Whether you’re a nationally ranked recruit who’s being courted by a host of elite programs or you just want to keep playing for a club team somewhere after you graduate, you will have the gift — and responsibility — of deciding who you’ll play for in college.
It’s not like high school, where taking chemistry means you get Mr. Green, or signing up for softball means you’re stuck with Coach Blue. There are thousands of college teams and coaches out there. The care you take in selecting one could be the difference between reaching athletic heights you never dreamed of — or burning out.
To make a good decision, it helps to think about the three main types of coaches: those who focus on
winning, those who focus on skills development and those who focus on fun.
“Every coach will be a little bit of each type,” says Dr. Nicole LaVoi, who teaches sports psychology and sociology at the University of Minnesota and is the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.
Chances are you’ll agree with just about any coach on some things.
“When the coach is very much one way, and the athlete very much another, that’s when you have a problem,” says Dr. LaVoi.
How do you figure out if you and a coach are on the same page?
“Be willing to ask, ‘What’s your philosophy?’ and ‘Why do you coach?’ ” when you meet potential college coaches, says Dr. LaVoi. “It’s a big red flag if a coach is unwilling or unable to answer.”
When you pose these questions to coaches, you’ll begin to get a sense of their priorities and how the team operates. You should get a clear, direct response — after all, coaches want to find players who will thrive in their programs, just as you want to find a coach who will help you reach your goals.
“[Our program’s] philosophy is to work hard every day to find something that’s going to make us better,” says Amy Bokker, head coach of Stanford’s women’s lacrosse team, which has won seven consecutive conference championships — whether it’s players perfecting a drill on the field, or the coaching staff finding a new high school prospect whose strengths could help the team. “We appreciate the athletes who trust their coaches and teammates and are committed to our common goal of winning a national championship.”
So in analyzing her philosophy, you can tell that she believes small improvements lead to larger ones, winning is the main mission and free spirits who put themselves before the team might not fare so well in this kind of system.
If you play to be a better person, regardless of whether you win, look for a program where the coach talks a lot about an athlete’s personal growth. Take this philosophy, from Williams tennis coach Alison Swain, whose team won the Division III national championship for the sixth time last spring.
“To me, coaching is about teaching my student-athletes essential life lessons. I am motivated by creating a supportive, team-focused atmosphere where I can work with my players to build an inner confidence, aim for excellence and achieve their biggest goals,” Swain says. “We also work hard together toward team goals, and understand that everyone on our team is valuable whether they play No. 1 singles or No. 10 singles.”
Penn State gymnastics coach Jeff Thompson, a two-time SEC Coach of the year at Auburn, has an “athlete-over-team” approach where each athlete is very involved in how she’s coached.
“Our focus is on the individual first and what she needs to succeed,” he says. “We believe that all of our athletes have a voice and deserve to be heard.”
Thompson and his staff have one-on-one meetings every two weeks with each gymnast in which the athlete is asked to give input on the coaching direction and whether it’s working for her.
Who succeeds in his program?
“Athletes who are self-motivated and have a dream they want to work toward,” he says.
If you don’t want to be so involved, his program may not be the best fit.
One key point to remember: The coach’s approach is only half of the equation.
“You also need to ask yourself, ‘Why am I here?’ ” says Dr. LaVoi, and get to the heart of why you love your sport.
Are you looking to jump up a level, or find a program with athletes in a range of abilities, where you can fit in but have room to improve?
Once you determine what’s most important to you, you’ll be able to find a coach whose approach speaks to that — and you’ll have met your ideal match.