Why College Football Teams Have So Many Coaches

Have you stopped to notice how many men there are in khaki pants, wearing headsets and pacing the sidelines of college football stadiums? How many coaches does a team need?  As it turns out, quite a few.

The top college football teams tend to have one coach for every four to five players. This ratio includes the head coach, the defensive and offensive coaches and coaches who focus on specific areas such as the running backs, the “O” line, the cornerbacks, the safeties and the quarterbacks or special teams. It also includes coaches for strength and conditioning, sports medicine and all the assistant coaches. Why so many coaches? Certainly college players need considerable coaching since they are still being developed. They may have played quarterback in high school and are being turned into a wide receiver, or they may have played on offense and now need to shift to the defense.

When you reach the highest level in football you might expect the player-coach ratio to broaden. After all, NFL teams have drafted the best college players and these guys have been honing their skills for years. Surprisingly, that line of thought is wrong. NFL teams, although limited to a smaller number of players on their roster, typically have proportionally more coaches than top college teams. Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, professional teams require even more coaches because they’re striving to achieve a higher degree of performance excellence.

No One Gets to the Top (and Stays There) Without Coaching

There’s a lesson here for everyone. If you aspire to achieve excellence, in any endeavor, feedback from someone with expertise is essential.  The higher level of excellence you aspire to requires a greater degree of coaching and guidance.

Say, for example, you want to become a great salesperson. You would be wise, then, to seek mentors who exhibited strengths as salespeople and have a proven track record so you can learn from them.

Recently I spoke with Don Yeager, former Sports Illustrated writer turned corporate speaker, about mentoring and I thought he had some valuable perspectives to share. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden mentored Don for more than 12 years. Out of that experience, Don and Coach Wooden co-authored an outstanding book on mentoring titled A Game Plan for Life. Here are four takeaways from my conversation with him.

1. Just Ask

Years ago, after sitting in on an extraordinary meeting in which Coach Wooden mentored Shaquille O’Neal, Don asked what it took to be mentored by him. Wooden replied, “Just ask.” Don learned that fewer people asked to be mentored by Wooden than you would expect and all Don had to do in order to have that one-on-one mentoring relationship with the remarkable coach was “just ask.” The point is that if you’re interested in being mentored by someone, don’t hesitate to ask.

2. Failing to Prepare is Preparing to Fail       Coach Wooden was known for focusing on preparation. His well-known axiom, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” applied to more than just sports. He told Don that his job as mentee would require coming prepared with a list of things he wanted to learn. Don took this to heart and would spend two to three days preparing for each mentoring session he had with Coach Wooden.  If you’re asking someone to mentor you, be sure to spend sufficient time in advance of each meeting developing an agenda that lists what you would like to learn and processing what you’ve already covered together.

3. For a Season

Don told me that he has mentors who are seasonal in nature.  This type of mentor shares his or her wisdom on a particular area for a certain period of time after which the mentoring relationship by and large comes to an end.  For example, Don is a great speaker and he is driven to be the very best so he asked John Maxwell, the leadership writer and speaker, to be his mentor for a season. If, like Don, you have a very specific area you would like to be mentored in, working with a seasonal mentor may be the best approach.

4. Don’t Forget Less Than Obvious Mentors

While writing A Game Plan for Life, Coach Wooden told Don what he learned from various mentors he’d had throughout his life, including the obvious ones such as Wooden’s father and his former basketball coaches.  Less obvious were individuals Wooden considered to be mentors, even if they had not met, such as Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa.

Coach Wooden was a prolific reader, having been taught by his father the value of reading great books. And read he did. Abraham Lincoln, probably the most written-about American president, was a Coach Wooden favorite. He was also inspired by the life of Mother Teresa, especially her commitment to serving others based on the belief that a life not lived for others is a life not lived.

Wooden described his beloved wife, Nell, as a mentor, too. Don told me that Coach Wooden felt Nell kept him grounded. In A Game Plan for Life, Coach Wooden describes how Nell taught him that trusting others and being trustworthy were both essential to every meaningful relationship.

Each of us needs mentors and coaches over the course of our lives to continue learning and growing, especially if we aspire to excellence in our work and our relationships outside of work (like being a good spouse or father). Hopefully you will find the advice from Coach Wooden and Don Yaeger to be as helpful as I did.  To learn more, I encourage you to read A Game Plan for Life.

Adapted from Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.


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