Build Your Coach Learning Network

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Challenges associated with developing well-rounded athletes are greater today than ever before. As a result, coaches often neglect their own personal and professional development. And that comes at a great cost to their careers. John Wooden warned his coaching colleagues of the pitfalls of neglecting to continually learn as a coach when he said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that matters most.” The best coaches have always understood this and are voracious learners, both through their own studies and the invaluable knowledge of other coaches.

The two top vote-getters for the 2015 National Basketball Association’s coach of the year award, Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer (129 votes) and Golden State’s Steve Kerr (125 votes) provide compelling examples of the value of building a coach learning network for continuous improvement.

Upon receiving the honor, coach Budenholzer immediately acknowledged the critical role played by the two ‘Pops’ in his ongoing learning as a coach. The first ‘Pop’ is his father, Vince Budenholzer, a Hall of Fame high school coach who modeled how to build strong coach-athlete relationships and the importance of teaching athletes sound fundamentals with an impeccable attention to detail.

The second ‘Pop’ in his coach learning network is, of course, championship professional basketball coach Gregg Popovich. Coach Budenholzer spent 18 seasons working alongside Gregg Popovich as an assistant on the coaching staff of the San Antonio Spurs where they won five championships together. Interestingly, Coach Kerr also acknowledges Pops as one of the most valued members of his coach learning network, with that relationship formed during his four seasons as a Spurs’ player.

Coach Popovich is a highly sought addition to a coach’s learning network because he offers support and encouragement while also providing those around him with opportunities to learn by doing. As coach Budenholzer explained:

I thought the thing that Pop did for me and did for a lot of coaches, is he let me coach. It seems really simple. That’s part of the beauty about being with Pop and being around Pop, is that sometimes the things that are the most successful are very, very simple. He let us coach.

The importance of building a strong learning network is more vividly illustrated for Steve Kerr, who had no coaching experience prior to becoming Golden State’s head coach this season. When asked about how he learned to coach, Kerr shared that his coaching approach is actually a composite of ideas pulled from his experiences as a player under many legendary basketball coaches. For example, while playing for Lute Olson he learned the value of building a team culture founded on pride and work ethic, and from Lenny Wilkens he learned to simplify team strategy by teaching players how to run just a few plays really well.

The Steve Kerr example also reinforces the value of expanding your coach learning network beyond coaches in your own sport. Once deciding to pursue coaching opportunities Coach Kerr visited with championship football coach Pete Carroll to learn more about creating high energy practice environments, a hallmark of Coach Carroll’s teams.

The value of a broad and diverse coach learning network is that it allows coaches to reflect on different coaching styles and approaches to dealing with common coaching issues. Like Coach Kerr explains, the best coaches don’t simply copy what they observe, they adapt what they observe to fit their own unique personalities and values: “That’s what all my mentors have told me: ‘Just be yourself, be true to yourself, stick to your principles, and it’ll work.”

How can you find mentors and collaborators who will ‘let you coach’ and be ‘true to yourself’, while also serving as critical sounding boards who will provide the open and honest feedback needed to improve as a coach?

Through my review of the literature and work with dozens of US Olympic coaches, I have found several strategies that work quite well for building an effective coach learning network.

In one exercise I first ask coaches to take a blank sheet of paper and print the word COACH in the middle of the sheet. Much like a bicycle wheel, the coach is the hub and those in their learning network are connected to them like spokes. Coaches are then asked if they can identify 8-10 members of their learning network and print their names at the end of the ‘spokes’ in the wheel.

The second part of the exercise requires coaches to reflect on the strength of their learning network; in other words, how strong are the spokes? The key to a strong and effective coach learning network is to surround yourself with the right people, sometimes referred to as ‘energy givers’. Energy givers are people who build your confidence and keep you excited and focused about your work. Conversely, ‘energy suckers’ are people who drain your enthusiasm and pull your focus away from the things that matter most to helping you perform at your best as a coach.

I prepared the following checklist for coaches to use to evaluate the strength of each member of their learning network.

- Exude positive energy and enthusiasm
- Display uncommon work ethic
- Work with a clear sense of purpose
- Hold others accountable
- Are trustworthy
- Known for their relationship skills
- Offer frequent and genuine praise
- Are good listeners
- Open to learning from others
- Show humility and gratitude

This exercise helps coaches not only identify potential gaps in their coach learning network, but also stimulates self-reflection on their own value as a potential contributor to other coaches’ learning networks.

Coaches who score high on this checklist are highly sought out by other coaches. The surest way to add people to your coach learning network is to show them you can add value to their learning network. Much like Coach Budenholzer and Coach Kerr, the best coaches are lifelong learners who are constantly adding ‘spokes’ to their coach learning networks so they can, to paraphrase Coach Wooden, continue to learn after they know it all.

To rerun this article in a magazine, newspaper, website, or e-newsletter with permission from Human Kinetics, Inc., please contact the publicity department at 1-800-747-4457 or


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Powell, S. (2015, February 4). Two ‘Pops’ shape Budenholzer’s path to success: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Mike Budenholzer's pop, Vince, inspired the 2015 coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars. Retrieved from

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Scott, N. (2015, April 21). Mike Budenholzer gets choked up thanking Gregg Popovich in Coach of the Year acceptance speech. USA Today Sports. Retrieved from

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