Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class on student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina during the spring 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
Student-athletes tend to be very competitive and most hope their first real jobs will be as professional athletes. While a lucky few will be able to earn a living by playing their sports, most student-athletes will not have that chance. Of those not selected to play professional sports, many consider coaching at the collegiate level to be an obvious career choice, because it allows them to utilize their athletic strengths and remain in a competitive environment. Unfortunately, many of these students do not understand how to properly position themselves to acquire collegiate coaching positions. The purpose of this article is to inform academic advisers about the barriers to obtaining coaching positions and to share steps that student-athletes should follow in order to secure coaching jobs at colleges or universities.
Barriers to Obtaining Coaching Positions
Many barriers exist for student-athletes seeking collegiate coaching jobs. First, the number of coaching positions is limited. It may seem on the surface that there are hundreds of schools that have teams with multiple coaches. This is true; however, the catch is that there are exponentially more student-athletes who desire to enter the coaching field than there are positions to be filled. Once a former student-athlete enters the coaching field, he or she tends to stay in the coaching profession.
Another significant barrier to entry is that usually either the head coach or the athletic director makes the hiring decisions. This is an advantage for those who are well connected, but to others who do not know many head coaches or athletic directors, this is a disadvantage. Coaches and athletic directors prefer to hire those whom they know personally or who have significant coaching résumés. Since most student-athletes have little coaching experience, they need to focus on expanding their networks.
How to Advise Student-Athletes Planning to Seek Collegiate Coaching Positions
To address the barriers listed above, student-athletes can take certain steps during college to enhance their chances of obtaining collegiate coaching positions.
Have a Good Rationale behind Desire to Coach
First, advisers need to talk to student-athletes about the reasons they want to coach and why they think they would be effective coaches. Successful coaches are not a dime a dozen, and although coaches do not all share the same qualities and characteristics, the following list of skills and qualifications offers a good starting point for student-athletes to consider. Coaches need to be organized, able to efficiently manage others, and able to make critical decisions in real time while under pressure. Coaches need to be able to earn the respect of their players and also serve as great motivators. They should be effective recruiters by connecting with both high school coaches and players. Recruiting for college sports has become increasingly important in recent years (Sander, 2008). In addition, since effective coaches invest long hours in their work, they must have a strong passion for the sport and supportive families. Without the requisite passion and family support, coaches will burn out and ultimately fail. Advisers, in conjunction with the student-athlete's current coaching staff, can encourage student-athletes to assess whether they have the skills mentioned above.
Because coaches tend to hire people they know, student-athletes should be encouraged to intentionally build networks during their collegiate careers. Making contacts with coaches within the athlete's respective sport is essential. Not only do athletes need to know their own coaches, but they also need to learn about and meet as many coaches from other institutions as possible.
Networking is a skill that can be learned and used by anyone. Harvey Mackay's (1997) book, Dig Your Well Before You're Thirsty, is an excellent resource on developing and refining networking skills. One of his maxims is, Your best network will develop from what you do best (Mackay, p. 49). Potential coaches will develop their best network within their sport's coaching field. This may seem to be common sense, but a network will develop from a strong interest in becoming a coach. Student-athletes should let their coaches know of their interest in pursuing coaching opportunities, because coaches can communicate this to their friends and colleagues. Not all college coaches or athletic directors are easily accessible but are approachable to those they trust within their own network. Thus the student-athlete can begin to create opportunities.
Use Career Center Resources
Most institutions provide resources within the school to help prepare student-athletes for coaching professions. For example, using the institution's career center can help student-athletes explore alternate careers that allow them to utilize their strengths and skills. In addition, career center staff members can help student-athletes create well-tailored résumés that highlight their coaching qualifications and transferrable skill sets. Résumés for coaching positions are not vastly different than those for a typical business position, although résumés for coaching positions should highlight athletic achievements and experiences. The career center staff can also help student-athletes craft compelling cover letters and compile reference lists that include the names of coaches who can speak to the student-athletes' skills and abilities.
Seek Graduate Assistantships
In many college sports, especially football and basketball, entry-level coaching positions are filled by graduate-assistant coaches. These positions require student-athletes to be eligible for admission to graduate school. Thus, academic advisers need to advise student-athletes that graduate schools typically require higher GPAs than the minimum required to graduate from a bachelor's degree program. Student-athletes must be sure that they will graduate before starting a graduate-assistant coaching position. Advisers need to encourage student-athletes to major in something that they enjoy, yet also permit them to deal with the time constraints associated with their athletic endeavors (Wolverton, 2007). Academic advisers can also help student-athletes identify potential master's degree programs that they can pursue while serving as graduate-assistant coaches. Also, student-athletes need to be aware of the graduate admissions tests they may be required to take in order to be accepted into graduate programs.
Establish Relationships with Current Coaches and Teammates
Some of the best networking opportunities and coaching experiences that student-athletes receive can come from their current coaches and teammates. Again, student-athletes should be vocal about their interests and let their coaches and teammates know they plan to pursue collegiate coaching positions after graduation. Student-athletes can volunteer to contribute extra hours outside of practice, perhaps helping their coaches break down and review files. Any extra time spent with the coaching staff will help student-athletes better understand the way coaches think and plan. These experiences can greatly enhance student-athletes' knowledge of the sport beyond what they learn on the field. Special opportunities might include learning new positions and techniques not covered in practice or examining other coaching initiatives by watching videotapes of games.
Coaches can also relay to the student-athlete the qualities they look for in a new hire. Teammates and former teammates are important sources of information as well. Student-athletes should be encouraged to contact alumni who are in the coaching profession, listen to their stories about reaching their current positions, and ask for their advice and assistance.
Read Books about Successful Coaches
Student-athletes should be encouraged to read biographies and autobiographies of coaching legends. Reading these books can provide important insights into the ways great coaches motivate their teams to be successful. For example, Buddy Martin's Urban's Way (2008) details how University of Florida football coach, Urban Meyer, preaches family values to his team. By reading these types of books, student-athletes can begin to develop their own coaching philosophies and bring fresh ideas to their teams. The coaching theories and strategies that are found in these books are often timeless.
Work at Summer Camps
Most college athletic teams and many high schools sponsor summer camps for youth. Working at these camps allows student-athletes to acquire hands-on coaching experience. This kind of participation is crucial because it allows student-athletes to determine if they enjoy coaching, increases their knowledge of the sport, and tests the effectiveness of their coaching styles.
Camps also provide a great means to network with coaches from other institutions. A camp allows student-athletes to showcase their skills and abilities as coaches in a practical setting. Young coaches who are able to stand out among their peers at a camp gain an advantage when the time comes to secure a coaching position.
Be a Student of the Sport
Finally, student-athletes should be encouraged to critically watch their sports as much as possible to gain more exposure to them. This might include watching a game on television or attending professional, intercollegiate, or high school contests. This can be difficult to accomplish while in school and actively participating on a team, but it can be done. The more exposure they can get to different coaching styles and strategies the better able they will be to understand the subtleties of the game. Often the team that takes better care of the details wins the game. Learning as an observer to notice the sport's subtleties will in turn translate into more successful decision making as a coach.
Clearly, entry into the coaching field is not an easy task. It requires a lot of work and desire on the part of student-athletes. Academic advisers can partner with student-athletes to help them make their coaching dreams a reality. By guiding student-athletes through the steps outlined in this article, student-athletes will learn how to make the most of their experiences as undergraduate student-athletes. Academic advisers and student-athletes can work together to position student-athletes to be successful candidates for collegiate coaching positions.