A favorite discussion among fans is the impact a coach has over sports team success, with some fans attributing a great amount to the coach, while others place less value on the coach and more to player talent. When we examine pro sports, a few quick examples stand out — in the NBA Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs had a 20+ year run of amazing, championship-caliber success, but has struggled since losing Hall of Fame player Tim Duncan to retirement in 2016, and eventual Hall of Famer Kawhi Leonard in 2018. Similarly, in the NFL Bill Belichick’s incredible run of Super Bowl championships is now a distant memory since losing the greatest player of all time, Tom Brady. While both of these coaches are certain first ballot Hall of Fame coaches, critics argue they would not have been nearly as successful had they not had some of the best talent to coach in their respective sports. These debates prompt us to think about the impact of coaching on team success, as well as the other variables beyond coaching that have impact winning and losing. Are coaches largely responsible for team success? And are there differences with respect to coach-influence when examining coach impact on a team at the interscholastic, college, and pro levels?
What goes in to winning?
There is little dispute that having naturally talented players almost always helps a sports team win, but to the extent talent alone wins is a hotly debated discussion. While talented teams generally have an advantage over the competition, coaches still need to manage personalities and develop successful game plans in order to win championships. In fact, sometimes managing star players and big egos can be overwhelming for coaches, and in these examples the team usually performs below expectations. When player talent alone doesn’t get the job done, what other factors go into winning — beyond the impact of the coach?
Listed below are a few of the variables coaches have told me that have the greatest influence on their level of team success in addition to coaching:
- Talent. Yes, having great talent, while not a requirement for winning, is a very common piece to championship teams. Even though coaching big personalities can be challenging, most coaches will accept that “problem” and develop their own methods for coaching star players.
- Culture/environment. The culture and team environment play a big part in setting the tone and expectations for success in many schools and communities, as often athletes play with an even greater commitment, passion, and motivation when they feel the expectations of success.
- Level of league competition. Some years coaches simply luck out by being in a league or conference having a down year, and witnessing their own team take advantage of lesser competition, a favorable schedule, or other fortuitous conditions.
- Other. A final, catch-all category relating to sports team success includes luck, steering clear of injuries, and possibly playing other, more talented teams who are experiencing injuries.
Can you think of other important variables that contribute to sports team success? Are there unique factors at the youth and interscholastic level that differ from college and pro sports when examining how winning teams are constructed?
The old saying is that coaches usually get too much success when the team wins, and too much blame when the team loses. While that is one extreme way of looking at team success, coaches do play a part relating to how a team performs — but the coach is not the only factor that impacts winning and losing. Even great coaches at the professional level have struggled without star players, lending credibility to the argument that great players make great teams. On the other hand, there are countless examples of teams not having great players yet still experiencing success due to other factors, including coaching, team culture, health of players, and sometimes even luck. The reality is that there is no “secret sauce” approach to building a winning team, as team success depends on a number of interacting factors — including great coaching.