In the Pursuit of Climbing the Coaching Ladder: “Sometimes You Win and Sometimes You Learn”

By John Sung, Head Coach, Virginia Tech  @HokiesWlax

I know that not everyone has the dream of climbing the coaching ladder, but I did. There are many lessons learned along the way. Some great and some not so great. Some people think they are ready to take on any Division I blue blood power-5 program when they first start coaching. I know I was. For those of you who may not know my background here is the Cliff’s note version: I started coaching high school in 1996 as an assistant, moved to college club as an assistant, then Division III as a Head Coach and finally became a Division I coach. Along the way, there were stops at the World Cup level and the Pro level, which is probably a story for another day. Nevertheless, it was not all the “wins,” that helped me climb the ladder. Instead, it is all the lessons that you learn to make sure your ladder is propped up against the correct walls. Here are some of my lessons that I hope can help you climb your ladder.

  1. Set Your Foundation
Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics.

When you start to climb the ladder, make sure you know what is underneath you. When I started at Winthrop, I was lucky enough that one of our tennis coaches was friends with Jon Gordon (author of The Energy Bus). He gave me his number and I was able to start speaking with Jon while I was building a new start-up program. During one conversation, Jon asked me, “how do you build a skyscraper?” I answered quickly, “well, obviously from the ground up.” Then in a classic Jon Gordon reply, he said, “no John, you have to dig deep to set the foundation properly.” If you don’t take time to set the foundation, then the building on top of it will not last when tough times arise. I have identified some pillars of my foundation as resiliency and competition. Being able to challenge yourself every day and to pick yourself up after you fail allows me to continue to grow and develop. No matter what, make sure you invest in the foundation.

  1. Have Great Mentors

The Kaminskas family introduced me to lacrosse. They taught me the value in being selfless, how to be prepared, and if you cannot catch and pass, you could still win games by being in shape (that part actually led me to decide I should play goalie). When the snowy winters of Michigan would set in, they would find open warehouses so we could continue to practice and make sure we were ready for the season. One of those open warehouses became the home of Warrior Lacrosse for a short time before Warrior grew out of that space.

When I first got into coaching, I was lucky enough that one of the most established high schools in the state of Michigan reached out to me and asked if I would be interested. Of course, I said yes (see point 3). Before our State Championship game in my first year of coaching, I was introduced to the person who had the biggest impact on my coaching career. She was carrying her son on her back in a backpack apparatus. I was told that she would be the next head coach and I would work with her. Little did I know that would lead to seven years of my coaching life. Mary Ann Meltzer, MA as most people in the lacrosse world know her, allowed me to learn and grow as an assistant coach and as a person. MA would let me coach, act a fool on the sidelines, and taught me what it meant to be successful. Her ability to see the big picture was something that was amazing. As an assistant you only know how the little things work but as a head coach you need to have the master plan. I know that without MA’s guidance I would have never achieved any of my goals.

  1. Say Yes! (Even when you want to say no)

This three-letter word probably gets me in more trouble but at the same time has opened up many doors in my coaching career. When someone would ask could you come do a clinic, or can you serve on this committee, my answer was always yes. Sometimes not knowing how long the commitment may actually take. I remember being asked to apply to be on the NCAA Lacrosse Championship Committee and of course, I said yes. The next thing I know, I received an email saying congratulations on being selected to the Lacrosse Championship Committee, your term will be the next four years of your life! But the impact was way more than the four years of free committee work, being on this committee opened the door to my opportunity here at Virginia Tech. Saying yes takes a lot, especially when you don’t want to—but always, always, say yes.

  1. Surround Yourself with Those Who Do It Better

Knowing your strengths is important, but knowing your weaknesses is paramount. When you take a step back and look for the holes in your development, you will really start to grow. Creating a team of people whose strengths are different and unique will help you navigate the road to success. One of my areas of weakness is organization. After being able to admit this, having someone who can stay ahead of me and keep my grand ideas in order became necessary. When you are not an expert in certain areas it is okay to find someone who is. Give them the opportunity to do what they are good at so you can focus on the things that you personally are good at. Not being able to give up the control will only keep you on the same step while climbing the ladder.

No matter what, make sure that you cherish and enjoy the process of the climb!


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