10 Attributes That Make a Great Coach

An image showing Yale Men's Rowing head coach Steve Gladstone speaking with the crew at the Head Of The Charles
Yale's Steve Gladstone with the crew in Boston (Photo: Nick Trojan)

Having toured the club circuit, I've been coached by a number of great athletes and leaders. Along the way, each coach contributed something specific to the overall picture, and each did so in a different way. I know this is a common experience, and over the years I've often mused about what features most stood out for me, in a positive way, among all my former coaches. Is it possible to list such attributes? Or are there too many intangibles, like personality and even manner of speaking, that play an important role? I figured I would take a crack at making a list:

1. Confidence

For others to believe in what you are teaching, you need to believe in it yourself, and this takes the form of confidence. This is not to be confused with arrogance, which prevents a coach from improving. Confidence simply means that you have faith in your abilities and in the validity of your plan or training program.

2. Consistency

Rowing styles will vary, but the coach that brings a consistent approach will always be able to get more out of his athletes than one who is constantly changing his vision. Almost any approach can work, as long as you can clearly define how you want the technique executed and you are consistent about what you want to see.

3. Communication

Clearly defined technique is also dependent on communication. A good coach needs to be able to say the same thing in a wide variety of ways, so that it makes sense to each individual, and helps each rower to figure out how to be part of the whole.

4. Adaptability

This is to be distinguished from capriciousness, which keeps rowers off balance and makes for a confusing environment. Adaptability is the skill to work with what you've got in the most effective way possible. It's not wholesale change of philosophy or technical approach, but it can be a change in the gearing of the oars depending on the size and weight of your crew, or race-planning in response to adverse conditions/knowledge of your opponents. It's the ability to engage with a problem, and, using the tools available, be they physical or metaphysical, make the best of the situation for your team.

5. Toughness

Nobody wants to be a part of a team where the coach is begging people to stay. The best way to improve the numbers at any club is to have a hard-nosed, workmanlike ethic. Lead by example. That's not to say that you are brutal about cuts, but you must take a hard line and stick by it—your rowers will respect you and the culture of the boathouse will take on the same edge.

6. Goals

Approach your athletes with standards that they can look forward to achieving, whether its a personal best on the erg or championship performance in the Spring. If the goals are clear at the outset, then the work that it takes to achieve them will be seen as a natural part of the process. It's important to have an idea about standards as well, or benchmarks, that line the way as you progress toward that goal. Are you where you need to be at this point in the season to achieve x?

7. Vision

A good coach must be able to coach the entire boat as well as individual rowers. You must be able to see the big picture. If you spend all day picking apart individual technique rather than emphasizing what you'd like to see from the crew as a whole, you'll wind up with eight guys/girls rowing like eight individuals.

8. Knowledge

This is partly from experience and partly from having dedicated quite a bit of thought to the coaching process. I've seen fantastic rowers who have made atrocious coaches. Knowledge is not simply ability to row—it's the end result of having carefully considered every aspect of the stroke coupled with your own experience in trying to achieve technical excellence.

9. Expectations

You must expect a great deal from their athletes. If you set the bar high and expect that they will achieve what you are asking of them, they will, more often than not, achieve to their potential, which is success. If you assure them that they can't possibly progress that fast because they'll need loads of time to figure out how to row by eights/feather/build rate/execute a start sequence/whatever it may be, then chances are they are going to be pretty lousy at all those things.

10. Attitude

You are a leader. Your rowers want to look up to you, and they will if you are true to yourself and show them that you are not asking any more of them than you are of yourself. If you are doing everything that you can to help them achieve their goals, they will push themselves to the absolute limit for you, because it will be a relationship based on reciprocity.

There are plenty of things that could be added to this list—it's by no means comprehensive. However, in my opinion, these are the most important qualities that a coach can possess. How each one of us gets there is our own, individual journey.


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