Coaching for Sustainable Excellence

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What coach or athlete hasn’t dreamed of standing on the center step of the podium or hoisting a championship trophy over their head? Some of you may have just won your first championship this past season. Yet, many great coaches and athletes go their entire career without ever realizing that dream.

Legendary athletes such as Ted Williams, Ernie Banks and Tony Gwynn (baseball), Barry Sanders, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino (football), Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and Elgin Baylor (basketball), and Jim Ryun (track and field) are often cited on lists of all-time greats who never won their sport’s most sought-after prize. The coaching list includes some of the most successful and highly regarded coaches of all-time such as Jerry Sloan and Don Nelson in basketball and Marv Levy and Bud Grant in football.

Yet, other coaches and athletes win not only one, but multiple championships. Perhaps what is most impressive is the coach who leads athletes and teams to that most elusive of sport accomplishments – consecutive championships. Although UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is the most celebrated serial champion leading his men’s basketball teams to 7 consecutive national titles, other coaches are equally well known in their respective sports for championship runs (such as college coaches Anson Dorrance in women’s soccer and Dan Gable in wrestling each with 9 consecutive national titles).

Whether you are a coach striving to lead your athletes to that first championship or a coach who is in the position of trying to figure out how to help your athletes repeat, much can be learned from the few who have climbed the mountain and stayed there for multiple years in a row. One such coach is Penn State coach Russ Rose, the inspiration for this Coach Doc entry.

Coach Rose has guided his teams to 7 national titles, including the last 2 championships and 4 consecutive NCAA volleyball titles between 2007 and 2010 while also setting a record for consecutive wins at 109 matches. In 2014 coach Rose shared his approach to leading teams to consecutive championships in an interview with performance psychologist Dr. David Yukelson. Here are four key lessons from that interview, along with direct quotes from coach Rose;

1. Championships aren’t defended, they are renewed. No energy is wasted on trying to defend a title. All effort and focus is directed to relentlessly chasing a new championship. We are not defending; rather we are pursuing a new championship.

2. Set demanding expectations and challenge athletes to focus on embracing challenge. Practices are always physically and emotionally challenging. Athletes must want to continually get better. I expect them to bring consistent energy, effort and spirit to every practice.

3. Regular direct and honest performance feedback. Throughout the season athletes are called into his office and in one minute told three things: a) what they are doing well, b) what they need to work on, and c) where they can make the best contribution to the team in the next training cycle. Coach Rose refers to this as his ‘one-minute drill’. The goal is to let each athlete know, on a regular basis, exactly where they stand in terms of their performance contribution to the team. It is not a negotiation. The first day of practice, each player has to be prepared and ready to get after it from the get go.

4. Open competition every year for every position and playing time. Yesterday’s performance does not guarantee anything. Athletes must show up to every practice and every game with a ‘want it’ and ‘prove it’ attitude, regardless of their prior accomplishments or standing on the team. Just because you are a senior or got a lot of playing time last year does not mean you will be handed the starter position. You have to earn it!

Although countless factors influence whether a coach or an athlete wins a championship, such as injury, strength of schedule or playoff seeding, the approach used by championship coaches such as Russ Rose can help every coach and their athletes move closer to winning the title. Championships are won by creating a culture of excellence where working hard every day in practice, giving and receiving brutally honest feedback, and competing with heart every moment are non-negotiable core values.


Bender, B. (2015, February 20). Top 25 active coaches without a championship. Sporting News. Retrieved from

ESPN. (2004, April 12). Retired without the big one. ESPN: Page 2. Retrieved from

Jones, M. (2012, April 3). 5 best NBA coaches to never win a championship. Bleacher Report. Retrieved from

NCAA. (2015). Women’s volleyball: Championship history. Retrieved from

Yukelson, D., & Rose, R. (2014). The psychology of ongoing excellence: An NCAA coach’s perspective on winning consecutive multiple national championships. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 5, 44-58.

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