COACH’S CORNER: What goes into a ‘coaching philosophy’?

Former DeKalb coach Pete Kempf speaks with quarterback Evan Eshbach during the 2019 season.

A head coaching philosophy empowers or destroys a program.

When becoming an educator and head coach, one must embrace not what they want, but what they want others to achieve. We must continue to push our players and develop them as individuals. Football should focus on building processes that help young men become great sons, brothers, future fathers, husbands and, most importantly, productive citizens.

Making a personal philosophy supporting this altruistic ideal is the foundation of what drives a successful long-term program.

There are several critical areas of focus when constructing a foundational coaching philosophy. These action points may be different for each coach, but the objective is the same – to build a foundation for continued growth and success.

The following are several areas of personal focus.

One is understanding your personal why behind the philosophy statement.

Second is to know that a transparent philosophy statement promotes a solid first impression and easy buy-in.

The third is to have a clear connection between the philosophy and program organization. 

Lastly, know how to support your players growing as leaders.

A philosophy statement must be supported by a rock-solid foundation when built. These are the non-negotiables. The desire to prepare each player with the confidence to face any challenge, I believe, is a coach’s primary motivation. Football is a vehicle to develop exceptional people. Football is not an excuse to use kids as objects to create a winning team. The dedication, accountability, and hard work that each student-athlete puts in to accomplish a goal are remarkable tools for them to use to learn about how to live more successful, productive lives. 

The following non-negotiables drove the goals that I want my coaching to accomplish: 

1. Build confidence, self-esteem, and a feeling of contribution within each person involved in the program 

2. Encourage open and honest communication from all team members. 

3. Respect the dignity and diversity of each person on the team. 

4. Commit to unity through firm leadership principals and trust in each other.  

 The first encounter is paramount for students-athletes, parents, and the community to buy into a program. The philosophy statement is the initial evaluation window for individuals looking from the outside. The philosophy statement must demonstrate genuine concern for well-being. People must feel a sense of security that the program promotes a platform for positive future experiences.

By effectively and transparently communicating their foundational beliefs, a coach will be able to reach hearts both on and off the field. Players and parents will know that your interest in their well-being is genuine. 

When an environment for students to learn is correct, the arena is set for students to acquire knowledge. This knowledge provides confidence. Confidence has enough experience that allows one to feel comfortable in any situation. To feel comfortable in any case enables student-athletes to make proper decisions that impact their life, no matter how big or small. A properly constructed philosophy statement creates the basis for this environment.

A program philosophy must create a vision for both in and out of season. That vision needs to connect and support the program organization. Building a successful program lies within the ability to communicate and apply the philosophy to specific components. Those components are a vital portion of the program foundation.

Focus on these elements ensures excellence can be secured and maintained where it matters most. The program can endure failures and the team can best support individual trials and tribulations.

The following areas are personal areas of focus in which I believe are most important. These component descriptions are a paired-down version from my head coaching interview manual. I do reserve descriptions of several points for the future.

Attitude and Focus: Our program shall foster the building of a strong mental and physical attitude. We must expect excellence. Attitude demands focus. Forget the past and concentrate on what we are going to do now. Leave no stones unturned to outwork your opponent. Attitude is about developing confidence. To be the best, you must live a lifestyle to achieve it.

Process to Excellence: Constant communication of expectations is paramount in building and maintaining a championship-caliber program. Expect great results to happen. Talk about it. Think about it. Have faith in it. Players and coaches should always communicate what excellence looks like and keep each other accountable.

Yearly objectives must set a clear standard that the program must exemplify. The players and coaches will change over time. These changes require an adjusted way to communicate that standard. Expectations should always be our goal; we must work to achieve our core areas of focus.

Develop Mental Toughness: Mental toughness must be addressed in all facets in preparing for the season. The little things must be executed while in the weight room, on the track, in the classroom, in team meetings, watching film or practicing. Mental toughness is not solely inborn. One must earn it. Our athletes must take coaching, and our coaches must demand our athletes to follow our team expectations. Coaches themselves must go the extra mile to make sure the little things are non-issues.  

Athletic Development: Commitment to the weight room and in the classroom is a daily expectation. Champions are made and maintained in these areas. Strength and quickness drills must compliment and schemes.  

Intensity: A high level of enthusiasm and competitiveness is the only accepted norm. We must all push each other and work at each of our peaks. Never be satisfied, give all-out effort, all the time. Coaches and players must always expect more of themselves.  

Unity: Always “US,” not me. Make being on the team the most significant experience of our athletic lives. We are fortunate; we have been allowed to be a part of this football program. Working hard together creates the unity of the team. Encourage each other to work harder. Do not lie to someone who is not putting in the effort expected of them. Within our brotherhood, we demand excellence, not allow mediocrity. The harder we work together, the harder it is to surrender. If your investment is not that great, then you should consider joining a different program.

The Differentiators: Always communicate with student-athletes the difference between them and us. We will work harder. We will be more disciplined. No lazy behavior will be accepted. We will sweat the small stuff and expect the little thing to be executed. Continually executing small details is not the societal norm. If we are the champions we desire, our success, attitude, and work habits are all choices we must make daily. Make the right choice to improve yourself and improve our program.

Education: Our priorities as a program start in the classroom. Someday football will be ripped away from us (seems valid more now than ever). Only a few lucky players will get to play in college, even fewer beyond that. But no one can steal your education. Your high school experience will be exactly what you make it. No teacher, administrator, coach, parent or friend can derail you from your mission. Academics will always take precedent over athletics. The program and academics shall work hand in hand. Establishing discipline starts in the classroom. Possessing discipline in the classroom transitions to discipline on the game field.

Football is a part of a total education program. It should both complement and contribute to the overall educational and athletic process. For many student-athletes, it is the most significant climate for learning the invaluable lessons of personal integrity. Individual and group responsibilities, the desire to achieve high goals, will be our program’s primary objectives.

Lastly, to encourage emotional growth, a leadership program or character development program must be implemented. This program must represent the coaching philosophy and promote growth in becoming a productive citizen. This leadership pyramid was a small part of our overall leadership development process at DeKalb. The following is written as it addressed to our coaching staff:

It is imperative to remember, as coaches, we cannot make the decisions for every youth in our program. You can only assist people in making the right choices. Each one of us influences each other, whether we like it or not. Therefore, we all fall under some category of leadership. The “Leadership Pyramid” displayed here displays five leadership categories that apply to our program. The persistent pursuit of excellence creates a winning environment. Always communicate a positive, consistent message of moving up the pyramid. 

At the bottom of the pyramid is a downward-facing triangle for the category of ‘narcissists.’ Narcissists are people, inside or outside our program, who bad mouth and attempt to consistently bring down our efforts and its members. If they are our student-athletes or coaches, they need to be handled or removed. On occasion, a parent or co-worker can be an active detriment to our mission.  Those people work very hard to tear you, players, coaches or other school members down to make them feel better about themselves.

If this detrimental influence comes from outside your football family, it can be tough to handle. As a coach, you must do your best to be professional and communicate our message and pursuit with that person. It is imperative to understand the best teaching methods and environment. Being consistent with your mission and positive at all times in your demeanor is the only action you can control when dealing with people who wish to tear down your program. 

“Followers” are a step above those who choose to live in self-absorption. These student-athletes are leaders by example; however, they are unaware of their influence. They mostly go along with the actions of the masses. These individuals have not yet fully bought into the program, but they show up to everything because they enjoy being a part of something or searching for a sense of belonging. Teenage athletes can be easily swayed either direction in their effort to find their identity. Reliable communication from your football staff and players with “followers” is a must, so they understand how important they are, and we care. We must continuously work to influence all within our program positively.

“I’m In: For Me” vs. “I’m In: For Us” is a constant battle in individuals who have bought into the program to decide if they are there for themselves or the team. If our entire team falls into the ‘For Us’ category, it will always be a positive environment for young men to pursue excellence. The individuals who fall into the ‘For Me’ category work hard and tend not to bring anybody else down. However, when it comes to crunch time, they do not have the team’s best interest at heart and are not the players who you want to depend on when necessary.  Any individual outside of the program who has bought in is a good thing. It is essential to know who is in it “For Us” or “For Me.” The ones in it “For Us” are the individuals who we might honor as the head of a parent club or honorary coach of the week. 

At the apex of the pyramid are the ‘generals.’ These are your torchbearers. They are leaders when there seems to be no light. The torchbearers are the small group of individuals who carry the torch out front. They are hard workers and vocal enforcers who are intrinsically motivated for all the right reasons. Your head coach must fall into this category. If he is not, your program has no solid foundation. Each class from senior to freshman might have one or two of these torchbearers. The coaching staff and leadership development program’s job is to lift more young men into this category.  

Lastly, a program must implement a leadership or character development program to encourage emotional growth. This program must represent the coaching philosophy and promote change to grow in becoming a productive citizen. This leadership pyramid was a small part of our overall leadership development process at DeKalb.

In conclusion, a coaching philosophy may seem trivial. We have all observed mission or philosophy statements written on a wall just for decoration. A philosophy must be lived in every aspect of any program to move from average to good, good to great, or pursue excellence relentlessly.

These are just a few aspects and examples of how. The process will be slightly different for each coach and program, but the goal is the same – to make football one hell of an experience that will help young people pursue a more significant purpose later in life.

Yours in the Pursuit of Excellence,

Pete Kempf

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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