Successful High School Coaching Philosophies

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By Dr. Wade Gilbert, Editor, The Coach Doc and International Sport Coaching Journal

Forty-eight outstanding high school coaches in the United States were asked to share their views on their coaching philosophies. The coaches represented the sports of football, volleyball, and basketball, and they had collectively won 175 state championships.

The core of their coaching philosophy was an emphasis on building people, not just athletes. The coaches believed that they gained credibility, respect, and trust by embracing a deep concern for building positive relationships with their athletes. For example, athletes were given opportunities to participate in important decision making as a way to foster independence and commitment.

The coaches also shared a philosophy that included setting and communicating high expectations and standards of conduct. Instead of viewing discipline as a problem requiring a stringent set of rules and policies for punishment, coaches viewed discipline issues as simply another opportunity to teach and reinforce their coaching philosophy. An emphasis on earned, equitable treatment as opposed to equal treatment for all was also a core component of their coaching philosophy. Communication of their coaching philosophy through postgame rituals and frequent one-on-one communications was a regular and continuous part of their coaching.

Another look into high school coaching philosophies involved nine coaches from the sports of basketball, ice hockey, soccer, volleyball, and wrestling. Each was identified as a model high school coach, and each was interviewed along with 16 of her or his student-athletes.

All nine coaches subscribed to an athlete-centered coaching philosophy—one in which they viewed their primary role as helping to develop good people, not just good athletes. These model coaches viewed sport as a tool to prepare their athletes for life outside of sport. They adjusted their coaching philosophy slightly each season, depending on the profile of their athletes. The coaches recognized that they had to develop an awareness of their athletes so that they could modify their coaching philosophies to meet athlete needs and develop transferable life skills. For example, one coach shared how he emphasized inclusion and participation because the region where he coached provided few organized sport opportunities.

The coaches used a range of innovative strategies to teach and reinforce their coaching philosophy. One coach required all athletes to complete a midseason anonymous peer evaluation in which they identified one strength and one weakness for each teammate. The coach then summarized and shared the findings with each athlete as a way to promote continuous improvement and openness to feedback—both important life skills.

Successful High-Performance Coaching Philosophies

Typically, every biography and autobiography of high-performance sport coaches includes an overview of their coaching philosophy. With this in mind, an analysis was completed of the biographies and autobiographies of five coaches who had coached teams to multiple championships and who were recognized as among the all-time best coaches in their sports. At the time of the study, the coaches had collectively won 29 championships: Scotty Bowman (9 ice hockey championships), Van Chancellor (4 women’s basketball championships), Joe Gibbs (3 football championships), Phil Jackson (9 men’s basketball championships), and Joe Torre (4 baseball championships). Six characteristics were common across the coaching philosophies of all the coaches:

  • Genuine care for players and consideration of their individual needs
  • Creating team togetherness and working coach-athlete relationships
  • Setting clear and defined roles for every player on the team
  • Deep passion and drive for winning
  • Adoption of a leadership approach that fits their personality and values
  • Perspective on their sport as just a game, not the sole purpose in their life

These common features of a championship coaching philosophy are also evident in today’s successful coaches. For example, coaches like Steve Kerr (basketball), Jill Ellis (soccer), and Joel Quenville (ice hockey) all emphasize building quality relationships with their athletes while also adopting unique leadership styles that best fit their personalities. Such recurring themes in coaching philosophies may represent timeless principles of championship coaches in high-performance sport settings.

Another study examined the life stories of eight legendary coaches in the sports of soccer, track and field, rugby, swimming, and netball. An analysis of the coaches’ accounts revealed several common themes in their coaching philosophies.

First, they all emphasized an athlete-centered coaching approach—one that required a constant effort to learn about each athlete’s particular learning styles and development needs. Second, the team always came first. The best way for teaching and reinforcing this aspect of their philosophy was to identify and articulate everyone’s role and function on the team. Third, team success is dependent on creating a positive working relationship with each athlete. Empathy and genuine care for each player, as both an athlete and a person, were core components of their coaching philosophies. Finally, the coaches viewed themselves as teachers and emphasized technical skill development. Coaches frequently spoke about efforts to create optimal learning environments in which athletes felt confident and comfortable with risking failure.

A final example of a successful coaching philosophy in high-performance sport comes from a close look at the approach of American football coach Pete Carroll. In 2014 Carroll became one of only three coaches ever to win both a Super Bowl at the professional level and a national championship at the collegiate level.

Coach Carroll attributes his success to a philosophy that encompasses a deep and genuine personal concern for every athlete on his teams. He noted the challenge of modeling this part of his philosophy when coaching a large football team, but in his mind this element is nonnegotiable. Showing players that he cares about them not only as athletes but also as people, with each requiring an approach unique to the player’s personal needs and situations, is what he refers to as the love component of his coaching philosophy.

Although he believes that developing knowledge of each athlete is critical, the pursuit of individual glory can never supersede a commitment to the team. His philosophy of team first drives his focus on helping every player on the team find a sense of purpose and value in his unique role on the team. This approach allows Carroll both to meet individual athlete needs (for self-worth, purpose, and skill development) and to protect the team-first spirit.

Dr. Wade Gilbert’s areas of expertise include coaching science, talent development, sport and exercise psychology, physical education, and youth sport. He holds degrees in Physical Education, Human Kinetics, and Education from the University of Ottawa in Canada. Gilbert has more than 20 years of experience in conducting applied research with partners around the world spanning all competitive levels, from youth leagues to World Cup. He is widely published and is frequently invited to serve as a featured speaker at national and international events. Dr. Gilbert has advised organizations ranging from school districts, collegiate teams, Olympic organizations, and the United Nations on coaching education and sport-related issues. For more information, or to read more from Dr. Wade Gilbert, please visit The Coach Doc. Find additional information at

Also, make sure to check out these titles from Human Kinetics:

  • Successful Coaching
  • Football Coaching Bible
  • In Pursuit Of Excellence

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