Most would think college basketball coaches spend all their time coaching their team. But dealing with a range of confusing stakeholders and multiple responsibilities gets in the way. This means coaching coaches has to be multi-dimensional and varied depending upon their context, purpose, attitude, relationships and behaviors. That’s hard work. The lessons are applicable in any situation in which people get coached – athletics, business or other.

At Johnny and Felicia Hall Allen’s overlapping Step Up, Next Level and Head Coaches Academy programs, college basketball coaches and athletic directors share highs and lows, learn from a range of outside speakers and build relationships with each other. Some ideas from this year’s program which I was fortunate enough to attend:


College athletic competition varies by levels. In general, the most powerful division I schools place much more emphasis on win-loss records than do other colleges. This is further complicated by coaches at different schools needing to be involved in fundraising, community relations, broader university projects as well as dealing with staffing and recruiting all the time. So different coaches’ contexts are different.


Coaches need to align all around a complete definition of winning. The win-loss record is always part of that. But great coaches care about much more. As Loyola of Chicago’s Sister Jean said “It’s about life skills, not basketball skills.” It is about transforming lives whether that means keeping players safe, supporting academic achievement, relationships or a whole range of other things.


There are two parts to how to win: 1) executing plays and 2) team culture. Both pivot off attitude.

Great coaches have their own approach to long-term staff and player development. They do future capability planning, succession planning and contingency planning. They plan their offense, defense, transitions and special teams. Then they execute with appropriate levels of tactical flexibility, changing plays and players in the game to take advantage of changing situations and opportunities.

Building team culture is complicated. At the college level, people are on the team for no more than four years. So coaches and teams are always moving players (and coaches and staff) into, through, and out of their team and culture.

There are as many different frameworks for culture as there are coaches. As you look across John Wooden of UCLA’s eight principles, Pat Summit of Tennessee’s Definite Dozen, and the 5 Keys Kentucky’s Lin Dunn shared with us, there are several recurring themes: Trust, respect, responsibility, loyalty, communications, discipline, hard work, attention to discipline.

One tricky question is how to instill or change a culture – fast and superficial or slow and deep. One way to break the trade-off is dictating behaviors to start to instill habits while laying the value and attitudinal framework foundation required to sustain those behaviors over time at the same time.


Relationships and emotional connections are the heart of leadership. There can be no winning team without strong, complementary, inter-dependent relationships. As a coach, the most important relationships are the ones between teammates. Coaches need to inspire and enable those. And they need to build their own relationships with players, coaches, staff, university members, donors, sponsors, supporters and the community at large.

Todd Gongwer makes a compelling case that prevailing cultural norms, exacerbated by digital media, expose the current generation of players to a constant barrage of self-centered, fickle, quick-fix hungry, entitled, self-promotional, independent and distracted norms. These norms work directly against that which is required to be a member of an elite team. Coaches must become much more intentional in developing the heart and character of the athlete to counteract the effects of these societal norms.


It’s all theoretical gibberish until things actually happen. Brian Kight talks about the difference between discipline and default. Disciplined behavior is intentional, on-purpose, skillful, and does produce the desired elite impact. Conversely, default behavior is impulsive, on autopilot, resistant, and does not produce the desired impact reliably. He goes on to suggest behavioral coaching should be simple, systematic and timeless. Simple gets executed. Systems allow people to execute simple skills in complex environments with a high degree of confidence.