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7 Strategies to Keeping the Best Coaches

Josh Bullock
Nov 24, 2020

In early October, a profound article hit my newsfeed in Medium. The author, a (now former) strength and conditioning coach named Keir Wenham-Flatt. The title, Why I Turned My Back on Coaching. The content of the article resonated deeply with me. While Coach Wenham-Flatt and I have never met and I couldn’t tell you a single rule or nuance of rugby, I can certainly echo his sentiment and experience over my career of almost 20 years in strength and conditioning. 

The viewpoints below come from the perspective of a dozen years as a collegiate performance director and now three years back in the trenches, embedded with a singular team at an NGB. 

Like most coaches, I have tolerated low or marginal pay for my education and experience. I have worked excessively and oftentimes, obsessively to see my athletes achieve their goals and dreams. Most personally, I have been at the airport, hugging my crying daughter, as she begs me not to leave for yet another work trip. 

Marginal pay and long days (and probably nights) are among the leading causes for good coaches to make an early exit. So, how can we improve the quality of life for those coaches (or any employee for that matter) under our direction and thereby keep the best coaches - and best people - in our organizations and field? 

Hiring and turnover are opposite sides of the same bridge, with retention occupying the span. Hiring and retention complement each other and if both are done well, they produce what every company desperately wants - first-class human assets. Retention, as described here, will be the converse of turnover; with turnover being the sum of all voluntary and involuntary departures. 

Retention isn’t a badge to be won, but rather, holds real-world consequences. When a good coach leaves your program, here is what is most typically lost:

  1. Intellectual capital 
    1. A coach’s experience and (often expensively acquired) knowledge and skill set.
  2. Financial assets 
    1. Direct expenses to hire and train new coaches.
    2. Indirect expenses such as workload, morale, and athlete/coach satisfaction.
    3. Opportunity expenses resulting from work that doesn’t get done during the transition period.
  3. Social capital
    1. The causal relationships between stakeholders; notably, the athletes. 
    2. Shared understanding, norms, and traditions.
    3. Shared values, trust, cooperation, and reciprocity.

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Why People Stay

Today, with the advent of online professional networking (LinkedIn, etc.), online job boards (Indeed, etc), and web-based business reviews (Forbes, Entrepreneur, etc.), examining multiple facets of a company is as easy as point and click. Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Costco have received a tremendous amount of public attention as desirable places to work. Why? 

Of the multitude of metrics that a company can be evaluated on, which are important for retention? Here are a few:

#1. Pride in the Organization

Coaches want to work for well-managed organizations lead by collaborative and resourceful leaders. Well managed organizations often feature strong cultures (vision, mission, rules, community, effective communication, etc.) and ample resources (facilities, equipment, technology, etc.)

#2. A Respected Supervisor

A meaningful relationship with the head coach, performance director, or athletics director is important for retention. In all areas of business, employees are more likely to remain engaged (and stay) if they have a supervisor whom they respect and who supports them. As coaches or performance directors, this is the area in which we have the most control.

#3. Fair Compensation

Coaches want to work for institutions that offer fair compensation. This includes tangible wages and benefits but also intangible opportunities to learn, grow, and achieve as they see fit. Coaches see compensation as appreciation for their contributions and abilities. If they feel valued, they will perform.

#4. Affiliation

The opportunity to work within a respected brand or more importantly, work alongside respected and congenial colleagues is well-reflected in retention literature. Working with others who understand and appreciate each other professionally and personally is fundamental to retention.

#5. Meaningful work

People want to work for organizations that allow them to do the kinds of work that appeal to their deepest interests. This is the opposite of boredom - something many coaches, as high achievers, can relate to. 

Creating value for employees, and therefore enticing them to stay, is what is known as Employee Value Proposition (EVP). The above elements are all contained within and critical to enhancing overall value. Gimmick perks such as casual dress, bring your dog to work, or free coffee likely will not create a substantial enough employee value to improve retention. Rather, if employee retention is to be improved it should be done at the bedrock; including business strategy, organizational structure, culture, and caliber of leadership. 

Why People Leave

While a proactive approach to retention is appropriate and prudent; it can be helpful to know the pitfalls. The following may not always be controllable but an understanding of the effects is necessary if managers and leaders are to offset the consequences. 

Often, when good coaches depart one or more of the circumstances below has occurred or are occurring. 

    1. The company’s leadership shifts. Either a well-respected leader departs or the decisions made by leaders no longer align with current values or condemn the sense of meaning in the work performed. In this context, leadership could denote anyone “above” the coach in the organizational flow chart - i.e. head coaches, performance directors, athletics directors, presidents, or CEOs.
    2. Conflict exists with immediate supervisors. Managers eclipse companies. If a coach’s relationship with his/her manager is fractured then no amount of in-chair massaging or company-sponsored dog-walking will persuade them to stay and perform. 
    3. Close friends leave. Given the rate of turnover in the coaching profession; this is significant. When one or more well-respected colleagues depart, the social dynamics and camaraderie of the performance team are disrupted. Tertiary to a friend’s departure, the lack of advancement opportunities within the organization, will force coaches to seek advancement elsewhere. 
    4. An unfavorable change in responsibilities. It isn’t uncommon for the coach’s job responsibilities to change; perhaps as simple as a change in a team assignment. Should the new or additional responsibilities change such that the work is no longer meaningful or stimulating managers can expect a departure. 
    5. Problems with work-life balance. The seemingly unshakable cross to bear in coaching. Those whose coaching responsibilities separate them from friends and/or family for extended periods eventually lose interest in their jobs. 

Retention Strategies

Retention of human capital (good coaches) is important but should never be an end in itself. It should be a byproduct of mission, vision, leadership, culture, and philosophy. It is unrealistic to retain every great coach but managers can employ some general strategies in the “war for talent” that is often offset by razor-thin budgets.

#1. Get people off to a good start

Make sure your coaches know what they are getting into before they join your department. A good start begins in the on-boarding process - a strong orientation makes new coaches feel welcomed and a part of the performance team.

#2. Create a great environment - with respected directors

A respected director and/or manager is a beacon for high performing coaches. The best frequently engage their coaches, both professionally and personally, in a genuine way and on a personal level. They are thankful, supportive, and share ownership of the performance department. Managers and directors who fail to meet this modern standard can expect every coach with marketable skills to leave. 

#3. Share information

Dispense information about the department and organization freely. This includes information about finances, strategy, and vision. Sharing this information with coaches tells them you trust them and that they are important partners.

#4. Give coaches as much autonomy as they can handle

Many coaches enjoy working without an abundance of supervision. Give coaches a long leash; as long as they can handle. An important note, autonomy does not mean ignorance. Stay engaged with coaches (see bullet #2) but let them do their jobs. 

#5. Challenge your coaches to stretch

The best coaches are high achievers. They enjoy being challenged and view new challenges and responsibilities as trust. As these opportunities to stretch are provided - managers and directors would be wise to provide the resources and support for success. For more, check out 5 Steps to Create a System for Staff Development.

#6. Be flexible

Flexible work arrangements are highly-successful in retaining employees in other industries. Likely, coaching is no different. Remember, in strength and conditioning there is no off-season. Training and preparation are year-round efforts. Coaching schedules are often dictated by team schedule but managers and leaders should remain wise to long stretches of work/travel, life’s challenges, holidays, family events, and the like. 

#7. Design jobs to encourage retention

Nothing is more of a foot in the back for great coaches than monotony, isolation, boredom, or unpleasant everyday jobs. Breaking this cycle can be accomplished through team projects, focus groups, or the addition of variety. Consider outsourcing or automating redundant tasks. 

Judicious managers and leaders look at how they manage people and workflow. If you supervise others, be honest with yourself - are you the type of manager who engages employees, encourages growth, has genuine personal relationships? 

If the answer is no, just hope your best coaches don’t leave for your biggest rival. 


Harvard Business School Press. (2004) Manager’s Toolkit: The 13 Skills Managers Need. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation

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