When asked about the idea of a high school coach certification program, Mary Klinger’s response was unequivocal. “Am I for it? Absolutely,” said the Rutgers Prep (NJ) Athletic Director and girls’ high school basketball coach. “I’ve been in the business for 27 years and I’m still learning. If it’s going to make you better, if it’s going to improve the game, improve your kids, why wouldn’t you want to do it?”
The devil, of course, will be in the details.
“I think that the people leading the charge have to put a product out that people want to be a part of,” said Klinger. “There needs to be a lot of investigation into what exactly is going wrong and what is needed to go right.”
Not surprisingly, any discussions of what a certification processes might entail reflect the changing landscape of the non-collegiate coaching profession. While the majority of high school coaches have an education (though not necessarily physical education) background, more “lay coaches” – people who may have played the game but have had no formal training in teaching it – have entered the picture. This is happening at both the high school and younger levels, in and out of the educational system, and may be a trend on the rise.
“I think all Athletic Directors would rather have someone within the school or someone that is a teacher/coach” said Stan Benge, who is in his 24th year of coaching Ben Davis High School (IN). Not only would that person be formally licensed by the state, but also they’d be more likely to be integrated into the overall goals and policies of the individual school. “But, because of all the requirements demanded of teachers, many don’t want to coach because of the time commitment,” explained Benge. Consider, for example, Kem Zolman, who teaches math and coaches at Wawasee (IN), just north of Benge. In his 13th year, his in-season day starts at 7am helping students with their homework and ends at 9:30 after he’s graded papers and prepared for the next day’s practice.
As for the perks of that “second job?” “It’s not a monetary reward by any stretch of the imagination,” laughed Benge. “I’ve been National Coach of the Year, but I didn’t get any more money. People say, ‘Oh, you’ve come a long way. You’ve won two state championships in a row.’ That’s great. That’s fun. But,” he noted, “the last month [when he coached the tournament] is all free. I don’t get paid for that. “
Addressing the realities of time and money, Benge thinks “the certification process would have to be simple, especially for those who teach. If you’ve taught, you’ve gone through four or five years of college already and most of your classes have covered what you’re going to need to know. If you’re going to talk about certification for the lay coach, even though they’re good coaches, and very good people,” said Benge, “they should probably all be required to take that basic test to see what they know and then what they don’t know get that covered. If they couldn’t pass it, they would need to do some sort of course work to be certified.”
“There has to be a methods course,” added Klinger, reflecting on her own college training in Sports Administration. “I hire young coaches – they don’t understand sequence — you start here to get here. It’s not just ‘throw the ball out.’ I think a lot of the good and great coaches do have a teaching background. They understand that you start at block A to get to block G. You start at the base to get to the pinnacle. I think certification would really help to understand about the fundamentals and how important they are.”
Whether someone is a scholastic, lay, or summer coach, Klinger sees a need for a universality of expectations across the board. “You should be held accountable,” she explained. “Not only for minimum coaching knowledge, but behavior, too. This is their classroom. If some of these coaches behaved like that out in the business world they would be fired. If they acted like that in the classroom, they’d be fired. Why not the same thing?”
Thinking about the possible reaction of his fellow educators to a certification process, Zolman wants to be clear on the motivation behind any effort. “If they want us to be certified because they don’t think we’re qualified, I probably couldn’t disagree with them more. If they want us to be certified to make sure [coaches] coming out of college have been properly prepared? That quite another story.” For Zolman, that “preparation” speaks specifically to understanding the pedagogy and purpose of athletics in high school education and the complexities and pressures of the job.
“The push now is to have a program where, year in and year out, you’re competing for big time stuff. Well, I’m here to tell you, unless you can recruit — as good as coach Summitt is, nothing against her coaching ability, she gets the best women’s athletes year-in and year-out. The same with Geno [Auriemma] at Connecticut. But we don’t have that luxury. A school our size – we’re about 1000 – we’ll have someone come along like Shanna (his daughter, who attended Tennessee) maybe once in a lifetime. So, I’m not talking about women’s basketball where the goal is to go to college and play basketball.”
“So, now, what do we do high school basketball for?” asks Zolman. “Am I here about this person, or am I thinking about what that person can do for me? It’s not about me,” he stressed. “I’m only as good as what they’re going to be. It’s more about them as people. You’re sending them out as people.”
“I guess I have mixed emotions,” concluded Zolman, “but I’m leaning more towards the certification because it’s dealing with more than just the athlete itself – it’s dealing with the whole person.”
Obviously, whether talking about a coach “certification” or “education” program, questions about time, cost, content, and access and benefits need to address the different populations. The National Federation of State High School Associations and iHoops (a joint venture of the NCAA and NBA) are rolling out online programs that try to find a balance between the conflicting needs and realities. Specifically targeting the high school coach, at NFHSLearn.com you’ll find the National Coach Certification program, which includes 1) the Fundamentals of NFHS coaching, 2) First Aid for Coaching, and 3) Fundamentals of Coaching (Sport Specific) or Teaching sports Skills. The Sport Specific – Fundamentals of Coaching Basketball course has four units – Introduction to Coaching Basketball, Teaching Skills for Offense, Teaching Skills for Defense and Coaching Wisdom. The goal, said Mark Koski Assistant Director at NFHS, is to “look at coaching as a whole.” It will be offered through the State Associations and the cost to the individual can range from $35-$60. Whether they course will be “strongly recommended” or required, will be up to the individual state, but an incentive for taking the course be that coaches can double the liability insurance coverage the Association offers.
ihoops’ Director of Athlete & Coach Programs Neil Dougherty makes it clear that their program is not a certification process (which implies approval or disapproval of a candidate, background checks and on-going assessment) but is intended as year-round educational program. “Specifically,” said Dougherty, “we’re trying to improve the ability to teach the game of basketball and to handle everything that goes along with it. The psychology of how to handle different age groups. How to handle parents. How to better instruct the fundamentals of the game, individually and team-wise. From health issues to how to organize practice if, for instance, you initially thought, ‘I’m just taking my 9-year-old to play his first game of basketball’ and by the end of the first meeting you find out you’ve been asked to coach the team. We’re talking from the very beginning to advanced levels of AAU or summer programs.”
Having spent 20 years as a coach, Dougherty understands all the potential roadblocks that could easily make such a program a non-starter. But, it’s the changes he’s seen in those two decades that motivates him. “We’ve kind of legislated a big wall between our college coaches, our high school coaches and, further down, our grassroots coaches. We’ve got to do something to beat that wall down a little bit, where there’s more sharing of information, more ability to not just share but to grow the future coaches of America. That just isn’t going on the way it was 15-20 years ago because of the recruiting aspects that are in the way. For the good of the game, we’ve got to do something by way of sharing knowledge about the game. What we’re trying to start – maybe a ‘reversal of culture’ is too strong – at least opening the doors to talk about just coaching the game of basketball and the daily things that go along with it.”
Of course, there are naysayers but, said Dougherty, “What I’ve learned is that there are more people that want to learn to be more efficient and do a better job. That we’re recognizing that we have issues, particularly in the grassroots areas. I’ve been pleasantly encouraged by the amount of people who want to buy in to this way of thinking. I think we have to stay positive and push the notion that most people, if given the opportunity to learn or get help, that’s what they want.”