J.P. Nerburn

How do you balance winning, retention, and development?
What are your coaching principles?

A coaching principle is an approach you stick with even if you know it might lead to a short-term outcome you don’t prefer. Especially then.

It’s this gap between the short-term and the long-term that makes a principle valuable. If your guiding coaching principle is to do whatever it takes to win right now, you don’t have principles of much value.

It’s the valuable principles that pay off, because they serve as a compass, particularly when it feels like there are few alternatives.

Principles in action

Think about a group or team you are coaching this season (or, if you’re not lucky enough to be actually coaching at the moment then think about last season).

Now imagine you have a pie graph. Within that pie you have to allocate space to three guiding principles:

  1. Winning games
  2. Developing players
  3. Retaining players within your team/programme
JP Blog Image 1

Now split that pie graph into three areas according to the weighting you place on each principle.

Are they all equal? What’s the appropriate emphasis on winning for the people you coach? Does winning lead to retention or does retention lead to winning? Or, is development the answer?

The question is…..

How do you balance winning, retention, and development?

We posed this question to JP Nerbun, Head Coach of Liffey Celtics in Ireland and founder of Thrive on Challenge where he helps coaches create transformative cultures. (twitter | linkedin)

JP’s answer

It’d be great to say that I value all three equally, but the truth is that every coach has to prioritize one above the others nearly every day. So, my aim is not to seek a balance between these three goals but to be clear about my priorities

Five years ago, as a high school basketball coach, I prioritized development in the hopes that we would reach our potential as a team later in the season, thereby leading to more wins. I was not just focused on player development but also personal development, character-building, and relationship development.

Player retention throughout the season and from season to season was likely at the bottom of the three, as I felt long-term retention was best achieved when people could feel and see their growth and development, as well as win games. Therefore, retention would be a result of development and winning. Also, I wasn’t trying to create a culture that was for everyone; we wanted players who were willing to buy into our unique way of doing things.

Now, I don’t think every coach needs to make this their priority, but I do think every coach needs to be clear about what their priorities are, communicate them, and then live by them.

Currently, I serve as the head coach of a semi-professional team in Ireland. Rather than leading with my own priorities, I have allowed the current stakeholders to dictate our prioritization. Even in my job interview, team management communicated three priorities for the season: (1) retention of younger players, and veterans who had played with the club for years; (2) younger player development; and (3) being competitive within the league.

“Coach certification programmes could adopt strategies to help coaches improve their knowledge of mental health services and how such services may be accessed”

So, I have allowed the players and management to set our major priority. It’s not so much a conscious decision that players and management have made, but something that I have uncovered over the last two months.

In one team meeting, I broke up the team into small groups and presented them with a few scenarios regarding playing time, player commitment, and winning. It was clear that they weren’t willing to “win at all costs” by allowing players who failed to meet standards to continue to play—even if it gave them a better chance to win. However, it was also clear that the player and personal development we were doing as a team were meaningless to them if we didn’t win.

We expected to win because of our talent level. If we lost our first three games, then our culture wasn’t in a place where people could still keep their focus on “development”. As a result, retention would suffer, as a few players would struggle with committing themselves to training.

Thus, our foremost priority is winning. Still, we have set clear standards for player commitment and attitude, and if they are not met, then we are willing to sacrifice winning to do so.

3 Takeaways

1. Coaching is not as simple as A-B-C
Hoping to grow your team or club by winning games isn’t nearly as effective in the long term as providing players with an experience worth talking about. If you create experiences that are worth remarking on, your coaching becomes remarkable.
2. Complicated is not same thing as complex

Find a small group of fellow coaches to and cultivate sharing and openness by reaching out and discussing your experiences. The next time you’re talking tactics, throw in a question about how your peers are feeling about their coaching. Start a conversation about what stresses them out and how they work their way through the stressors of coaching.

Doing this can help you enhance your own understanding and knowledge whilst also building a deeper connection with others.

3) Identify your stressors
Whether you’re paid to coach or not, you can approach your craft like a professional, with the intention to develop players and retain people within your sport. Despite the prevailing win-first culture in sports, a true professional is intentional about creating change for people and communities.

Reflection questions

  1. What comes first for a player – competence, confidence or commitment?
  2. What’s your most common reaction when you experience failure as a coach?
  3. How much fun can you have with your team this season? How?

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