To Sell is Coaching
Posted by Kurt Earl in Public
Being a head high school football coach is more demanding than ever. As our society becomes increasingly connected on a 24-7-365 basis, the job description of the head coach is an ever-evolving document. The traditional tasks of managing equipment, communicating with coaches, players, parents, and administration, motivating players, etc. remain. But new responsibilities have emerged. In our modern context, great head coaches recognize they must be great marketers. They understand that a critical aspect of their job as the head coach, dare I say the most important part, is creating a brand for their program and selling that brand to all the program’s stakeholders.
Whether he likes it or not, a great head coach is in the business of marketing and sales.
If you are not convinced the previous statement is true, take the time to read a book written in 2013 by Daniel Pink titled, “To Sell is Human.” In the book, Pink carefully outlines several reasons why all of us are now in sales. As a head football coach, the reason that caught my attention and made me realize that selling is now a critical component of building a strong program was a concept Pink calls information symmetry.
Pink uses a classic scene at a used a car lot to make his point. Twenty or thirty years ago a customer came to a used car lot looking for a car with no ability to obtain information on his own. The customer only knew what the salesman at the car lot told him and he had little ability to validate the claims of the salesman. Pink refers to this old reality as information asymmetry because one of the people in the interaction held the vast majority of the critical information.
In the age of the internet, this paradigm has changed drastically. Now customers come to the used car lot knowing everything about the car they are interested in buying. Thanks to companies like CarFax, the customer and the car salesman have roughly the same amount of information about the cars. This new paradigm, which Pinks calls information symmetry, has completely changed the way in which a good salesman at a used car lot operates.
What does this have to do with coaching football? The same transition, from information asymmetry to information symmetry, has taken place in coaching. Twenty or thirty years ago the local high school football coach knew all the critical information about what it took to build a great football player and a great football program. Parents and players had no choice but to trust the coach in much the same way the person wanting to buy a car used to have no choice but to trust the used car salesman.
In a world where anyone, not just coaches, can gain instant access to some of the best resources for coaching football, parents and players now have the opportunity to create the same amount of information symmetry the customer has at the used car lot. As a coach, you know from experience that your most ambitious players and parents have acquired just enough information to be dangerous. They need some help interpreting and applying what they know, but they know way more than you and your parents did when you were a player.
This reality, which Pink calls information symmetry, can’t be ignored and it’s part of why every great coach must be a salesman. As a coach you have to sell your culture, your offense, defense, and special teams strategies, your techniques, your practice schedule, your offseason conditioning program, the list goes on and on. Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it.
You might be thinking, “So what if information symmetry exists? How does that make sales a part of coaching?” Information symmetry means that we are all in sales because another type of symmetry has emerged as well. Twenty or thirty years ago players played for the school in their neighborhood. They were loyal to their local high school, in part, because there were no other options. They had one opportunity, and they chose to either make the most of it or not play football at all.
These days, many, if not most, school districts allow students to attend schools outside of their neighborhood. Transfer rules by most state activities associations allow for some form of work around so that students can transfer and be eligible for varsity play. Players and parents now have choices and players are increasingly seeing themselves as free agents choosing the school that best meets their needs (By the way, I see this happening in academics as well). All of this leads to what I call opportunity symmetry.
But what I have described thus far is only the beginning of opportunity symmetry. With the rise of 7 on 7 club teams, the reality that college coaches are far less dependent upon the high school coach in recruiting than they used to be, and the emergence of offseason camps where players can “be discovered” each player “needs” his high school football coach to achieve his dreams far less than he did twenty or thirty years ago. Again, you can love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it.
To be clear, I’m not a huge fan of some of these realities, and I don’t think players and parents know nearly as much as they think they do nor do I believe the high school coach is as unneeded as some players and parents may think. The merits of their perceptions aren’t the point here. I’m not attempting to argue about the degree to which information and opportunity symmetry exist. The reality we must accept is that information and opportunity symmetry are perceived to exist to a significant degree, and this means that part of being a great coach is being a great salesman.
Remember, despite the fact that information symmetry exists at the used car lot, there is still a need a for car salesmen. The car salesmen have been forced to tweak their game a bit, and we would be wise as coaches to recognize we need to tweak our game a bit too.
What does it look like to tweak our game a bit? Here are three things you can do to sell your program without coming off like a cheesy salesman.
Humans are hardwired for epic adventures. We are all on a quest to discover meaning and purpose in the things that we do. As a coach who needs to sell his program, you must appeal to this hardwiring and cast a vision of what the program is all about. Here are two tips for casting vision:
- Cast a unique vision that plays to your program’s strengths. For example, as the biggest Christian school in a 200 or 300-mile radius, the vision I cast for our program is uniquely Christian. No other school in the area is casting the same vision for their program that I am. There is something unique about you and your school too. Whatever it is, make that a distinct and prominent part of your vision casting.
- Go to great lengths to help everyone see how they play a vital role making the vision happen. Everyone from your last player off the bench to your managers to the parents to the administration needs to know your vision and need to understand how they can play a part in making it happen.
Always teach the why
Simon Sinek gave a great Ted Talk on his Why? How? What? framework in which he outlines the importance of always starting with your why and teaching your why. You can watch an edited, five-minute version of the talk here. Sinek’s main point is this: truly inspirational leaders teach their people the why behind every aspect of all that they ask their people to do.
For what it’s worth, I believe the proper order of thinking is Why? What? How? In our program, we try our best always to teach why we do something, what we are doing, and how to do it. For example, we want our players to know why we run a no-huddle, spread option, offense. They also need to know what we do, so we teach them formations and plays. Once they know why we do what we do and what we do they need to know how we do it. Teaching the How? means teaching the players how to execute the What? at their individual positions.
All of this is essentially common sense, but I bet if you asked your players to tell you why you do what you do many of them would have a hard time articulating your why. Most players have memorized a bunch of stuff and have little ability to articulate why they are doing it. That’s not authentic learning. We all know that having players who don’t truly understand the game but have only memorized a series of do’s and don’t’s will eventually impact the team during a big moment in the season.
Why does your football program exist? Is it merely to win games or is there a greater purpose? Why do you run a particular offense and defense? Why do you use a certain technique as opposed to another one?
Always teach the why behind every what and teach them over and over again.
Learn about marketing
If a big part of coaching is selling, then coaches need to understand some of the basics of marketing. Before you dive headlong into a marketing book, remember that as a coach you’re selling your program, your strategies, your ways of developing a program. What you are doing is creating buy-in from your players, coaches, parents, administration, alums, and all of the other stakeholders in your program. The goal of your marketing efforts is to create unity around a shared ambition.
With that in mind, I’d like to recommend to you a company that is providing lots of great resources for people who want to become better at marketing. The company is called Story Brand, and you can check them out here.
I recommend Story Brand because they teach you to market by telling a story. This form of marketing fits perfectly with marketing for football because every season is an epic journey. We love the story behind a great season. We enjoy watching HBO’s Hard Knocks reality TV show because it tells the story of a season. I would encourage you to take the time to learn about Story Brands seven step framework and contemplate how you can use the framework and market your program by telling the story of the season.
Like it or not, you, as a football coach, are in sales. Information and opportunity symmetry, or at least the perception that they exist, have created a reality in which we must become good at marketing every aspect of our program. You can begin selling your program by casting vision, always teaching the why, and learning about marketing.
If you want to discover what your players are buying and learn what you need to begin selling then the Culture Coordinator Motivation Assessment is for you.
The assessment will reveal to you what motivators are working most powerfully in your team. The assessment comes with a team summary that includes personalized actionable steps for you to take as the coach based on the data gathered in the assessment.
A podcast version of this post has been made available here.