COACH’S CORNER: What makes a good assistant coach?

Over the years, I have been very fortunate to work alongside many successful coaches and programs.

One of the most significant factors in a football program’s success is the quality and character of assistant coaches. Today, many head coaches are overburdened with administrative issues that are outside of their control. A successful assistant coach’s demands have increased over the last 15 years on the high school level due to those administrative demands.

There are several qualities an assistant coach must demonstrate to promote program success and class. 

Work Ethic: The most successful high school assistant coaches have a blue-collar-like mentality towards coaching. They come from all walks of life.

Due to more and more assistants being lay coaches, they have different levels of time to dedicate to the program. A typical week has assistants putting in a lot of time away from practice. They will have differentiated abilities to learn schemes, spent time scouting, watched HUDL, and prepared specifics for each opponent.

It is evident that football is no longer a four-month sport, but rather an all-year commitment. Football can become all-encompassing; assistants must strive to maintain some sense of life balance. A high-quality assistant will be pro-active and pass these qualities down to their players. 

For each assistant, the time spent on the game must be of the utmost quality – thorough and planned. The prepared and intense practice periods an assistant lead promote a strong work ethic, mastery of skill and understanding of their position.

Knowledge of Assignments: Assistants must know and master the knowledge of their position. This knowledge then must be aligned with the higher-level schemes and purposes of the program. There are few, if any, excuses an assistant can have to lack in this area.

It is the job of an assistant to develop a teaching and communication progression that players understand and execute on the field. If an assistant coach disagrees with a coordinator or head coach about an assignment, that is OK. Still, when it comes to communicating with your players, you must relay the expectations and ensure execution.

Burning Desire for Excellence: A head coach must hold assistants accountable to a standard of having a passion for constant improvement. That passion is the desire to achieve excellence. An assistant coach’s players are a direct reflection of the teaching and ability to communicate expectations. If players are not improving week to week, an assistant must adapt and use all their resources to execute a solution. They must keep track of the specifics of improvement and the ‘why’ behind it. Those notes will allow for reflection at the appropriate time. They will be invaluable down the road. 

Desire to Win: Coaches are not just here to aid players’ progression into dependable, honest members of society. They need to educate players about society’s obsession with winners.  Winning is important, which is why we keep score.

Winning must become essential to the players as much as it to the coaches. Every individual puts countless time, effort, sweat and tears for it. When losing occurs, it must leave the feeling of anguish in your stomach. That discomfort drives improvement.

Preparation: Previously, we addressed a blue-collar work ethic. Hard work and preparation are the cornerstone characteristics of the blue-collar standard. Nothing can replace either attribute in the pursuit of excellence.

All good things come from hard work. It is not very often the best 11 players play are the only players on the field for one team on a Friday night. If you are on the shorthanded side of talent, the primary differentiator is coaching. It is possible to out scheme your opponent.

Still, the primary factor that goes into chipping away at a talent deficit is preparation. Through hard work, excellent preparation and discipline, assistant coaches can best prepare their athletes. Coaches must model and execute these qualities to instill them into their players.

Success on game day directly correlates to the relationship of preparation done during practice and adjustments made during the game.

Demeanor: Assistant coaches are the direct connection to a football program for almost all players. Athletes will remember what a head coach represents, but the relationship they develop with assistants are the most memorable.

As such, assistant coaches must carry themselves as first-class citizens and gentlemen. Assistants will disagree at times with their head coaches, and discussion behind closed doors should be encouraged. These disagreements do not entitle an assistant coach to attack coaches, players or ideas in a rude or public manner, particularly on social media. Negative emotional outbursts set a horrible precedent for players and encourage unnecessary divisions within a program.

There is a significant difference between discussing and fighting. One is a complete waste of time, and the other is beneficial to a greater purpose.

As an assistant coach, you are a role model for your players and parents. Many assistants are parents themselves of players within a program. Be the positive change you want to see. The success of the players and program is also the assistant coaches’ success. An assistant’s personal lives are their own. If it becomes a detrimental factor in derailing the players’ success and the program, then that coach should be dismissed. I will never understand how an assistant coach would wish to undermine success to feel better about themselves.

Assistants must take the time and effort to make football a positive experience. They should appropriately correct and point out deficiencies in technique, effort, and execution.

There are times to help correct personal weaknesses about character and actions; this helps individual growth. Those conversations should never occur in front of other student-athletes and should never be demeaning.

Loyalty: Loyalty is the No. 1 characteristic of what makes an excellent assistant coach. It is not just refraining from saying negative comments about any aspect of our program. That is just a small aspect of the ideal of loyalty. Loyalty is defending our program from attack. 

We live in a very cynical society, and people will find fault with a football program regardless of how good it is. If coaches maintain an open communication line, they will have an appropriate channel to voice differences in private or behind closed doors.

There will be times when people outside of the program disagree with a head coach’s decision. An assistant may hear it from parents, friends, media or a litany of other places.

Loyalty is something that must be practiced and preached when challenged with any of the discussions. Commitment to loyalty is a foundational premise for any program, and assistants must be willing to praise and pass on opportunities to criticize others. This communication standard can be challenging to follow, mostly when hard times occur.

Loyalty is genuinely one of the most critical factors in achieving long-term success. Do not underestimate what loyalty can do in your everyday life. (marriage, work, friendships, etc.)

No players, coaches, administrators, parents,or support staff are more important than the TEAM. The coaching staff must execute everything they can control to help each other deal with issues and promote success. Any assistant who diverges from that path should not be an assistant coach.

It means something special to be a football coach. People will know who you are and what you represent. Outsiders continually watch coaches. Always be mindful of your actions and what you say. Assistants who hold themselves to the highest standards will not only be successful, but drive generations of future coaches and players along the way.

Yours in the Pursuit of Excellence,

Pete Kempf

P.S. A special recognition for this article goes to Rief Gilg, current principal of Huntington North High School. Years ago, Rief provided me with books, materials, resources, friendship, and guidance that enabled me to grow into a higher quality individual. Coach Gilg initially composed the specific attributes above. The descriptions have been rewritten several times over the last decade-plus.

Coach’s Corner is a weekly feature at Outside the Huddle written by Pete Kempf, former DeKalb High School head football coach. Coach’s Corner appears every Monday during the prep football season. These opinions represent those of the writer. No opinions expressed on Outside the Huddle represent those of any of our advertisers. 

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