving negatively (within reason and appropriately) is inevitable. Especially, to correct and adjust issues and instill accountability. However, you do not want to “live” there. Just like an ineffective car leaks oil, ineffective leaders “leak” positive energy by complaining, condescending, arguing, lacking integrity, gossiping and communicating poorly.

Many times, new coaches can be overwhelmed by their new challenges. Remind yourself that you wanted the position and you were hired for a reason. Accept what you inherited. It’s most likely a reason why the position was open to begin with, and why you were chosen to assume the position. The administration felt you were the right person to navigate the current issues. Don’t prove them wrong. It’s important that you navigate the issues and not spend time being consistently negative. 

In fact, learn from the mistakes of the past (and even appreciate them – because without them you may not have been offered the job). Remember, you do not have to like what you inherited, but if you constantly complain you will get mired in negativity which will cloud your thoughts, interactions, words and decisions. You will be leaking positive energyIt will soon become part of your leadership style and the narrative of your program. Your negativity about obstacles and challenges will actually empower other individuals around you (athletes, staff) to have a built-in excuse for results. Complaining and excuses will choke the forward progress of your program. So, if you don’t like something you have inherited in your new program – analyze it, change it if you can, vow never to make the same mistake, and move on. As the saying goes about negative issues– “give it a cup of coffee, but do not throw it a banquet”.

Have a Personal Stress-Management Plan

Stress is an occupational normality these days in most industries. We live in a fast-paced society focused on the here and now, without much of an appetite for process, deliberation or even civility, at times. For a college basketball coach, working in a competitive environment with long work hours, significant travel and numerous responsibilities, exponentially increases the potential of stress. Added to that, your results are public for all to see and job security has become tenuous in this industry, making it inevitable that at some point you will have to develop a plan to navigate the pressures that you face. This plan will allow you to successfully manage your stress.

First, it’s important to understand how we respond to stress. As human beings, when we appraise a situation as stressful, we “default” to our ingrained behaviors. You may have heard of the “fight or flight response” – well this is exactly what happens when we are in a stressful situation. It’s an automatic physical reaction which causes behavioral and physical symptoms to a certain degree, including anger, fear, defensiveness, elevated respiration/heartbeat, sweaty palms, “butterflies” in your stomach, flushing of your face, headaches and even dizziness. We lose focus and clarity for the task at hand in the moment, and typically react in a self-protective way. Many times, these reactions are not appropriate and lead to regretful actions.

Your plan for stress management should have two strategies:

Stress In the moment: Take a breath, pause, stop, walk-away, tape your mouth shut etc., but do not react without thinking. One milli-second is all it takes to say or do something that you may regret for long time. Pausing in some way will allow you to gather yourself and create a few thoughts (which you should previously develop) for these situations. Thoughts like:  What is the best way for me to respond? How can I show integrity in this situation? Is this moment teachable? How would I react if a news camera or reporter was here? or This too shall pass.

Daily Stress: chronic daily stress can negatively impact your physical health and sense of well-being over time. To manage the chronic stress that comes with your job do some research on stress-relief techniques and utilize those that might work for you. Methods such as exercise, healthy habits, relaxation, adequate sleep, meditation and other similar activities can help you mitigate the stress of your job. 

Pick your battles wisely

As the leader and ultimate decision-maker of your program, there will be conflicts and problems to deal with – and it will be solely your responsibility to do so. Some of these items may be non-negotiable to you – meaning that it must be resolved your way. Choose these wisely, because when you come from a position of inflexibility on an issue, you put others on the defensive. Non-negotiable issues must have solid rationale and should be used only in those circumstances that are necessary, and that you see no alternative.

Most other issues will be negotiable. Your chances of resolving them successfully will depend upon your ability to negotiate and create leverage. It sounds more complicated than it is, but it’s important that you are aware of these dynamics as you begin your new position.

In negotiation, leverage is the power that one side of a negotiation has to influence the other side to move closer to their negotiating position. Your leverage is based on your ability to award benefits or impose costs on the other side. 

Common conflicts which will need negotiation and resolution may include:

  • Facility scheduling
  • Marketing plans
  • Budgetary issues (sometime these are non-negotiable from above, but I find if a coach has good rationale, you must listen as an AD)
  • Personnel management

An example of how you might use leverage:  

  • A negotiation with your AD might involve a new staff position you want. In this case, offering to play a guarantee game and fundraising to offset the expense may be your best leverage to getting the position. 
  • Another example for facility scheduling may be to alternate days/times with the other team.

Again, not rocket science – and there are many variables that come with negotiating, but trying to create a win-win resolution for all parties works best. Then – when you really have a non-negotiable that must happen, you have built up a level of respect with stakeholders, which will allow your rationale and concerns “to carry more weight and integrity” at that moment. 

Act Like a “Growth Stock”

Despite situational set-backs and corrections, growth stocks are always trending upward over time. You can “act like a growth stock” by working on your own personal development every day. Particularly in areas where you want to improve and grow. Activities such as learning (reading, listening to podcasts or audio books, or talks); fitness (strength and conditioning, fitness, flexibility etc.) mental preparation (meditation, relaxation techniques) spiritual growth (prayer, reflection) and emotional wellness (socializing, friends’ network, outside work activities) – allow you to be the best version of yourself. If you are not constantly “feeding and nourishing” yourself as a coach, you will never maximize your growth and potential over time.  

These activities do not have to be overwhelming or all-consuming. Many people do not address the aforementioned activities in their lives because of a lack of time. If that’s the case — then focus on incremental progress.

What I mean is this. Never underestimate the compounding power of daily consistency. I’m a big fan of the Kaizen approach, which is a Japanese business model for creating continuous improvement, based on the idea that small, ongoing positive changes can reap major improvements. So, if you apply 1% effort every day (to something you want to improve on), after a year you will actually have improved by almost 38%. Conversely, if you apply 1% less effort every day, in a year you will have gone backwards. Interestingly, in the beginning the difference of one percent more or less effort is negligible, but over time it’s tremendously powerful.

The truth is that most of the significant things in life (like your new position) aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things one percent better or one percent worse. Aggregating these marginal gains makes a difference.

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts.” — John Wooden

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Embrace that you will be delving into uncharted waters. Do not retreat to your comfort zone. As you move up, recognize that the skills that helped you excel at your last job won’t necessarily make you successful in your current role. Recognize what new skills your new job requires—and grow into the position. Ask for help.  Is this your first-time managing a staff?

Some skills will come naturally to you as you spend more time on new tasks, but you might require additional learning for other skills. Include these skill gaps in your “growth stock” program. The only way you can become comfortable over time is by doing it over and over. Think about the first time as an assistant coach, you were tasked with providing a pre-game scouting report in front of the team. You may have been a little nervous and you might have had a big sense of urgency to include every detail, nuance and tendency accurately. Over time – it became second nature. That will happen in your new role as well, as long as you push yourself through it. Some of the new responsibilities you may need to perform from a new vantage point include:

  • Alumni/ donor/ corporate relations
  • Media relations
  • Executive administration relations
  • Financial responsibility
  • Student-athlete leadership
  • Fellow head coaches
  • Cross-campus relations
  • Managing assistant coaches
  • Being the final “say” on everything

Conclusion

You may have noticed that I mention “self-leadership” and “personal growth” throughout this article. That is because your career as an elite sports coach can be a very demanding, dynamic and stressful occupation within a changing social, educational and competitive landscape. The skills you need to do your job are becoming more complex and nuanced. Technical skill and recruiting ability will obviously always be critical, but you will also have to be proficient at many roles that are new to you and that perhaps make you uncomfortable. And there will be more and more need to grow these ‘soft skills” in the future. Another way of saying it……. The skills that got you here today, will not get you to where you want to go tomorrow.

If you choose to “stand still” – meaning if you do not prioritize your own continual learning and growth, especially in those areas that make you most uncomfortable, (yet are mission critical for your role and your future) – you’re undermining your career. Eventually, you will get passed by those who are continually growing.

Finally, embrace and enjoy your new position. You were hired for a reason. Your new institution needs your leadership, expertise, vision, integrity and character. You will positively change the lives of your athletes. Just think about that…your abilities as a leader will have a tremendous ripple effect on many, many people’s lives. That’s why they hired you. 

It’s Your Time.

Make the most of it.

So, take a deep breath – turn on your cell-phone and get after it!!

GOOD LUCK!!