News was released this past week longtime Ellsworth boys soccer coach Brian Higgins will not be returning to the sidelines for a 43rd season this fall. The state’s all-time leader in wins amassed well over five hundred victories in guiding the Eagles on the pitch. The irony is Coach Higgins never played the game. Conversely, some of the great athletes and players in sport sometimes struggle when the roles are reversed. Why do some great athletes fall short as coaches?
From the professional ranks, very few of sports top players seek coaching or managerial roles. Especially with the top athletes being set for life financially following an illustrious career, many choose to simply step away from the game. Larry Bird is an example of a top player, who also had an outstanding, albeit short lived NBA coaching career. Before becoming a front office executive, Bird led the Indiana Pacers to the conference finals in each of his three seasons on the bench. In his final year in 2000, the Pacers advanced all the way to the NBA Finals. It was the greatest three year run in Pacers franchise history.
For every Larry Bird, many struggle to make that transition from player to coach. It should be noted for those on the outside looking in, quality coaching can be difficult at times to quantify. Not all situations are equal. While leadership matters, talent for the most part ultimately wins or loses games.
Playing and coaching requires a completely different skill set. First and foremost, coaches lead people. Coaches should remember they are coaching people first and their sport second. The ability to lead and have those “soft skills” are much more critical to coaching success than the knowledge of the sport they are teaching. I would much rather have a coach who is great with people than the person who is a genius in their sport yet lacks people skills. Obviously, a strong working knowledge of the sport is important but it doesn’t make up for the lack of people skills.
Being a great athlete and having name recognition in the athletic community also opens doors for earlier coaching opportunities. I think we can all recall situations when a big name hire was made at a high school or college program. If you had stripped the names and playing experiences off the resumes, the person hired many times wouldn’t even get a sniff at the position, let alone land it. Many coaches who were great players often are thrust into head coaching roles before they are ready. They simply haven’t had to pay their dues as coaches. Whereas, someone who may not have been a star player often has to grind for years as an assistant coach before getting the same opportunity. In that case, the longtime assistant may be in a better position to be successful when their time comes.
Great players also may have a tough time transitioning to coaching because they rely too much on their playing experience. Of course the time they spent playing the game at a high level is a tremendous resource for the players they are instructing. If the only way they know how to coach is how they were coached then they could run into problems if the team’s ability level or skill set doesn’t fit their system. Coaches, no matter how successful their playing careers, need to continue to grow in their knowledge by learning from other accomplished coaches.
Most great players, particularly those in rural states such as Maine, had systems set up for and through them. Can they adjust to a team where they isn’t a star player to build around? Can they get the most out of less talented players to the point where they are at least competitive?
There is no question being a standout player can only help in teaching whatever sport it is you are coaching. Of course there are many outstanding players who also have gone on to become top level coaches. When you combine playing ability with the other skills needed to be a successful coach, it can only help take you to the elite level of coaching.