Whether you love him, think he’s silly, or fall somewhere in between, there’s no denying that Elvis Presley was one of the most recognizable and successful humans to ever walk the face of the earth. Even today, more than 40 years after his death, when I ask a young softball player if they know who Elvis was the answer is almost always “yes.” That’s staying power.
Yet as unique a talent as Elvis was, it’s unlikely that he would have become so indelibly etched on the annals of history had it not been for his manager, Col. Tom Parker.
To get an idea of the impact Parker made, he was once asked why he took a higher-than-normal percentage of Elvis’ earnings. Parker supposedly replied, “When I met Elvis he had a million dollar’s worth of talent. Now he has a million dollars.”
That story, and thousands of others like it throughout history, demonstrate the value of finding the right mentor or coach. Someone who sees what you can become and works to help you get there rather than simply walking repeating information they may have heard somewhere before and rotely walking you through a series of meaningless drills.
So what are some of the attributes you should look for in a coach, either for a team or a private instructor? Here are some based on my experience.
1. A high level of current knowledge.
This might seem obvious but it’s actually not. There are lots of coaches out there who haven’t learned a thing over the last 5, 10, 20 or more years. Fastpitch softball is evolving all the time, with plenty of smart people doing research, looking at statistics and videos, and discovering new things.
If the coach isn’t keeping up and taking advantage of these new discoveries you may want to find someone who is. Especially if your goal is to play “at the next level,” whatever that happens to be.
2. Coaching to the individual instead of the masses.
It’s very easy for coaches to approach each player as a nameless, faceless piece moving through the machine. These types of coaches have all their players do the same drills and follow the same path regardless of ability to execute. If the players aren’t getting it or can’t keep up for whatever reason they just get pushed to the side or even benched.
A good coach will recognize a player who is struggling and look for the reason why. Is it that the player doesn’t understand what they’re supposed to do? Is it simply a lack of experience that can be corrected through more reps or is there a physical limitation that is preventing the athlete from moving in the desired way?
Whatever the reason, a good coach will look for the answer and make adjustments accordingly in order to help that player get on the field and perform her best.
3. Recognizing (and appreciating) different players have different personalities.
This is sort of like #2 above but is less about physical inabilities and more about learning how to interact with different athletes.
Some players, especially young ones, can be shy or at least uncomfortable around people they don’t know. If that’s the case the coach needs to recognize it and try to find a way to connect with the player so she can increase her comfort level in order to be more receptive to the coaching.
Some players are very straightforward and serious, while others can be goofy and off the wall. It doesn’t mean the latter are any less dedicated or are paying attention less. They’re simply seeing the world through their own unique lenses.
Essentially, if a coach has 12 players on a team he or she may need 12 different coaching styles to bring out the best in them. You want a coach who understands that and can deal with players in the way in which they respond best.
4. Demonstrating servant leadership
We’ve all seen coaches who are all about themselves and their won-lost records. They’re not looking to develop their players; they measure their success solely on the number of games they win.
That may be a valid approach for a college or professional coach (although that can also be debated). But definitely for youth coaches and mentors you should be looking for someone who takes more of a servant leadership approach.
Basically a servant leader is one who puts the success of the player(s) or team ahead of their own personal success. A good example on the team side is how they react after a game.
A more self-centered coach will take credit for wins and place blame on individuals or the team for losses. A servant leader will take responsibility for losses and give credit to the players or team for wins.
I’m not saying the self-centered coach’s teams (or students if he/she is a private coach) can’t win a lot of games. There are enough of them out there who do.
But if the goal is to ensure the particular player you care most about achieves a high level of success you’re going to want to look for a servant leader.
(Of course, Col. Tom was anything but a servant leader. He was actually pretty self-serving and often did things for Elvis because they benefited him too. But you get the point.)
5. A sense of what’s right and wrong
We seem to live in a pretty morally ambiguous world these days. In many cases right and wrong seem to be treated as if they are conditional or transactional.
But underneath it all there are right things and wrong things to do. You want to find a coach or mentor who is at least trying to do the right things for their athletes.
It’s funny. Parent coaches often get a bad rap. The terms “Daddyball” and “Mommyball” come to mind, which is a description of a parent who is in coaching for the benefit of their own child, and everyone else comes second.
But that’s not always the case. I know, and have known, plenty of great parent coaches who are in it for everyone. I’ve also known (or known of) plenty of so-called “paid professional” coaches who play favorites, let parents influence their decisions on playing time and positions, and outright screw over players they don’t like or who don’t fit their idea of what a player should be.
The thing is a sense of right and wrong isn’t something you put on like a uniform. It’s something that’s inside of you, a part of you like your heart or lungs.
If you really want a good experience, and a coach who can help an athlete become her best self, look for someone who does things because they’re the right thing to do, not just the expedient thing to do. That coach will provide guidance and character development that will not only help on the field but also long after the player has hung up her cleats.
So there you have it. What do you think?
Are there other characteristics of a great coach or mentor I’ve missed? If so, share your thoughts in the comments below.