Throughout my years as an athletic director, people would often say to me, “You need to hire so-and-so. S/He was a great player at—,” and they would say the name of some college or high school.

I would smile, nod, and say something like, “Okay, thanks. I’ll keep her/him in mind.”

And then I would go on my way, sometimes considering the person they mentioned, but oftentimes not giving that person a second thought.

While that might seem a bit harsh, I learned early on in my coaching career and then early on again in my years as an AD that just because you played a sport doesn’t mean you can coach it.

Not one lick.

Playing and coaching are two VERY DIFFERENT things. The mindset, focus, skillset, and knowledge base for each are not the same. For the most part (and sometimes depending on the sport or the position one played in the sport), the temperament required to do each is quite different.

Right now, off the top of your head, name a great player who is now considered a great coach in your sport. How about another sport? How long is your list?

Of course, “great” is completely subjective for both players and coaches, so it may be a moot point to definitively say what I’m about to say. But I’ll say it anyway.

Just because you were a great player doesn’t mean you are going to be a great coach.

In fact, I would argue that it can oftentimes be a detriment. More often it seems to me, the best coaches are those who didn’t necessarily stand out as great players.

Now before all you great players who are now coaches get your undies in a bundle over that, read on and see if you get my points. Maybe… just maybe… you will even agree with them.

Consider the players who often stand out as being great players. Usually, they are considered that way because of a combination of their height, weight, speed, quickness, strength, natural talent and then subsequent success that they had because of those factors.

That’s not to say that they didn’t work hard to achieve all that they achieved. Many of them did.

However, many of them were oftentimes so much more naturally gifted than others that things came more easily to them than the good and average players. Because of this, they may not have had to put in the same kind of time and effort to improve at specific skills to learn how to succeed as their teammates had to.

This could also lead to not ever having to work as hard to figure out all the little nuances of squeezing everything out of the ability that they had in order to succeed, so they never found out a lot of the detailed elements of what other players go through to create success.

For the average to good players, though, they could not get by and succeed on their talents and gifts alone. They often had to work harder, study more, and learn other ways/tricks, to overcome the limitations that they had in order to compete with the great players.

The Best of the Best Would Struggle

Again, this is not to say that great players didn’t work hard, study a lot, and also learn other ways/tricks in order to succeed. In fact, those that did usually stood out as being elite players because they took all the natural talents that they had and maximized them by outworking and outstudying everybody else. But when you talk about these players, you end up talking about the best of the best.

Michael Jordan would be a player that would come to mind when thinking of this type of athlete. He was one of the most gifted athletes ever. Yet his teammates often said no one worked harder than he did, and he was the most competitive player any of them ever played with, too. He was also smart and crafty. All of that combined to make him the greatest basketball player in the world.

Yet, after his playing days, he never coached. With all that he had put into the game and all that he got out of the game, one would think he would be a prime candidate to coach.

I don’t.

I think he’d struggle as a coach.

Nobody would ever be able to live up to the standard of excellence and accomplishment that he set for himself. Because of the high level of success he had, he might struggle to understand why others couldn’t do things a certain way or at a certain level. He might get frustrated with players who could not handle certain things in certain ways.

Magic Johnson is another one of the all-time great basketball players, too, considered by many to be one of the five best players ever. He played the point guard position. That position is like a coach on the court, and Magic was the best to ever play it.

If anyone should be able to transition to a head coach role well, it is a point guard. They have to understand where everybody is on the court, what they are supposed to do there, and why they are supposed to do it. They are the players on the team that have to think the most like a coach. Because of this, many of them have done well as coaches.

However, Magic struggled as a head coach. He lasted only 16 games as a coach and then decided it wasn’t for him.

That’s not a knock on Magic Johnson. It’s not a knock on any great player who struggles with coaching.

It’s just that coaching is not playing.

Coaching is different.

Me vs. We

Players focus on playing their game. Playing is me-centered. It is all about how I perform at this game.

That’s not to say that players are selfish (although some are). That just means that as a player, I have to perform in certain ways to have my own individual success. That is what I must focus on first and foremost to have that success and then help bring success to my team.

But a coach does not think that way. Coaching is about everyone. It’s not about any one player, and it’s certainly not about you, Coach. Coaching is we-centered and we-focused..

A coach has to help ALL players develop the best that they can each develop. A coach has to get players to then blend those individual skills that they each have into what is best for the team. A coach has to think about ALL of the aspects of the game and how each player fits into those aspects.

A player thinks first, “What do I need to do to be the best I can be?” Some of them then go a little further and think, “How do I need to fit what I do best into what the team needs me to do best?”

Players then go out and work on their games to become the best they can be at playing their games. They work on their own individual skills and training to become the best players they can be. While many of them will work to incorporate their skills into what will help the team succeed, their first focus is on their own ability to perform.

A coach thinks, “What do we need to do to be the best that we can be? What does each player need to do best to help us succeed? What do I need to do to bring that out in each of them? What do I need to teach them in order to help them become the best that they are capable of becoming while also helping us become the best that we are capable of becoming as a team?”

Coaches then work hard to try to help develop ALL players to become their best, to work well together, and to come together as one cohesive unit, so they have the best chance at achieving their potential. Their whole mindset is about everyone else, whereas the majority of a player’s mindset is about herself/himself.

While having played a sport can be quite helpful for coaches as they are navigating the coaching of it, it is not the same thing, nor is it a prerequisite. Sure, it helps to be able to demonstrate moves when teaching them if you know the moves from having executed them yourself as a player. But it’s not a requirement in order to create success in teams.

Also, there can be benefits when teaching other aspects (strategies, nuances, pressure-packed moments, etc.) of a game to have been in those types of situations as a player, so one can draw upon one’s own personal experiences to help players learn how to deal with those situations.

More Than Just the Skills

But, again, skill proficiency at a game is not a prerequisite to being a coach. There is so much more to coaching than just having played the game.

While players performing skills well is a key to a team’s success, a huge part of coaching has little to do with the actual skill performance that the players are executing. Also, the fact that I may not be able to demonstrate certain high-level skills because I never could perform them as a player does not matter when I am coaching my team. All that matters is if I can get my players to perform them.

Hence, coaching involves much more than mere skill development and execution. Coaching is about:

  • Establishing positive relationships with players
  • Demanding discipline while at the same time fostering an environment of love & respect
  • Developing trust with and among team members
  • Caring more about team members than wins & losses
  • Creating and rewarding great work habits
  • Instilling a strong commitment to the team and team standards among the team members
  • Holding team members accountable for their actions
  • Working with all levels of ability and different types of personalities
  • Motivating team members to excel through positive praise and reward
  • Being a coach who is coachable herself/himself
  • Seeking to learn, improve, and develop as a coach every day

There is more that could go on that list, but it is a good start. If coaches don’t take care of the elements on the list, they are going to struggle to coach, struggle to create great teams, and, therefore, struggle to succeed.

Now consider how many players you know that have all of the elements on that list present in their mindset as players, let alone have them present at the forefront of their mindset. If you can think of any, then they have the potential to become really good coaches.

Most players have to learn those things over time. Unfortunately, too many never do. Some do, but the elements on that list never rise to the level of importance that having natural talent and performing skills ever did, so they struggle to become good coaches.

So the next time you’re thinking that So-and-So would make a great coach because s/he was a great player, think carefully before making any recommendations to coaches or athletic directors. If So-and-So has many of the qualities you see on the list above, then go ahead. Spread the word.

But if the most important element on her or his resume would be that s/he “was a great player” or “played in college,” save your breath.

Kids deserve a lot more than that from their coaches.