Chris Holder: Mentoring Young Coaches

Mentoring young coaches might very well be a larger task than coaching an athlete to reach his or her potential.

The hand-holding, the pushing from behind, the celebrations of a job well done and the dreaded recovery from a failure are all things that end up being your day-to-day tasks in this business.

I am going to take a vastly different approach to putting this article together. It probably won’t be what you are expecting. I don’t have a numerical list that gives you a blueprint how to navigate or approach bringing up the young ones.

Instead, I am going to highlight the many failures that I have made, in hopes the lessons will shine through. Truth is, I am a ‘people person’ to my core, but I tend to be a less than stellar manager of employees.

In the beginning

I’ve been in the strength game for almost 20 years now. As an athlete and as a kid, I have been obsessed with weight training. I remember the first time I saw Lee Haney as a boy. I was completely mesmerized by what was on the page and to this day I can remember how I felt the first time seeing a human being carrying that much muscle. I had no idea what I was looking at, but I knew that I wanted to be just like him.

My obsession grew when I started playing football. I could get as swole as I wanted and it was going to actually help me with my second love?! Sign me up! It was a no brainer and I loved every second in the gym. The funny thing was, I never had a consistent training partner. My old man was the most consistent guy, and we ended up training for a couple years in high school at the local family gym in town. Of course, I would lift with my team, but no one stood out as ‘my partner.’

Fast forward to college and the theme of being more of a loner in the weight room continued. I always wanted someone to count on—hell or high water—but that relationship never materialized.

The irony of this whole stream of thought is, when I started coaching, I was alone.

The very second I graduated, I ran my own show. Besides a small six-month stretch in 2002, I was the head strength coach (and the only strength coach in my building) for the first six years of my career. I became, out of necessity, the only thing I needed. I was able to mold my coaching style, programming philosophy, session organization and leadership approach my way . . . without input, influence or pressure from anyone else.

I became hyper-efficient and so self-reliant that it would eventually come back to bite me in the ass.

Fall from grace

Six years alone can either be completely therapeutic, or set the stage for disaster.

For me, it was a little bit of both. I had just accepted the head football strength gig at San Jose State University in 2006 and I was walking into a setting that, on paper, looked like a dream. Several full-time coaches and lots of GAs.

I was leaving a place with 21 sports that I was entirely responsible for and entering a job where my only concern was football.

I remember laughing to myself that I could do this job in my sleep. What was even worse for me was we had immediate success as soon as I stepped on board. After decades of mediocrity at that school, in one spring and summer we turned a habitual loser into a 9-3 force and won a bowl game for the first time in 17 years.

My ego could not have been any bigger.

The director of strength there was being pushed out, and due to the impact I was able to make on football, I was the easy candidate for his position. In a whirlwind, I was back in the driver’s seat at another university. What I thought was going to be a piece of cake became a much more difficult endeavor than you could imagine.

I had . . . assistants.


Relationships are the cornerstone of every good business, the heartbeat of every team and the way effective leaders lead. You work and work to create an environment of support—of team work—and you try and make the workplace a place for growth and positivity. Problem is, it’s not an organic thing. It takes nurturing and it takes a great leader. The fellow who I replaced was one of the worst leaders I had ever been around. He loved to be all over the boards emotionally and created an environment that was hostile, unpleasant and nerve wracking. When I took over, the staff looked to me to right the ship.

I did a good job at first by simply not being him. I couldn’t have failed because a toddler could have done a better job than this guy. My approach was to let the coaches coach, not to micromanage, and be a beacon of support no matter what. Sounds good, right?

My next question is, how many of you have kids? Young, grade school kids? Think of parenting where you are only a cheerleader, that you get their back even when they are wrong and you never raise your voice to them even when they need it.

Won’t cut it, will it?

It won’t cut it as a manager of grownups either. I learned the hard way. If you let even the most intelligent people around you walk all over you, eventually they will. And, as you can tell by how I’m framing this, that’s exactly what happened to me. Without getting too deep into specific stories, I had one coach who said and did some fairly inappropriate things, and instead of disciplining him, I smothered him with protection. (No, he didn’t do any harm to an athlete in any way, just carried a demeanor that was unpleasant, would say things that were over the top and made many of his athletes uncomfortable.)

I should have hammered him, but I didn’t.

Never hire your friends

It’s poison.

Yes, I also made that mistake.

I brought in a guy who was a good coach, and someone I trusted with my life. I wanted to bring in a coach I wouldn’t have to babysit. I brought him up as a coach, mentored him front to back and when I had the opportunity to hire someone full time, he was my only phone call. What started out as the dream opportunity—you know, bring in your boy, someone that you love, get to work together all day, yuck it up and win championships—ended up a nightmare.

He was another person who I let walk all over me. Not only did we both get forced out of that job at the same time after many years of service, we haven’t spoken since.

Friends are blinded by the friendship. Even in business, that pre-established relationship ends up muddying the water. There are moments where the friendship must take a back seat to the job at hand, and for most people, one of the two needs to go.

They are not your friends . . . they are your employees. Know the difference.

Never assume anything

With my earlier set up, I wanted to convey to you that I had become very good at working alone. When you spend as much time running your own shop, by yourself, as I did, you begin to take for granted things that to you, are obvious. Like that math teacher in high school who, because it was how their mind worked, would take for granted that you didn’t think like him and those minute-yet-critical details would be passed over. He assumed that you just knew it because it is so elementary . . . to him.

My expectations for my assistants are the exact ones I have for myself. My self-discipline when it comes to the job is something I don’t have to work at because it’s woven into the fiber of my being. What I continually trip over, as a manager of people, is that like small children, if you want something done in a very specific way, you have to spell it out to them. Front to back, inside and out. If you want them to show up in the morning a minimum of 15 minutes before their first group arrives and not 90 seconds before, you had better say those very words. If, whenever you are out of the office for whatever reason, you don’t want them to text you incessantly with problems, questions and a lack of drive to manage things on their own, you better tell them. If you expect them to stay until closing, even if their last group is complete over an hour before closing time, you better tell them.

The list goes on and on.

Where I have made monumental mistakes is assuming that my people think like I do. What I have come to find is that I’m a really abstract, complicated guy whose mind is moving a mile a minute. I am so set in my ways that for me, the roads to solutions are short, decision making is done in a breath and quality standards are unwavering.

What I’m realizing is that this is not the norm. Not by a long shot.

Leading by example is not enough

This could easily fall into the assuming category, but the idea of leading by example is important enough to warrant its own section.

My entire playing career revolved around one cornerstone concept: lead by example. This is how things are done. “If you don’t know how you should conduct business, just watch Holder.” That is how I lived my athletic life, so when I went into coaching, my knee jerk was to carry this one into my professional life.

Yes, you should do the right thing all of the time.
Yes, you should work hard, put you athletes first and not leave until the job is done.
Yes, you should be selfless so that others might have the opportunity to shine.

All these things are great qualities, but they’re not enough when it comes to mentoring someone.

It took me nearly 15 years to realize that mentoring was about, well, mentoring. Teaching. Coaching coaches. My old approach was just to watch how I did it. Follow my lead and do your best to adapt to me. And after multiple face plants, I’ve learned that sitting down with a person, day-after-day, and talking shop, working our way through abstract situations, problem solving together is the only way to help them grow. I want to make all of the decisions because it’s easy for me, it’s efficient and it saves copious amounts of time.

What that doesn’t do is help someone young learn how to do that very thing.

They are just babies

Like little kids, young coaches need to be shown how to do everything. It might sound somewhat condescending, but it’s not intended to be. If you have high standards and believe that “this is the way it should be done,” you have to show them. You have to give them the plans on how to get from point A to point B. It’s unfair to you both to have expectations of them, without telling them what you expect.

I by no means align myself to the doctrine that the way to get new coaches to coach is to beat them down. We’ve all heard stories of those places where GAs are expected to work 15-hours a day and 14.5 of those hours are straightening up the weight room, running to get the full-timers lunch and picking up the head football coaches’ kids from school every day.

On my way out of SJSU, the guy who came in to replace me (yes, we had to share the same building for two weeks), made my coaching friend from earlier in this article clean all day. He walked around with a rag in his hand, polishing dumbbells for weeks before he put in his resignation. I’m sure it was the intention of the new coach to see if he could push boundaries with my guy, but it also had to do with him being an asshole before anything else.

I don’t think you need to make them miserable to get them to shine. You don’t need to use the same psychological tactics that the military does in basic training. What new, young coaches need is hand-holding. They need instruction. They need us to impart our years of wisdom so they can take all the lessons and then further the work.

Mentoring is about being a teacher first.

Here’s the earlier article that prompted this one: Coaching with Confidence

Coaching and Business resources at OTP

Apprenticeship Vs Internship - Gray Cook Lecture - Gray Cook Mentorship

Tap into the Brains of Some of the World’s Leading Performance Experts

FREE Access to the OTP Vault


Inside the OTP Vault, you’ll find over 20 articles and videos from leading strength coaches, trainers and physical therapists such as Dan John, Gray Cook, Michael Boyle, Stuart McGill and Sue Falsone.

Click here to get FREE access to the On Target Publications vault and receive the latest relevant content to help you and your clients move and perform better.