5 Tips for Aspiring Head Coaches

David Alexander, Head Coach at Central High School, Evansville, IN

In my 4 stops as an assistant (Bloomington South, Shenandoah, Greensburg, Evansville Harrison), I have worked with coaches who have combined for 4 state titles and over 30 sectional titles. I was fortunate enough to work with 6 assistants in those stints who also had head coaching experience prior to or after us working together.

The biggest takeaway from the collection of coaches I have been around isn’t X’s and O’s; it’s the prep and behind-the-scenes work that occurs outside of practices and games. The scouting hours, film breakdown, laundry, morning workouts, after school workouts, extra workouts, practice planning, feeder camps and scheduling is just the tip of the iceberg of being a coach.

A great assistant, one that wants to be a head coach, will have their hand in all of these elements to (1) relieve the head coach a little bit and (2) prepare themselves for when it’s their time to run a program. Below are my 5 tips to being that great assistant.

  1. Volunteer – I spent 3 seasons as a volunteer assistant under J.R. Holmes at Bloomington South. I could have easily found a junior high job for pay or looked somewhere else, but sometimes the experience is the paycheck. I thought I knew the game well before my time there – boy was I wrong! Three years under the Hall of Famer taught me great lessons that have stuck with me since. I also know that I had to “pay my dues” to be a part of something special. Sometimes that means working for free. I wouldn’t be a head coach today if it wasn’t for Coach Holmes giving me a chance. The greatest programs and coaches don’t have money to offer for a reason. Don’t be afraid to work your way up.
    2. Your job is longer than 3-5 – The most frustrating part for any head coach or assistant coach is working with the guy that shows up at 2:55 and leaves at the final whistle. Someone needs to be on locker room coverage. Jerseys don’t wash themselves. What if a kid wants to get extra work in or needs a ride home? Scouting? Film breakdown? Getting jerseys and gear ready for the next day? Most importantly is the bond created during this time. In all my destinations, this is when the head coach wants to bounce new ideas or schemes around. It’s a chance to give your input. We used to sit with Stacy Meyer (Greensburg) in the coaches office for 1-2 hours after practice talking about upcoming practices and games almost daily. I will always cherish those moments in seeing his thought process on a daily basis.
    3. Ask how to help – This is an easy one. Ask your head coach, “What can I do to help?” Some coaches won’t ask because they don’t want to burden you. Others have so much on their plate they forget to ask. Maybe they’re like me and struggle delegating and relinquishing control. Being an assistant that wants to take on tasks can be a lifesaver for a head coach. It will also push you to have a bigger role in the program.
    4. Learn the off court stuff – Nathan Fleenor (Evansville Harrison) and Coach Meyer were such great mentors for me with this. Coach Fleenor constantly asked me to go to meetings with him and learn all the behind-the-scenes work of running a program. Coach Meyer turned over the feeder camps to me so I could gain that experience. They both included me in the fundraising, scheduling of games, practices and open gyms, ordering of equipment, setting up banquets and team meetings, etc. If you can learn this stuff as an assistant, it makes life so much easier when you take over a program.
    5. Loyalty – As with any job, this may be the most important factor. Head coaches want people they can trust.  Never be afraid to offer your insight to a coach when they ask for it.  But remember, it’s their choice on the final play call, substitution, etc.  Whether you agree with their choice or not, it’s your job to support them on the court, in the locker room and in the community. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this trust and loyalty more than with Aaron Cain at Shenandoah. Being a coach isn’t a hobby. It’s a family business. Coach Cain and I had an indestructible relationship that is just as strong 6 years later. Coach opened his home up to my wife and me during our time together. He was that way with his players as well. Every program I’ve been with, the coaches and their wives have hung out outside of the gym. As an assistant, you have to want to spend that time with your team and staff off the court. I would do anything for that man and his family, as he would for us. He demonstrated that when his family drove 8 hours round trip to help move my wife and me when I got a new job. Always treat your head coach and staff as family. A great assistant will keep that loyalty and togetherness long after the coaching connection is over.

Bonus tips:

  1. Have different experiences – I have coached in 4 different cities as an assistant and learned very different styles. I have pulled a little from each coach I’ve been with. If your life allows it, get multiple experiences to help find what works for you.
  2. Coach AAU/feeder – It’s a shorter season and less intense, and it gives you most of the roles of a high school head coach without the stress/pressure.
  3. Make sure your significant other understands the time commitment – Coaching is a full time job and you often pull double shifts. Make sure your significant other understands the time commitment. I’ve seen many “1-and-dones” once they realized the requirements. I told my wife when we started dating 10 years ago what to expect. I am very blessed she gets it and has supported me since Day 1. 

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