One of the things that separates an average coach and a great coach is the desire to constantly improve their abilities. American football is a sport that is rich in strategy and technique, meaning that the ways to improve our understanding of the game are endless. Coaches, too, have countless ways to improve the way they teach the game to their players. With that in mind, we’ve refined these into a concise list that can help any coach improve their abilities.
Here are the top 10 ways to become a better football coach:
1. Learn and Understand the Rules
As a leader of young athletes, it’s vital that a coach thoroughly study the rulebook to understand the rules of the game he’s coaching. Simply knowing the rules is not enough – coaches need to grasp how each rule is applied in a practical sense. You need to be able to identify things such as a clipping penalty, a legal chop block, an illegal formation, etc., all within the context of a game situation. There are many situations that occur over the course of a season in which your players will come to you for an explanation of how a penalty is assessed or whether or not what they’re doing constitutes an infraction. It’s essential that you can clarify this for your players, less they see you in an unfavorable light for not knowing the rules of the game you teach.
Additionally, and perhaps most significantly, understanding the rules of American football becomes extremely important on game day. Spotting and addressing penalties with the referees will not only help them do their job better, it will potentially merit a penalty against the opposition if you’re watching closely enough. Lastly, if the officials make a mistake on a call you will be better able to argue with and make your case to them. If the officials find that your understanding of one of the rules is skewed, it harms your credibility and makes it less likely that they’ll trust your judgment on future calls.
2. Watch Film
Ask any coach in the NFL and they’ll tell you that they spend at least 5 hours per day watching film during the season. There’s a reason why they do it – because it works. Coaches such as Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh are renowned for watching endless amounts of film throughout the season and offseason, and it’s no coincidence that they each have the two highest winning percentages among active coaches with their current teams. Studying your own team’s practice and game film will help you identify what your team does well and areas that you need to improve on. Watching game film of your upcoming opponents will allow you to better anticipate their capabilities and weaknesses, which will enable you to attack critical gaps in strategy and ability.
Coaches in the NFL and NCAA have very sophisticated film systems, which may or may not be a current capability within your current organization. If your team doesn’t have a systemized filming strategy, this simply creates the impetus to develop one. By spearheading the filming strategy for your team, you’ll not only be appreciated for your effort but you’ll also be establishing yourself as an indispensable member of the coaching staff. Do your best to be part of the solution.
3. Find a Mentor
Finding and establishing a firm relationship with a coaching mentor is a critical element of becoming a top-tier coach in any sport. A mentor should be someone who you greatly respect, who has values that align with your own, and who makes themselves accessible to you. Typically coaches are happy to be mentors if they see passion and ability in you, and they feel encouraged to give back especially when they’ve once been guided by a mentor themselves. Whether you find a mentor in your own country that you can see on a day-to-day basis or a coach in the United States whom you communicate with via e-mail, these relationships can be a huge help to a young coach. For coaches in Europe, I strongly recommend finding a high school or college coach and contacting him via e-mail to express your interest in learning from him. Engaging in a dialogue with him can be hugely beneficial.
Bill Parcells, one of the best coaches in NFL history, was a famous mentor to many great head coaches such as Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, and Sean Payton. Bill Walsh – the legendary 49ers coach – was a mentor to Mike Holmgren, Jim Fassel, and Dennis Green, all very successful NFL head coaches at varying times of their careers. The NFL has continued to grow exponentially because they have stood on the shoulders of the giants before them.
My coaching mentors were my father and my friend Jim Mora Sr., the longtime coach of the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. The values and perspectives I learned from each of them have been invaluable, as they’ve often transcended the football field and have been directly relatable to my own life. If you can find someone who has been there before and is willing to give advice and encouragement, the sky is the limit for your own personal and professional growth.
4. Get Feedback From Other Coaches
Within your own coaching staff there is opportunity for learning and growth. Asking your fellow coaches for feedback on the way you teach or communicate with your players will help you better refine your skills. As objective colleagues who want to see the team improve, they can often see things that you cannot since they’ve had an opportunity to observe your coaching style from the outside looking in. They can tell you if you’ve been too negative or too enabling, unfocused or too intense, or whether your technique or strategy needs to improve. Having thick skin about these critiques can also benefit you heavily, as overcoming your own ego and getting out of your own way are essential to becoming an all-around great coach.
5. Attend Clinics, Camps, & Conferences
This is one of the easiest ways to make great improvements in your development as a coach in a short period of time. There are football camps and clinics taking place all the time in the United States and they’re becoming more and more common throughout Europe. In a day or two, you can soak up so much information that it will open up new thought processes and give you a whole new perspective on the game. Attending a professional clinic with top-tier coaches can be a major step forward for your coaching career.
6. Learn New Drills & Techniques
With the advent of video sharing platforms such as YouTube, you have unprecedented access to various drills and techniques to better improve your coaching repertoire. Building your knowledge in these areas will be directly translatable to the field where your players will benefit from it. New football drills and techniques can be learned in so many ways: clinics, camps, online webinars, YouTube videos, and observing other coaches. Learn as much as you can and it will be of great value to you as a coach.
7. Know Your Offensive/Defensive/Special Teams Scheme
Even if you’re a position coach, you should understand the full scope, capabilities, and objectives of your team’s entire strategy. It will build your knowledge of the game and help you in the future in case you’re seeking a position of greater responsibility within your own team or looking for a new position with another organization. Your fellow coaches will respect you for your depth of knowledge and understanding, they’ll be more likely to seek your advice on game day, and management will be more inclined to offer you a coordinator or head coaching position in the future. If you one day seek to become a head coach (or already are one), it’s vital that you know your team’s entire strategy so you can make informed decisions and give guidance to players and coaches at every opportunity.
8. Learn How to Coach Every Position
Just as it’s important to gain an understanding of your team’s entire strategy, it’s also essential that you learn how to coach every position on the field. If you don’t, you’re severely limiting your players’ development. If you are the team’s linebackers coach and you can learn how to coach receivers as well, the team now benefits from an additional receivers coach. You’re providing greater value to your players, and you may see something that their position coach does not. If you’re ever looking to get a better coaching job within your own team or elsewhere, it’s important that you add multiple positions to your résumé. Almost every coach in the NFL has coached multiple positions before landing in the league, as they’ve needed to be flexible to take advantage of new positions opening up and they need to provide greater value to the team than simply coaching their own position. If you don’t yet know how to coach multiple positions, turn this from a weakness into an advantage.
9. Stay Up-to-Date With New Trends
New formations, strategies, and plays come out all the time. The best coaches learn about them as often as they can and try to adapt different ideas to their own team. A new trick play could be the difference between winning and losing a game; a new punting formation could give you a big advantage in protection and field position; and a new blitz package could completely stun the opposing offense for a full half. Learn and understand the advantages of theses plays, strategies, and formations: they could go a long way to helping your team surprise its opponents. The best way to do this is to watch NFL and college football, with a strong emphasis on the latter as they are usually more prone to trying new things.
My friend Sam Farmer, NFL columnist for the Los Angeles Times, expertly said “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” He’s absolutely right – if you’re using antiquated systems and not staying ahead of various trends in the game of football (or anywhere else in life), you’ll find yourself developing a reputation of being well passed your time.
10. Learn to Better Evaluate Your Player Personnel
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen from coaches is when they try to force the players they have into the system the coach knows the best. This is a surefire way to get yourself fired. Your objective is to put the 11 best players on the field at all costs. This means that you need to evaluate your player personnel and identify a strategy and formation that utilizes your talent. If you have excellent receivers, you should not be running a Wing-T formation. If you have great cover corners, you should not be running Cover 2. If you have a great tight end, you should not be running a 4-wide set. Don’t force your players into a system that doesn’t fit them. The responsibility is on you to apply the previous lessons to build your football knowledge and place them in a system that brings out the best in them. A smart coach knows how to adapt a system to his players, rather than his players to his system.
BONUS: Stay Open-Minded
One thing you learn as a coach, just like you do as a player, is that there is always someone out there doing it better than you. Whether it’s because they have created a new offensive or defensive system, they’ve developed a unique organizational structure, or they’ve hired the best assistant coaches around, these coaches can teach you something new about the game of football. These things can be learned directly (communicating in-person or via e-mail, attending clinics, etc.) or indirectly (watching their team play on TV or in person, reading articles about them, etc.), and you should try to soak up as much information as possible. There is always something new out there and you should stay open-minded when hearing about new ideas. If you don’t, someone else will.
Is there anything you’d add to this list? Do you have a good story about how one of these suggestions has proved to be an advantage for you? Please let us know in the comments section below.