Written By: James Winchester
84% of assistant coaches under the age of 30 believe they know how to run a program better than their Head Coach.
Unfortunately, the above fact is totally false..... but might hold some “small truths”. Let’s be honest. We have all been there. Especially our younger selves, when we were invincible and “all that” (don’t get me wrong... I love a young coach with passion).
Then suddenly you get the keys to the car. Sometimes it’s a Pinto, and sometimes it’s a Lamborghini. And sometimes you drive that Lamborghini into the wall.
Over my last 17 years of coaching, I’ve been lucky to develop a reputation for building programs… Or at least taking programs from a “challenged position” and leaving them in a better place. Although I sit here today as a power five head coach, I have also coached at the mid major level, coached high school, coach club, and I’ve even had the blessings of coaching summer league. What I have learned is that despite the different “levels”, a lot of traits remain the same in being successful in building a program.
Below is not an extensive list, but 7 tips/thoughts I have learned over the years in building a team / program / club.
Building a team starts with building (& knowing) yourself.
Before any of us can actually lead a program, it is really important to have a good understanding of who you are. At the end of the day, you are the leader, and the buck starts and stops with you. If you have high expectations of your staff, athletes, parents etc. then you need to know yourself. Similar to Brian Keane’s article - are you the type of leader that others want to be led by?
It is all on you. Are you ready to be the example? Are you ready to make tough decisions? Are you ready to enforce standards? Are you ready to not take things personally? Everybody is different and will lead differently. Knowing yourself is extremely important, and having a better understanding will give you a better moral compass in making all of your decisions, which leads to…
What is your purpose?
Your purpose will guide your life decisions, will help shape goals, and will offer a sense of direction and meaning. Your purpose will change over the years, and you will need to be OK with this. But ask yourself, what is your purpose? How does it relate to your personal life? How does it relate to your professional life? How does it relate to building a team?
Figure out your (current) purpose, and you’ll start having a clearer direction on where you want things to go.... which leads to...
What is your vision (for yourself? For your program?)
Close your eyes. Imagine the life you want to live. Imagine the program you want to lead. What are your values? How will it work? What is your vision for your program?
This is probably the most exciting part. Where does your imagination go when you think about the program you want to build? Is it a clear vision you can share with others? Is it something others can believe in?
Have a plan.
The first day you are leading a new program should not be the first day you have started thinking how to do this. Hopefully at this stage you have been daydreaming and thinking of ways that you could do things better. You have planned for this moment.
When I became the head coach at George Washington in 2015, I had written down a plan in place for a “college program” in the spring of 2014. I knew my time was coming and that I wanted to be a college head coach. I also did not want to be unprepared. I had had ideas for years from my different experiences, but the spring of 2014 was when I put all my thoughts into writing. If you plan ahead and have a generic plan in place, then you’ll be two steps ahead of the game.
Evaluate, re-evaluate, and plan again.
Plans are not always perfect though. What has been crucially important for me over the years is also the ability to evaluate myself, evaluate the plan, evaluate the vision, and then be willing to reevaluate all of the above and make new plans. Don’t get complacent - always be willing to tweak and take chances every new season.
Surround yourself with good people.
Although everything falls on you, it takes a village to be successful. Surrounding yourself with good people is as equally important. Surround yourself with people that believe in your vision, believe in you, and are willing to do the work. Give people clear direction, responsibilities, and coach them up. If they fail, take responsibility as the leader, and try and teach them again.
If they don’t believe in you or your vision, be willing to make tough decisions (easier said than done.... and every personnel decision is different).
At the end of the day, your staff is an extension of your leadership. If they believe in your vision, the execution of meeting that vision becomes better.
Better relationships = better teams.
Finally, building great teams comes from building great relationships. In order to be effective leaders (and to get athletes and peer buy in on the task and challenge at hand), the people we are leading need to know that they are loved, valued, and challenged. Every program has a “fit”, and every leader will have different values, standards and vision for “their program”. But all of the above means nothing without building great relationships (which could be a whole other article by itself). Without relationships there is no trust. Without trust, there is no program. Relationships are everything.
The list to building teams and culture can go on forever, and each of the topics above could be a great discussion point at any convention (or post convention social activities). The reality is that each successful program, team, business, or family will usually have great leadership – and that leadership starts with you.
Below are a few reading recommendations – but if you want to network and chat a little bit more about the above, please feel free to find me on Instagram or Twitter (@TCUSwimJames), or on my peloton (@jamwinswim).
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin – A deep look at personal development through the eyes of two Navy Seals.
Champion Minded by Allistair McCaw – An easy read with lots of great tips and stories about personal and team development.
Legacy by James Kerr – behind scenes look at the culture of New Zealand National Rugby Team.
James Winchester was named TCU’s head swimming and diving coach on April 26, 2018. Winchester came to the Horned Frogs after serving the previous three years as head coach at George Washington University. He led the Colonials’ men’s program to Atlantic-10 championships in 2017 and 2018. The 2017 title marked the first in program history. Both seasons saw him named A-10 Coach of the Year. Additionally, he was the Men’s Swimming Coach of the Year at the 2018 CSCAA National Invitational Championship as the George Washington men and women both recorded top-10 finishes.George Washington made three consecutive NCAA Championship appearances under Winchester. The Colonials set 84 school records during his tenure. Winchester produced a two-time All-American, three A-10 Performers of the Year and a conference Rookie of the Year as well as 20 first team and 12 second-team all-A-10 selections. He also sent swimmers to the Olympics, World Championships, World University Games and Commonwealth Games. During his coaching career, Winchester has mentored nine national champions, 40 All-Americans and five top-100 world-ranked student-athletes while also securing numerous top-25 nationally-ranked recruiting classes. He has been part of programs totaling 34 Academic All-America team awards.Before taking over the head duties at George Washington, Winchester was a two-time honorable-mention NCAA Assistant Coach of the Year at Utah. He also served as the Utes’ head recruiting coordinator and interim head coach. Utah’s men’s and women’s programs posted four NCAA Championship appearances and three top-25 recruiting classes during his time (2012-15) in Salt Lake City. Winchester’s first head coaching opportunity came during his four years (2007-11) at New Orleans. After arriving as an assistant coach, he was promoted to head coach. He started the men’s program and rebuilt the women’s team post-Hurricane Katrina. He had a top-25 ranked recruiting class in 2008 and the 2010 Sun Belt Conference Men’s Swimmer of the Year. Winchester began his coaching career in 2006 at Drury. He was an assistant coach as Drury’s men’s and women’s teams won the 2007 NCAA Division II National Championship. During his time there, he coached former world record holder, 2007 European champion and 2008 Olympic finalist Roman Sludnov (Russia). As a student-athlete, Winchester competed for the Louisville swimming and diving team before earning his degree in business administration in 2004. He received his MBA from Drury in 2008.