Tips For Aspiring Coaches

Since writing about my tough decision to leave college coaching last week I have had tons and tons of people email me with support, questions, job opportunities and advice. I sincerely appreciate each and every one of them.

However, I have received a handful of emails from aspiring coaches that had their eyes opened by some of the struggles I wrote about and ultimately played a major role in my decision to leave a great college-coaching job. Although I have appreciated these emails, in some ways they have really bothered me. I didn’t want my blog to deter other guys from chasing their dreams. My post was just MY reality. I’ve gone through so much and seen even more during my 7 years with the University of Tennessee so I thought I would post the things I have learned during this time in hopes of helping all of you aspiring coaches.

**Even if you aren’t in the coaching profession, I think these tips can help you in your pursuit of professional success.

1) Make Sure You Love It

I am thankful for the advice Coach Pearl gave me before I took the job as a Graduate-Assistant at the University of Tennessee. He said this profession won’t be easy.  He made me think about whether or not to pursue this career. It wasn’t that he thought I couldn’t do the job but he wanted me to evaluate why I wanted to get into this profession. If you don’t love coaching, you’ll never make it. Don’t get caught up in the glitz and glamour of being able to tell people you coach for a living. Likewise, don’t get into this profession just because you think this is all you can do (I hear that all the time from guys who are just finishing their playing careers). Deep down inside you have to LOVE coaching because, honestly, only about 10% of your day and duties will actually be coaching basketball. 95% of the country has no clue what goes into helping a program run efficiently. There is so much more that goes into being a coach than putting players through drills, diagramming plays and motivating your players. Nobody told me about class checks, laundry, dealing with upset parents/AAU coaches, driving a coach to recruit, organizing the team’s schedule, getting guys where they need to be on time, etc. All of those things aren’t fun. But if you love it, you’ll understand that all those little things are part of the bigger picture. Winning games. If you don’t love it and you are asked to do those same little jobs, you’ll quickly begin to resent the job. No job can be too small for a successful coach. The ability to coach is such a blessing. If you love coaching ball and positively affecting the lives of kids, this profession is awesome!

2) Dominate your responsibilities and then do more 

As mentioned earlier, there are things you will be asked to do that you never thought were in a coach’s job description. However, the only way for you to move on to “bigger” duties will be to dominate the current responsibilities given to you.  I have been given many different responsibilities as a graduate-assistant and administrative assistant. Some tasks were as deflating and small as going to get Coach Pearl or Coach Martin a cup of coffee while others were much more meaningful such as running our summer camps, planning our recruiting visits or helping the coaches with scouting reports. Regardless of how important you see your responsibilities, it is your job to do whatever is asked of you to the best of your ability. With that said, I believe that most guys do what is asked to the best of their ability. If they don’t, they probably won’t be around long. Either that or they’re part of a losing staff and a culture that accepts mediocrity. To get to the top of this profession, you can’t be like “most people”. You can’t just punch the clock and only do what is asked of you, unless you want to be average. You must separate yourself from the average support staff member if you want to get a bigger and better job.  You must go above and beyond your duties. You must always be searching for ways to help the program improve. Whether it’s in the area of player development, game planning, student interaction, summer camps, recruiting, development, marketing… there is always something to be done to help the program. No idea is a bad idea. So when you’re done dominating your duties, start working on new ideas to bring to your boss. Just think, as a head coach you’ll have to have your foot in EVERY part of the program so why not start doing it now? By assisting in more areas, you become more important to your current staff and more attractive to future employers.

3) Be someone the staff and players can trust

I’m not talking about being an honest person. I would hope you’re already honest. If not, you need to start working on more important issues than how to move up the coaching ladder. What I am referring to is being a person that anybody (student manager, administrator, players, other coaches and the head coach) can come to about anything. How does this happen? You need to know your stuff! Are you able to answer any question about the program a colleague calls you with? If not, can you get them the answer in an efficient manner? You can’t ever be uninformed or unwilling to put in the work to find out the answer. You can’t just be willing to do it for the people you like or when it is convenient for you. Be a sponge for information and be accountable. You want everyone around you to know that “If I need something, I know I can go to INSERT YOUR NAME HERE.” You also need to have a good filter. By this I mean you need to be a good judge of what to go tell your boss and what not to tell him. You may be thinking, “How can I be someone coach trusts if I don’t tell him everything?” Some head coaches might not agree with me but I strongly believe you can’t tell the head coach everything. If you want the players’ trust, you need to be able to filter what the head coach needs to know and what he doesn’t need to know. A head coach doesn’t have time for everything. Big stuff, yes. Obviously, you should take that to coach. But smaller issues told to you during “venting sessions”, they don’t need to be told to coach. Handle them properly and move forward. Be someone EVERYONE TRUSTS!

4) Don’t be a “YES” man!

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. I can’t stand it when people tell their boss what he wants to hear all the time or agree with a suggestion he makes just because he’s the boss and he made the suggestion. If you dominate your responsibilities, know everything about that area (like I mentioned above) and coach asks a question about something you have put tons of time and effort into, you must stand up and say with confidence what you believe in. If you don’t, you have not only wasted tons of time and effort but you are a coward. You can’t be afraid to give your educated opinion. If you work for a coach who you feel will take your input as argumentative or disloyal, chances are you don’t want to work for that coach. Bosses (head coaches) should hire assistant coaches and staff members who bring informed opinions to the table all the time. I wouldn’t want guys to always agree with me because I know that I’m not always right. In fact, I feed off of others input. Now, after you give your input, it is your job to make sure that you do all you can to ensure whatever the head coach decides is successful. If you suggest going right and he says, “we need to go left”, then it is your job to go left as hard as you can to make his decision work. He is ultimately responsible for making the final decision but it is your job to give your informed opinion all the time. It isn’t easy sometimes but I promise it is a lot easier to look in the mirror after you’ve done it. It beats just being a “Yes” man with no backbone.

5) Player and Staff Interaction

Let’s face it; if people around you in the program or the school don’t like you, you’re in trouble. Therefore, I strongly believe that your interaction with those around you is vital to your success. Besides knowing your stuff and being trustworthy, it is important to build genuine relationships with people. To do this you need to interact with them outside of normal working hours and talk about things other than work. Have you asked one of these people how their day is going? Have you sincerely asked about their family? Did you console them when they face adversity in the classroom or with a significant other? It’s all about relationships. If you have a strong two-way street relationship with players, they are more likely to trust you. It is the same for your coworkers. I admit, sometimes I got so engrained in getting all my responsibilities done that I forgot to do this. I didn’t go to lunch with people enough. I didn’t go sit in other coaches’ offices and “chop it up” with them enough. In my last few years, I just wanted to work so I could get home at a decent hour to see my family.  I felt like I didn’t have time to go talk about “such and such” for 30 minutes. Don’t do that. Those “chop it up sessions” (as I call them) are important. Have your door open at all times with ESPN on and candy in a bowl. This will help players come see you more often. I absolutely loved when Jordan McRae would come by my office almost every morning to eat his breakfast. Honestly, it probably meant more to me than it did to him. You’ll win more than just games if you interact with others and make building genuine relationships a priority. You’ll win valuable lifelong friends and references for your next opportunity.

6) Don’t be a Naismith

I’ll never forget a few years back when Coach Pearl jokingly asked one of our managers to “go get Naismith.” Unfortunately, he was referring to me. I was working on one of those “do more” projects and I thought I had all the answers and apparently was acting close-minded to suggestions from others. To be successful, you can’t be like that. You have to be a great listener. It took me a handful of years to fully understand but if you want to reach your potential you must be a constant learner. There are so many brilliant and experienced people you could talk to, books you can read and websites to explore. With so much experience and knowledge around you, lack of growth is purely a sign of laziness, stubbornness or conceitedness. Tap into other resources of knowledge and watch your career take off!

7) Be an Energy Giver

You’re not feeling well. You’re having problems with your wife or girlfriend. You were up all night with your sick child. Your car broke down. Your mom or dad is sick. We ALL face stressful issues or moments outside of work. Don’t let those affect the energy and effort you bring to the office. You have a responsibility to the other members of that staff and the players within the program to bring your “A” game every day. You might think you can hide it well but I promise you others around your program will notice it. No matter what your role in the program is, others feed off of the energy you bring to the table. Be an energy giver not an energy taker! Energy is something that everyone can bring. No matter where you are on the totem pole. If you are an energy giver, I guarantee that you will be someone others want to be around. This will lead to greater responsibility, more trust and stronger relationships.

8) Speak Up!

I say this with some hesitation because I am TERRIBLE at this. I am not a braggadocios person. If you ask me to do something, I am going to do it. I don’t care if you or anyone else knows who did it as long as what I did got the job done and ultimately helped the organization. However, looking back, I think there are times that you need to speak up and let somebody know about all the things you are doing. If you don’t, who will? When you are in a support staff role, you might be given a different job from four different people within the same day. It is impossible for the head coach to know all that you are helping accomplish (and nor should he most of the time). Speaking up about what you do is tough. I know. I’m not sure I ever did it. However, if your boss doesn’t know all you have done and are capable of doing, you may get passed over for a job or not get the same recommendation you would have received if you would have spoken up.

9) Treat EVERYONE With Respect

I guess I have a couple of pet peeves because this is another one that bothers me if it isn’t done. I strongly believe that one of the best signs of a coach’s character is how he treats his student-assistant coaches (managers). These guys or girls work their butts off but are seldom appreciated. They are vital. If your Athletics Director came by your office, how differently would you treat him from a student-assistant or a janitor? They all deserve your respect. If you mistreat someone, it’s amazing how that always comes back to bite you in the long run. Treating that student-assistant bad? Watch what happens in a few years when he works for a company you are trying to get a donation from to help build your locker room. Don’t give that graduate assistant in the development office the time of day? You never know what school he or she will be the Athletics Director of in ten years when you’re trying to get your first head coaching gig. I promise you if you treat everyone with respect you’ll be amazed what doors open for you.

10) Present Yourself Professionally

This one is tougher than you might think. I absolutely loved being able to wear basketball shorts and a t-shirt to work each day. In retrospect, I wish I had dressed a little more professional each day. I’m not saying dress like Carlton from Fresh Prince every day but make sure you dress for the job you want and not the one you currently have. Also, the most often over looked aspect of presenting yourself in a professional manner is the way you talk. Don’t be cussing all the time. It’s a sign of being immature and uneducated. Be an adult and use different words to express yourself. How can you be the face of a program or the CEO of a business if you can’t express yourself without dropping a 4 letter word.

11) Be A Good Communicator

Although this one is No. 11 on my list, it is VERY important. You can’t be successful in coaching or in any other profession if you aren’t a good communicator. If you can’t effectively communicate to your players, how are they going to execute the play correctly? If you can’t communicate with your colleagues, how are you going to organize an effective recruiting visit? Another aspect of communication that is often forgotten about is giving proper feedback. You must be willing to give accurate and honest feedback after a job has been done. If you can’t have tough conversations with people, the team or organization you are a part of won’t grow at the rate it should. Jason Shay, who I worked with at UT and played for at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, taught me communication needs to be done “early, loud and continuous”. Successful communicators become successful leaders!

12) Have Balance          

Grind, grind, grind…that’s what we as coaches do! I grew up in a family that taught me if I wasn’t working, my competition was. Grinding is what I have always done. Shoot, I don’t have a job right now and I still wake up each day at 5am and work almost non-stop until I go to bed. This “almost non-stop” working is new to me. I’ve learned you need to take a break once in a while. Someone recently gave me this analogy: If two farmers start chopping down two different, same size trees at the same time, who will finish first? Is it the farmer who keeps chopping nonstop even though his ax keeps getting duller or the farmer who efficiently stops every once in a while to sharpen his ax? The answer is the farmer who takes time to sharpen his ax (By the way, can you tell I live in the south by that analogy?). As hard as it is sometimes to not go into the office on a Sunday, leave the office at a decent time at night or take a vacation with your family. YOU NEED TO DO IT! Spending time with your family or taking time to work on improving YOU (spiritually, emotionally, intellectually) is important. If you don’t do it, the passion for what you do will become duller and duller and you’ll eventually get passed by the coach that does.

13) Network

People in this industry are very loyal. Many are afraid to talk to members of different programs because they are afraid they will use something they say against them in preparation for their game later in the season. Additionally, they may see it as disloyal to their current staff. This can’t be further from the truth! It is so important to build relationships with other people in this business. Some of my good friends are in similar roles at Kentucky and Florida. We don’t talk about our games but we talked about our families, ideas for camps, team travel arrangements, etc. Their knowledge and friendship was invaluable. It is not only important to build these relationships with other coaches but with student-assistants, administrators, boosters and media members. These are all people that could be great resources for you inside or outside of basketball in the future. How do you network? First and foremost, do what I mention above and treat everyone with respect and build genuine relationships with people. Talk with other coaches about their experiences, go to coaching clinics, attend as many university events as possible, get involved in your university and community, etc. The more people you develop genuine relationships with, the more people you will have to call on when you need help with that next project or getting that next job.

I hope these things I have learned from my experiences during my seven years in college coaching can be of some assistance to not only coaches, but also all individuals looking to move up the ladder of their organization. Love your job but more importantly love the people you work with. Life isn’t always about how much money you make or how big your house is. It’s about the relationships you develop and how many lives you can positively impact. Chances are you won’t be a head coach or the CEO of the company you work for. However, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If you want to be the next head coach of Duke, work your butt off each and every day to accomplish it. As you chase these dreams, make sure you have balance by focusing on the things you can control and the relationships that mean the most to you. If you remember just one thing from this entire post, please let it be this….

God never promises a trouble free life of leisure, but he does promise to never leave you and to always love you. Stay positive and keep fighting through your adversities. God is with you!

If you have any other questions please feel free to email me at Thank you so much for your time. Good luck and GOD BLESS!!



About Mark Pancratz's Blog

A native of Schaumburg, Ill., Mark Pancratz played Division I basketball at UW-Milwaukee, earning his degree in marketing and finance. He joined Tennessee's staff in 2006 as a graduate assistant, earning his master's degree in sports management later that year. Serving as a G.A., director of video scouting and assistant to the head coach, Pancratz was an integral part of Tennessee's six-consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. At 26, Pancratz boasts an impressive 18 games of NCAA Tournament experience as a player and/or administrative staff member. He is a member of the Illinois High School Basketball Hall of Fame and voted one of the 100 Legends of Illinois High School Basketball. Pancratz resides in Knoxville and is married to the former Brooke Waddell.
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One Response to Tips For Aspiring Coaches

  1. Pat Walden says:

    As usual Mark you are dead on with your advice. This is very appropriate not only for coaches and business people but more importantly for any recent graduates. I look forward to seeing where your new adventures will take you.

    Pat Walden

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