From Assistant Basketball Coach To Head Coach – 3 Things To Know - CoachMattDennis.com

From Assistant Basketball Coach To Head Coach – 3 Things To Know

Coaching is one of the great passions I have in life. The combination of building something special, competing alongside like minded people, and sacrificing the ‘me’ for the ‘we’ are things that make me tic in powerful, moving way.

assistant basketball coach to head coach

The love and passion for the game gives us coaches the fuel to get started, but coaching is so much more than this. It has to be since so many tasks a coach has to perform don't fall under the category of passion, they fall more into the "have to be done" category. 

So as you ready yourself to move from assistant basketball coach to head coach I want to share a few things I wish I had known when I first moved over one seat. 

Being An Assistant Basketball Coach Isn't The Same As Being The Head Coach

We all know this to a certain extent. When I was an assistant basketball coach in college I remember telling recruits that I believed they could be a scholarship player, but ultimately this decision was up to the head coach. Once I became the head coach I couldn’t pass the buck to anyone else. I was now the one making the call as to who received scholarship money and who didn’t.

This is just one small example, as both a head coach in college and high school I’m amazed at how many things come my way - via email, text, phone, direct message - and how many decisions I have to make each day. Each communication requires me to make decisions. Things such as: bus schedules, kids camps, team camps, parent issues, players requesting meetings, assistant coaches wanting to know something, setting up our away game schedule, looking at next year’s schedule and the list could go on and on and on. Sometimes the decision only takes a minute or two, but other times it requires additional communication with players, parents, or administrators. 

As an assistant coach I didn't have to worry about 90% of what I now have to do. I was given a task or responsibility and only had to worry about doing that one thing well. As a head coach, I am the one assigning the responsibilities and am ultimately responsible for how my team acts, practices and plays, along with who works camps, who refs the youth games, when the bus leaves, recruiting parent helpers and so on.

After each decision is made I have to answer for these decisions. If a parent wants to meet or an administrator would like to sit down to chat they rarely ask for the assistant coach - they go directly to the head coach. Even when the meeting involves the assistant coach you can guess who else gets invited to meet with them. Yup, the head coach.

We all think about coaching as what we see on Tuesday and Friday nights. We sit in the stands and evaluate the coach on every decision they make: who to sub, when to call a timeout, what play to run, and what foul to complain about. Each of these things are all pretty routine decisions for coaches and this is what spectators judge our coaching ability on. Spectators don't realize this is far from all a head coach does. 

I’ve always loved the quote by Tom Izzo at Michigan State University, “The only people to coach a perfect game are the coaches sitting in the stands.” This is so true. And yes, I have fallen prey to being the armchair quarterback with all the answers. (The biggest difference is I keep my ideas to myself and don't yell them from the stands.)

The pure volume of decisions made by a head coach is a thousand times greater than an assistant coach. If you’re blessed to have great assistants, which I fortunately have been, this number is closer to five hundred times greater. (Not literally, but you get the idea.)

Every decision a head coach makes is followed by 10 more decisions that were based on that first decision. This starts with how you build your culture, how you conduct practices and meetings, and what offense and defense you decide to run. I won't go into all this right now, but recognizing how important your decisions are is crucial to being a good head coach.

If You're Not Organized You Need To Get Organized

The more organized a coach is the more they will enjoy coaching. This may seem silly, but it’s true. A head coaches secret weapon is organization. You don't have to be everything catalogued, coordinated and formulated to be organized but you need to have a system to follow. 

Let's take your offense for example. How do you teach your players the offense?

  1. You probably break thins down into what skills the players need to have.
  2. You then move to what drills the players need to do.
  3. Finally, you put it all together and play against a defense.

There is a bit of simplicity in this example but I think you can see the steps, or organization, that went into teaching your team the offense you want to run.

This holds true when it comes to off the court organization as well. If you are running a youth camp you need to do the following:

  • have parents register their kids
  • coaches to work the camp
  • purchase supplies and reserve the gym
  • have kids check-in when they get to camp
  • give coaches responsibilities for their stations
  • have an itinerary for the camp

Each of the items listed needs to be thought through and decided upon before you ever hold the camp, this takes organization. The more organized you are the more productive and enjoyable the camp will be for you, the coaches, and most importantly the campers.

Here are additional areas where organization can really help a head coach.

Varsity Coaches Responsibilities

  • Keep Stats
  • Schedule Games
  • Hire Lower Level Coaches
  • Organize Team Camps
  • Organize Youth Camps
  • Organize Youth Leagues
  • Create Transportation Schedule
  • Create Practice Schedules
  • Schedule and Prepare Team Building Events
  • Hold Parent and Player Meetings
  • Meet with Lower Level Coaches
  • Schedule Open Gyms
  • Schedule Player Workouts
  • Schedule Fundraising Events
  • Take Care of all In Game Responsibilities
  • Speak to the press
  • Scout and Plan for you next opponent
  • Plan practice schedules for the program
  • Plan practice for the varsity team
  • Determine what offense and defense to run
  • Manage social media accounts
  • Rate the game officials


Lower Level Head Coaches (youth, middle freshman, j.v.)

  • Keep track of the game book
  • Contact parents for various reasons
  • Hold player/ parent meetings
  • Hold player tryouts
  • Plan practices
  • Manage practices
  • Assist with gym preparations for games and practices
  • Assist the varsity coach with various responsibilities
  • Be a part of open gyms and player workouts
  • Travel to team camps
  • Register players for teams camps
  • Collect registration money
  • Create a roster
  • Update the varsity coach on team happenings
  • Learn the system the varsity coach runs

The goal isn't to scare you off it's to inform you what responsibilities come along with being a successful coach. Did you catch the second to last work in the previous sentence - successful. I know there are coaches out there right now who aren't organized and don't do half of what I've listed. In my opinion they are also the coaches who are stressed out, aren't having any fun, and are always putting out fires. This isn't my definition of success.

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Let me share a quick story with you on organization and a parent meeting I had.

I was once asked to meet with a player’s parents because they wanted to make sure their son was getting a fair shot and wasn’t being left out. This is another way of saying, “I want to talk about playing time.” I don’t shy away from these meetings and agreed to meet with them.

When we sat down to meet I listened to the players parents talk about scoring, assists, rebounds, and all the other stats they kept for their son during games. When it was my turn to speak I thanked them for bringing their concerns to me. I then pulled out the stats that I find most important - value point score, effective field goal percentage, and turnover percentage. I explained my decision for the playing time based upon those three stats first and then what I saw in practice second. The players parents weren’t familiar with these stats and were looking at a completely different set of metrics.

I wasn’t using the stats to make them look or feel bad, rather I was letting them know this is what is important to me. I was organized and knew exactly why their son played as much as he did. If I had come in and said I don’t think your son is as good as someone else on the team I can guarantee the meeting wouldn’t have gone well. Instead, I was organized and ready to have a conversation about how I make decisions about playing time.

Organization is your best friend when it comes to less stress, more success, and getting others to hop on board with what you want to accomplish. 

You Don't Have To Do Everything Yourself

A head coach’s ability to know their players strengths is something everyone expects. What many head coaches don’t realize is that having the ability to know the strengths of their assistants or lower level coaches can be just as important. 

Having the ability to recognize your other coaches strengths allows you to delegate responsibilities. When you give the right person the right job you save yourself a lot of time and you can get more done. Delegating responsibilities can be a game changer in games, practice, organization, and staying on top of things in general. I know as a varsity head coach I can focus on other areas to help my team and program grow because I get my other coaches involved. This also means I can get home a little earlier after practice and game, too.

Let's take a look at a few responsibilities a coach can delegate during game:

  • Keeping stats
  • Keeping track of fouls
  • Talking to players when they come out of the game
  • Calling offensive plays
  • Switching defenses
  • Offering suggestions on when to sub or call a timeout
  • Handling injured players or getting updates from a trainer

While I'm sure there are more items that could be added to the list, I hope you can see how each item allows for the head coach to focus on the game and not everything else.

One place I think many head coaches overlook is delegation of responsibilities during practices. Here are a few suggestion:

  • Working with specific players
  • Organizing and coaching a specific part of practice
  • Holding small group or individual workouts
  • Watching for specific details in an offense or defense
  • Coaching a team in a scrimmage
  • Breaking down parts of practice to work with smaller groups
  • Talking to players about mistakes they need to correct in practice
  • Helping to plan practice
  • Taking over practice is the head coach must be gone or is sick

In my experience assistant coaches want responsibility. They like to have some skin in the game and welcome being in charge of specific area or skill. If you're not sure about this allow your assistant to take part of practice and you assist them. Once the assistant coach has proven they know what they're doing split the team into two groups and you take one and let the assistant take the other group for a period of time.

One last area I want to touch on when it comes to delegation is all of the tasks that are not on the court or what we may consider "basketball" tasks. These are all the little things that need to be done in order for the program or team to operate smoothly. These types of tasks are:

  • Keeping inventory of jerseys, warm-ups, gear
  • Ordering equipment and gear
  • Creating spreadsheets to track stats
  • Writing emails to team parents about fundraising, working concessions stands, etc.
  • Organizing fundraisers, team activities, overnight stays
  • Helping run kids camps, team camps, clinics, etc.

Many of the items listed above could be broken down into a lot of smaller tasks that take chunks of time and attention away from the head coach. These items are just as important to a successful season as planning practice sometimes. For example, a quality team building experience can really set a good tone for players as they head the beginning of the season or a big stretch of games. Maybe you allow your assistant to plan the activity so you can prepare the practice plan.

Delegation is a huge timesaver as long as you're looking to see what your strengths the coaches in your program have. If you have to do every little thing as the head coach you’ll burn yourself out because you’ll find yourself doing everything besides what you love - being on the court coaching.

One piece of warning, don’t delegate to a person who isn’t ready, isn’t loyal, or doesn’t have the particular strength for the task at hand. Any time you give someone a task they can’t handle it will come back to bite you and you’ll find yourself saying, “I should have just done it myself the first time.” This doesn't mean the coach has to love doing inventory but if they are an organized person they may just be the best person for the task.

Use Your Time Wisely

From one coach to another, I can honestly say I’ve been where you are - coaching takes time and doing it well takes even more. You can do things like so many other coaches and hope it all works out through trial and error, or you can get insights and tools to put you ahead. If you'd like to get on the fast track I want to invite you to check out the Coaching Lab. You'll find everything you need on and off the court to save you time and headaches while putting your team on top quickly.

About the Author Matt Dennis

Coach Matt Dennis is the current boys basketball coach at Otsego H.S. in Otsego, MI. His goal is to create a winning basketball program from top to bottom. He enjoys working with coaches and helping them find more success in less time just as he's done in his coaching career. You can learn more about Coach and his journey by clicking here .

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