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Building a Modern Coaching Tree

by | Feb 11, 2022

When I was a younger coach, I became obsessed with Coaching Trees. I would spend hours every week researching which coaches had the most dignified and storied lineage of assistant coaches or players who went on to become head coaches of their own programs. 

For me, the size and reach of a Coaching Tree spoke to the quality of training, experience, and mentoring that takes place in a program that would produce coaches ready to be hired to lead their own teams. Being a member of such a collective was a stamp of approval, a reference beyond reproach, a legacy of coaching philosophy and approach that could last generations. Even now, I can rattle off the names of the successful protégées of Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, or Gregg Popovich. Imagine how proud and honored you would feel to be able to say that Coach Smith, Coach K, or Coach Pop was responsible for opening the door to your career?

Dean SmithMike KrzyzewskiGregg Popovich

Pictured: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and Gregg Popovich

As an older coach, it has dawned on me that the days of the Coaching Tree are slowly drifting into the sunset. Mentoring younger coaches in how to run a program and serve young people has been replaced by YouTube and TikTok videos from inexperienced and misguided salespeople passing themselves off as personal skill trainers. 

Please don’t misunderstand what I am trying to say. The Age of Technology has allowed access to information that was at one time available only to a small number of coaches. Now, players and coaches alike can review game film or follow a skill development or performance training coach to discover the game’s current trends or identify innovative ways to teach skills and concepts. The keyboard and screen has replaced a cup of coffee shared by coaches meeting face to face to share wisdom or physically model how to teach a skill.

Gone are the days when an experienced coach takes a younger and passionate coach on his/her wing and guides them in all the small and big decisions a head coach has to make on a daily basis. Our coaching heroes are leaving too quickly and those who are accepting the mantle of coach may be unaware that they need an advisor on this journey. It may have never crossed their mind. Mentoring takes time, patience, and empathy, and those commodities are in short supply in today’s world.

So where does this leave us? In a broader sense, today’s coach is faced with a significant challenge to find a way, a system of checks and balances as it were, to test our assumptions, conclusions, and decisions, so that we do what is morally and ethically right for those we work for: Our Players. 

At the end of the day, whatever we say or do has to be focused on teaching and developing young people to function ethically and effectively in the modern world. Regardless of level, our decisions have to benefit and serve the greater good of our players. Any choice that puts our players in jeopardy, peril, or in a situation that does not help them become successful now or in the future, is a choice we need to avoid or restructure so that our players can learn.

Within this current context, us coaches have to make a decision. For the veteran coaches, will we make ourselves available to our younger colleagues and pass on what we have learned and experienced? Similar to our expectation of our players, will younger coaches be coachable and seek out wisdom from those who have run successful programs? Will coaches young and old put ego aside to embrace humility in accepting that we all have much more learning to do, and we can take this journey in collaboration with each other, and that we all can learn something insightful from each other? I, for one, have decided to become a problem-solver as opposed to a problem-identifier or problem-creator.

As a part of this effort, I’ve decided to take advantage of modern technology to offer a version of modern mentoring and make myself available to mentor and support my coaching colleagues, as well as be mentored and guided by this online community as a result of this digital discussion. Weekly, I’ll post articles, reflections, insights about coaching and teaching for your consideration. I hope it will spark conversation with your coaching staffs and colleagues, and will resonate with you in a way that inspires innovation and new ideas about how we work and relate to players and each other.

Together, we can make this virtual Coaching Tree provide cover, shade, and shelter for generations of coaches to come. I hope you will join me on this journey. I look forward to learning from all of you.


Coach Russell would love to hear from you, especially if you have questions about coaching and mentoring, to help him create new content. Click this link to send a message.

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