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Real Talk: Learning Curves For Coaches

Written By: Jesse Moore

I am in my 14th season coaching Division 1 swimming and am in my first ever season as the head coach at Dartmouth College. Other head coaches or former head coaches always tell assistants who want to be head coaches that we are never ready for our first head coaching position – we learn as we go sort of like choosing our own adventure book. Well, they were right!

I started coaching in college athletics as a graduate assistant (Drexel), worked as a full time assistant (William and Mary, Duke), and an Associate Head Coach (Northwestern, Minnesota). The point of this is to say I have had a lot of assistant coaching opportunities. Through these experiences, I learned all of the basics from coaching, recruiting, team travel, alumni relations, community relations, to name a few. I really thought I had it all together because of the terrific professional experiences I had.

While I thought I did a great job as an assistant, I quickly realized that my great was good, and I had a learning gap as a head coach that would teach me how to be a greatly improved assistant coach. That was a tough pill to swallow because I was told I did a great job. I often did not get real or helpful feedback throughout the year or in my annual evaluations. I would ask for it, but I was told that I was great, and I let myself believe that I was great when in fact, I was good. I assumed, my ego grew, and I thought quite a few times, well if I have nothing else to learn, I must be ready to be a head coach, and I would probably do a better job than other head coaches.

I was so wrong. And in a very short amount of time as a new head coach (7 months now), I realized five things:

  1. Hiring the right assistant coaches and surrounding yourself with good people.

  2. Who you work for is key.

  3. With a role change of assistant to head coach, what you say and the way you deliver those words are critical to your relationships with your student-athletes.

  4. Your time is precious.

  5. Delegate or prepare to drown.

Hiring the Right Assistant Coaches/Surrounding Yourself with Good People

I did this right, which is a huge victory in my brain. I wanted behavioral diversity – people who would think, act, and do things differently than me. I didn’t realize how important this was until a few months after hiring. I have three assistant coaches and I spelled out what I was looking for in the hiring process directly. I told them how hard this would be, how busy they would be, and it is! In a group chat with my staff, we were texting about a recruit, and I said to one of my assistants, “we think very differently!”. That’s a strength – if you hire people who make you comfortable or you hire people who are just like you, then you are wasting your time. This isn’t a career that allows or has time for comfort. What’s important is that my assistants want the same things I do for the student-athletes and the program, they are trustworthy, and they make me feel supported. Outside of that, the more different we are the better.

Who You Work For is Key

In college sports, many administrators have no coaching experience, were not student-athletes, or in Division I, were not student-athletes at a high level. They can read books on leadership or coaching all day, they can do their job for multiple years, and the reality is, they were often mentored to not “get it” and they probably never will. In my 14 seasons so far, I have never heard of or seen any type of feedback system for our sport administrators either. Coaches are evaluated by student-athletes because our sport administrators think it’s important to give them a voice. Our sport administrators evaluate coaches, but why does that not go for evaluating our superiors? It makes no sense, and while I could talk A LOT about this topic, the point I am trying to make is that WHO you work for in this industry is so important. I am beyond blessed that my sport administrators were both Division I coaches at some point in their careers. They are teaching me, they are supporting me, and they understand the role I am performing. I am literally in the BEST situation I have ever heard of in 14 years! Who you work for is critical to your success, growth, and experience!

What You Say and How You Deliver Your Message

I realized after about 3 months, that I can’t be the cool, funny, sarcastic assistant coach anymore. As a head coach, my words hit differently, and my relationships have to change. My sport administrator helped me realize this and put it into practice. That was a challenge for me because it was an identity shift. I thrived on relationship building, and the way in which I now have to build relationships with my student-athletes has to change.

Your Time is Precious

I cannot get over how long of a to-do list I now have. Can I be honest with you all? I AM EXHAUSTED!!! I have a daily to do list written out with all different categories and it’s very organized so that I can have a productive day. As an assistant coach, no one cares about you – they don’t want your time. As a head coach, everyone comes to you for everything. Even those dumb questions or confirmations that do not require your attention but still come to you anyway. My time gets derailed every single day. All of the sudden, two hours are gone because of someone interrupting and being inefficient. The number of meetings I have as a head coach, that are poorly run and could be done in 25% of the time is derailing in my time. Then the end of the day arrives, and I have done nothing on my to-do list and all the work goes home with me and I do it until midnight and get behind on sleep.

Delegate or Prepare to Drown

Our emails and to-do lists do not get shorter as head coaches. I am realizing I cannot do everything, and I am realizing how much previous head coaches had to do but never delegated. I always wondered what they were doing in their offices because it often seemed like nothing. “I could do a better job as head coach”. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I am a weak delegator trying to work toward being an average – that’s a step in the right direction.

So, as an assistant, stop thinking how much better you could be doing this job than your head coach, and do your own job better. Here are 5 things you could do to work on being a great assistant:

  1. Have a real conversation with your head coach about what they need from you vs what they want from you. Do they line up? This would be a great conversation with a whole staff I have only experienced one head coach foster.

  2. Who does your head coach work for, how can you make him/her look better in their boss’ eyes?

  3. Understand the intent of your words or message and work on the impact of those same words lining up.

  4. Support your head coach and ask them how they are with time. Take something off their plate!

  5. Whatever you take, do it well, or your head coach won’t trust your work and it creates more to-do for them.

This is an incredibly rewarding career. Being an assistant is a lot of fun, but remember, it’s not your program and your head coach needs help! I encourage all assistant and head coaches to have a conversation that’s impactful and meaningful toward the support and productivity needed. I think it could change the quality of life for all on staff!

Jesse Moore was named head coach of the Dartmouth men's and women's swimming and diving programs in April of 2021. Moore spent three seasons as the associate head coach at Minnesota. He wore many hats in that role, coaching the Gophers' middle distance and IM groups for both the men and women while also leading the recruiting efforts and managing the rosters. Since being hired in 2018, Moore helped coach 33 NCAA qualifiers, seeing the women place 11th and the men 19th at the 2019 NCAA Championship. The team earned 69 Academic All-Big Ten accolades, 43 scholar All-America honors, team scholar All-America honors and one CoSIDA Academic All-America nod during his time in that role. Prior to coaching at Minnesota, Moore was the associate head coach for women's swimming at Northwestern (2016-18). He was in charge of recruiting, fundraising, coaching all training groups, managing team travel and running the social media pages. The Wildcats made it to NCAAs in 2017 and 2018, placing 21st and 22nd, respectively. The team broke 23 school records, earned 14 CSCAA Scholar All-America individual honors, and had 11 Big Ten Distinguished Scholars with GPAs over 3.7. His coaching accomplishments don't stop there. As the assistant coach and director of recruiting at Duke (2012-16), he recruited the 12th, 15th and 11th-ranked women's recruiting classes nationally for 2014, 2015 and 2015, seeing 21 athletes compete at NCAAs and break 103 team records throughout the season. As the assistant at William & Mary (2010-12), he coached 10 CAA conference champions and three 2012 Olympic Trials qualifiers. Moore got his start as the graduate assistant academic advisor at Drexel (2008-10). He advised students from the swimming and diving, men's and women's tennis, wrestling, field hockey, rowing, women's lacrosse and softball programs, while also volunteer coaching with the swimming and diving teams. Moore swam at and graduated from William & Mary in 2008 with a degree in neuroscience. He went on to get his master's in public health, health management and policy from Drexel (2010) before returning to William & Mary for his master of business administration (2014).

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