Thoughts from a Coaching Perspective

Brendan Ryan
Redlands Community College

Volume: 15
Article first published online: July 22, 2013
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1561281

Keywords: advising; coaching; perspective

My background is in coaching, not advising. Since my childhood in Canada, I have wanted to be involved in sports, and for the past twelve years, this dream has come true. I have coached at a number of different levels throughout the United States. Throughout my coaching career, I have worked with brilliantly innovative coaches, as well as those who made me cringe. I have made many mistakes and learned several key lessons that have evolved to become my system of coaching. This article outlines the coaching lessons I have learned that I think will help professionals become better advisers and coaches.

Thoughts about good coaches and advisers

The great news about coaching and advising is that there is a clear litmus test for success in both: If you add enough value to create improvement, then you are effective in your role. The bad news is that such a standard makes it very difficult to be an outstanding coach or adviser. It also means a poorly prepared coach or adviser will struggle to achieve success.

The first big choice

As coaches and advisers, we must remember that selecting and enrolling in college or university is often the first major academic decision a student makes. Unfortunately, in my experience, a significant number of high school students are not prepared to make an informed decision, because too many come from low-structure, high-input environments. The result includes unrealistic expectations of fairness and equality, which, in the long term, manifests into difficulty adjusting to the college environment.

As coaches and/or advisers, we must support our students in this transition by helping them increase their capacity to think critically. In my experience this often means that students need to become more resilient and realize that the situation is not always going to work out in their favor.

Building rapport — knowing your student

For both coaches and advisers, people are their core business. Being in the business of humanity is special, because everyone is unique and has a different portfolio of strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, and paths forward. The key to effective coaching or advising is to understand how each of these interacts with another to create a certain circumstance (this means each student and issue is unique and must be considered individually and with a clear process). It makes sense to start this process by gathering information. For the coach or adviser, it means getting the student to outline the problem in detail. Interestingly, I have found that students under 25 years old often fall victim to what I call the 60 percent rule; that is, at the best of times, they tell adults 60 percent of the story. Therefore, I recommend during this phase to ask a lot of questions and gather accurate and complete information. Failure to do this will distort the rest of the process.

Next, the student and adviser or coach should consider the information and discuss the possible paths forward, as well as determine how realistic these options are. During this phase the coach/adviser must do two important things. First, the coach/adviser must insist that everyone be completely present and involved. For my players, I created a process called SALE (seeking resolution, acknowledging reality, looking at options, and engaging in finding a solution).  Second the coach/adviser cannot be afraid to say “I do not know” or “let me think about it.” Too many coaches are in a hurry to prescribe solutions. I suggest that you take the majority of the time, especially early in your career, to diagnose. For me this often includes taking a full day to consider all the options before I give a response. When I started doing this, I was taking time might undermine my authority. However as the years have passed, I see how it has helped my creditability by enabling me to give better answers. Better answers lead to more respect and credibility, and both are key if you want stronger relationships with students.

The opposite of the process described above is a term I call “methods.” Methods are broad generalizations that lack a proper process by which coaches and advisers can diagnose. The results are often skewed understandings of cause and correlation, which can lead to poor advice. Methods are often manifested by coaches or advisers who lack proper training, are in over demand, lack the concern to help, or reflect a combination of these elements. In each case, methods are dangerous alternatives to proper planning.

Balancing the reality

After establishing a common ground, the second most important thing a coach should do is to precisely gauge the student’s skill set and actively identify the starting point, much the same way an adviser does when establishing a student’s strengths, interests, and academic history. This baseline provides the adviser with the tools to appropriately recommend foundational course work for the student. Creating this baseline provides an important precursor to the next stage—implementing the structure to achieve the plan. Without the baseline starting point, the next stage is very arbitrary and leads back to trying to establish trust and common ground.

The process of establishing this baseline is tricky. It has been my experience that students often have a narrow understanding of their personal portfolio, as well as a need for instant gratification. In golf, this is often a result of technical teachers who see students as renewable resources for lesson revenue. In advising, it can be a result of overbearing parents or the inflated standards of high school curricula, including grading. Battling these problems is not easy and requires a plan of action. For my team, this plan involves a long-term development model created in the form of a ladder. The bottom of the ladder is labeled “average college player,” and the top of the ladder is “Ladies Professional Golf Association major champion.” The ladder has ten different rungs designed to provide a specific, measurable set of benchmarks for both skills and results that students must achieve to pass to the next phase.

A metaphor that relates to the performance ladder is water. The idea is to have success in the creek, pond, river, lake, and eventually the ocean. By allowing students to succeed at each level, we can make sure when they reach the ocean they are capable, adaptable, self-confident individuals with the skills necessary to contribute.

When speaking to my students about the model, I often use the example of the two best physical golfers in the modern era; Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie. Dominant physical ability is all they have in common. As of this writing, Tiger Woods has won seventy-eight PGA tour events over sixteen years, compared to Michelle Wie’s winning two in the past seven years. The difference between the two golfers is their success demonstrated at each level—Tiger Woods learned the requirements for success at each level (local, sectional, state, region, national, and international). By gaining this experience, he learned the technical, physical, and emotional skills necessary to dominate that level. Once he dominated, he moved on to the next level, eventually becoming the most dominant golfer in the modern era.

Implementing the structure to achieve the plan

Once you have identified common ground and established a baseline, the last step in the process is to help the student build the structure that will allow them to achieve the goals. To help the students on my team, I use a training method called periodization. My goal is to teach the students that the process of success involves learning the skills to achieve a desired outcome. To achieve the outcome, we must first make sure they have the technical skills to play golf. For the students, this means they must attend class, take notes, and complete readings. The next step is enacting pre-competition or creating simulations of game-like situations. For my team, this means practicing or playing games in which students must achieve a desired outcome in the face of an underlying threat great enough to stimulate tension and pressure. For example, a player might have to make fifty putts in a row from a distance of five feet. At any time if the player misses, then she must start again from zero. For the student, it might mean doing a practice test until she can make a desired score. Failure to do so could result in an hour of additional studying, perhaps completing the chapter review with a score of 90 percent under proper testing conditions (silence, no help, set amount of time, etc.).

The next step is competition, or for advisers, it might mean academic performance. Scores are the litmus test for planning; they give you immediate feedback. However, in evaluating the outcome, it is particularly important for the coach/adviser to differentiate between the first two stages of periodization. Often students or golfers are labelled as having poor technical skills when the problem is really a lack of diligent preparation. When communicating with the student, it is extremely important for coaches and advisers to recognize the problem and avoid creating tension, self-doubt, or image problems for the player/student.

After interpreting the results, the coach and player should set a new plan. The player/student should understand timelines and have access to programs to increase skills in either technical or pre-competition areas or both. Such adjustments should show some immediate improvement, followed by a steadier, more long-term increase in performance.

With the new plan in place, the student and adviser should spend a day or two away from this effort. Please note this needs to be a relaxing and rejuvenating time, focusing on gaining perspective and energy. All are core elements of continued success.


Brendan M. Ryan is the assistant coach for women’s golf at Redlands Community College in El Reno, Oklahoma. He can be reached at