What Really Makes a Good High School Sports Coach?
We at 973 ESPN spend many of our days talking about the professional sports scene and our listeners love to talk about everything from Eagles Quarterbacks to Ben Simmons drama to who should be the next Flyers Head Coach. While sports analysis doesn't specifically change from pro spots to college to the high school level, the goals and responsibilities of the head coaches are different at each level. So when someone recently asked me the following question, I didn't want to short change the answer:
"What makes a good high school sports coach and what don't people know about coaching high school student-athletes?"
This is a great question because the expectations and responsibilities for coaches at the high school level are very different than the professional sports level. Aside from the obvious fact that high school coaches are not paid or compensated at the same tiers as collegiate and professional coaches, their jobs are more rewarding in the real world than on the playing field or court.
While Herm Edwards is right that you "play to win the game," there are other intangibles that make a good high school coach. Only a minority of high school student-athletes play sports at the collegiate level and an even smaller percentage get to play at the professional level. So for high school coaches, the balancing act they work at is helping their student-athletes have success both in sports and in the classroom.
Playing youth sports teaches kids the importance of hard work, discipline, accepting instructions to become a better person, and the value of teamwork. These lessons learned are applied everywhere from the classroom to professional careers and the good high school coaches want to see their student-athletes succeed even more off the field than on the field.
An example of a good high School Coach is Millville Head Football Coach Dennis Thomas who told 973 ESPN what he is most proud about coaching Thunderbolts Football:
It means a lot to coach both the football and track team (at Millville High School)....In my 7 years at Millville, we have had a 100% graduation rate in high school, generated over three million dollars in scholarship money, had over 45% of our seniors go to college, 8% enroll in the military, and the majority of them enter the work field. The goal is always winning in life, navigating on how to win on the field and the track fosters winning in life.
High school coaches like Millville's Dennis Thomas, Atlantic City's Gene Allen, Mainland's Chuck Smith, Middle Township's John Leahy, and Holy Spirit's AJ Russo are just a few out of MANY examples of local high school coaches in South Jersey who genuinely care about the student-athletes becoming their best selves as their leave high school and enter adulthood.
That is the biggest thing people don't keep in mind about coaching in high school, these kids as still students who have to go to class, do their homework, and still keep up with their responsibilities as members of the team. These kids are basically putting in the hours each week that an adult puts in for a full-time job and people still want them to "have fun" and enjoy their high school years. So these coaches are not just coaching practices and games, they are checking progress reports, meeting with kids and parents and teachers, plus dealing with the responsibilities to their other jobs.
Don't forget, these coaches usually have full-time jobs doing work that is not directly related to the sports that they coach. Many of these coaches are also teachers who have to do lesson plans and teach classes while keeping up with all the responsibilities that come with those jobs. At the college and professional levels, being a coach is basically a year-round job and having team responsibilities during the offseason. But high school coaches don't have that luxury and they are still putting in an extreme number of hours watching film, working with their student-athletes, preparing for practices, etc.
On top of all those responsibilities, student-athletes have things going on in their lives that can impact the team like family problems, relationship stress, or potentially bullying at school. Just because a teenager plays sports doesn't mean their lives are perfect or ideal. The reality is that many youth sports participants are playing sports as an outlet or escape for things they are dealing with in their lives. Now the coaches have to also serve as mentors and counselors for various situations to help their athletes overcome and endure different things.
I know for me, I wouldn't be the person I am today without the sports I played all through my youth. From baseball to football to basketball to soccer to my decades of martial arts training. The lessons I learned from those athletic activities made me into the hard-working adult I am today. I was also on some mediocre and losing teams over the years, so that was frustrating at the moment. But learning to deal with the disappointment taught me how to grow then overcome moving forward with life. And my coaches like Coach Dunbracco (soccer), Coach Reeves (basketball), and other Teachers/Coaches like Mr. Pleasants (Cape May Tech High School) are just SOME of the people who had important impacts on my life. All of them had to reel in my hypercompetitive nature and perfectionism to allow me to learn how to be my best.
So the next time you want to yell at a high school coach or complain after a game, just remember that winning in life is more important than winning on game day, and the coaches who understand the balance between those two are the best high school coaches you can find. Sports are a catalyst for life lessons that student-athletes need and will benefit them for years to come. Let's all take some time this holiday season to thank the good high school coaches in our area for everything they do.