2.2.1 Planning for the year
As valuable as such a plan can be for the development of athletes6, coaches should not forget:
- An annual plan for their own development;
- An annual plan for the team.
Coaches may not always be with a team for a year and, in particular, with junior teams a season may only be 6 months long and the following season may involve many different players as older players move up and younger players come into the age group. Whatever the relevant period though, coaches should have a plan for each team they coach that covers the period that they will be coaching.
Contents of the Plan
Anyone that has travelled with children will be familiar with the question “are we there yet?” This is a question that can only be answered if you know where “there” is. Coaching a team is no different – the coach’s plan should define where “there” is for the team, namely what are the objectives for the year?
Without a clear identification of objectives for the year (or season), there can be no assessment of whether the year has been successful. In any competition only one team can win the championship, but that does not mean that other teams have not had any success.
In setting the objectives for the year, the coach also needs to identify where the team currently is (in regards to skill level). It is the progression from where they are to “there” that defines success!
Particularly with junior athletes, part of the coach’s role is developing the skills of the players so that the coach’s success in this regard may only
be measured many years later.
For example, the Argentinian team that competed in the 22 and Under World Championships of 1997 did not win the tournament. However, the nucleus of that team (5 players) went on to win the 2004 Olympic Tournament and three (Fabricio Oberto, Luis Scola and Manu Ginobili) went on to have established NBA careers – perhaps in this context Argentina’s 1997 programme was very successful, even more so than the team that won (Australia) but which has not gone on to win an Olympic medal!
The coach’s plan for a team therefore should not be limited to simply participating (and hopefully winning) their relevant competition. Instead, the plan should include:
- The overall intention of the programme – which will reflect both the coach’s philosophy and also the expectations of the club;
- Key objectives for the team to achieve;
- The key steps toward achieving those objectives.
As discussed below, there is certainly other information in the plan and other information needed to prepare the plan. The plan does not necessarily have to be a lengthy document, indeed it may be summarized in a page. In many ways it is not the plan that is important but the process undertaken to prepare the plan.
A plan should not be static and it must be reviewed and, almost certainly, will need to be changed during the period. The plan, and planning, must be dynamic in responding to things that the coach has some control over (e.g. the rate at which the players are developing) and also responding to external factors over which the coach has little or no control (e.g. a practice venue being unavailable or a change to the competition schedule).
- Setting the calendar;
- Organising (knowing) the available resources;
- Assessing the team;
- Developing the objectives & establish priorities;
- Communicating the plan;
- Implementing the plan;
- Changing the plan;
- Reflecting upon the plan;
Setting the Calendar
The calendar should be one of the first things that a coach reaches for in preparing their plan as the amount of time available obviously impacts upon what can be realistically achieved. Apart from obvious matters such as timeframe for selection of the team, availability of training venue and competition dates, a coach of junior athletes should also consider:
- School term dates;
- Dates for school exams (depending upon age of players);
- Dates for other programs that players may be involved in (e.g. regional or national teams, talented athlete development programs);
- Cultural or religious factors that may affect player availability (e.g. some players may be unavailable on particular days of the week).
Once the coach has set the calendar, they will know the amount of time they will have with the team, which has a direct impact upon what can realistically be achieved.
Organising (knowing) the available Resources
Very few coaches will have all the resources that they want and the resources that are available to them may be out of their control, whether that is money, equipment or people. The coach should plan to use those available resources as efficiently as possible.
One resource that may be available is an assistant coach and/or a team manager. The more clarity the coach has about what they want those people to do, the more value they will get out of having them involved.
Assessing the Team
Crucial to the success of any plan is to accurately assess the starting point. There is little point in a coach planning to run complex offensive structures, if the team do not yet understand the basic concepts of spacing and movement.
There is likely to be a wide variety of skills amongst the players and the coach will need to develop the skills of all players. This can be the most challenging part of coaching, and the coach should regularly review throughout the season whether they are sufficiently challenging the more skilled athletes whilst also ensuring that they are not ignoring the less skilled athletes.
The assessment of the team will form the basis for measuring the overall success of the team – which will be the improvement that the team makes. As John Wooden reminds us “success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming”.
Developing the Objectives & Establishing Priorities
The objectives in the plan should be SMART:
Specific: target specific areas (e.g. defence or offence) not just “wins and losses”
Measurable: set out how the objective will be measured, which can also help to see progress along the way
Achievable: the goals should be challenging so that they provide motivation
Realistic: this is where the calendar is so important – the amount of time the coach has with the team will impact what is realistically achievable in that time frame
Timely: it is also important to indicate when objectives should be achieved as this will help to track progress throughout the duration of the plan
The plan may set out goals that have a long, medium or short-term focus. Long- term goals may go beyond the current season and there may be many “short- term” goals that are constantly updated as achievement is made. For example, in relation to team defence:
Skill: Team Defence
Current Skill Level
Achieve by Week 4
Achieve by end of Season
Achieve next Season
In planning for the progression of skills, the coach should not progress to a more complex concept if an earlier concept is not yet understood. However, they may progress to the more complex concept if the team is simply not yet “perfect” at the execution of the earlier concept. They may continue to practice both concepts as they refine one and learn the other.
It is a common mistake made by coaches not to introduce the more complex concept early enough and the result of this can be getting to the end of the season and not having covered the material they wanted to cover. Having clearly identified timeframes in the plan can help the coach avoid this mistake.
Coaches should remember the various stages of learning and tailor activities accordingly. On a more basic concept, the team may be “unconsciously competent” and yet be “unconsciously incompetent” on a more advanced concept. Both concepts can be practiced, however the activities used would be different.
Not all objectives are equally important and the coach should identify the priority of each, and then spend most time on those identified as essential. Again though, it can be a mistake to devote too much time to these as it will be at the expense of other priorities in the plan.
Communicating the Plan
A coach’s plan will not succeed unless the players “buy in” to its success – believing that is achievable and taking the steps necessary to achieve the objectives the plan sets out. Accordingly, the coach must not only develop the plan but must communicate the plan.
This can be done through various means such as:
- meeting with players/parents to discuss the plan;
- meeting with club administrators to discuss the plan and identify what the coach needs from them;
- stating the “objectives” of every practice session and linking them to the overall objectives in the plan.
There is no universal secret of how to best communicate the plan, however without communicating the plan it is doomed to fail.
Implementing the Plan
How much a coach of a team needs to do can sometimes seem overwhelming and it can be hard to identify where to start. There is no better way to get started than to start!
Changing the Plan
The coach should review their plan regularly. Each practice and game provides an opportunity to review how the team is progressing toward the objectives in the plan. It can also be useful to have a colleague watch a practice or game and give their opinion on where the team is progressing.
Such reviews may indicate that the team is progressing faster, or slower, than the coach had initially anticipated and this may require changing the plan. Similarly, there may be external factors that require a change to the plan. For example, the team may face zone defences in their first few games and the coach may not have planned to introduce offensive principles against a zone defence until later in the season but may now introduce some of them earlier.
The coach should also review the plan at the conclusion of the season to identify the successes of the team and areas for improvement. With junior teams, it may be that the coach does not coach the team for the following competition, or the players in the team may change, however the plan can be the foundation for the following year and the review can extend or “roll over” the plan, with a new starting point and new objectives.
Coaches within a club should share this information about teams and players to help achieve long-term development goals.
Reflecting Upon the Plan
In addition to reviewing the specifics of the plan, the coach should take the opportunity at the end of the season to reflect both upon the plan and the planning process. In doing this, they should consider:
- How accurate was their assessment of the team? Were the objectives for the team too challenging, or not challenging enough?
- Were the resources they had sufficient? What other resources might they like and how could they be obtained? Was sufficient direction provided to assistant coaches and managers?
- Were there factors not considered in preparing the plan but which should be considered for the next plan?
- Was the plan well supported – did the players “buy in”? Could the coach have communicated the plan better?
Again, seeking feedback from players, parents or colleagues can help with this reflection. Most importantly, in undertaking the reflection the coach should take time to identify what went well and what success the team had!