Coaching Mistakes We All Make

Mike Neighbors is one of my absolute favorite coaches to learn from. This post is a portion of an article he is working on to detail his move from assistant coach to head coach. The article is entitled “418 Mistakes Later” and is still a work in progress. There are great lessons for both head coaches and assistant coaches regardless of your sport.

My guess is that he is much harder on himself than he should be, but I do think that as always, he brings up some really good lessons for us to consider whether we are a head coach or an assistant.

Coach Mike Neighbors

On day 366 of the job, I spent the entire day with the list (of mistakes he believed he made in his first year as head coach). By the end of the day, I was able to categorize them into a dozen areas of similar reasons that I felt I had made them. I will list those 12 areas below and then once every now and then, update this document and go more in depth on each area.

1. I assumed being an assistant coach would prepare you to be a head coach
2. I told people the TRUTH before I had earned their TRUST
3. I got out of shape
4. I got out of alignment between Process and Results
5. I tried to do too many “things”
6. I was afraid to do “what I thought best”
7. I exhausted my daily decision energy on stuff that didn’t effect winning
8. I stopped confronting things that needed to be confronted
9. I let the Urgent overcome the Important
10. I forgot to keep myself “charged”
11. I didn’t realize how tight my friend circle would become
12. I had no idea how to manage a staff or how to “manage up”


We all know the saying about assuming (ASS-U-ME)… if you haven’t, asked one of your kids to explain. Well, it was never more true than in the case of me assuming that my 14 years of being an assistant coach would have me fully prepared to be a head coach. While those years certainly helped and probably kept me from making 936 mistakes, it just isn’t that simple.

The job description of a Head Coach is completely different from being as assistant.

So many of my actual mistakes fell in this category and some will overlap with later topics we discuss. I believe simply knowing that would have saved me from the first mistake I made that fall under this header. Over the course of 14 years I had accumulated resources that allowed me to be productive in my day. I had forms for this and that. I had a routine that led to an efficient day. So on Day 1 as a head coach, I expected that to be the same. But it wasn’t. Not even close.

I didn’t have a form for keeping up with people contacting me for jobs.
I didn’t have a form for what to do when a recruit didn’t want to come to Washington.
I didn’t have a plan for delegating assignments to my staff.
I didn’t have a plan for what do to when one of my “recommendations” didn’t work.

For my entire professional career, I had been making suggestions. Some were used. Some weren’t. Some that were used worked. Some didn’t. None of them however ever came back across my desk to explain to the media or administration. Now my decisions had consequences. We will cover Decision Making much more in detail in a later piece.

For the last 14 years my decisions pretty much just directly affected me and maybe my immediate family. Now my decisions affected the lives of every player, coach, aide, manager, strength coach, athletic trainer, etc.

My biggest mistake was just ASS-u-ming again that “things would slow down” or “you’ll get adjusted to the new demands”… I wish I would have gone in knowing that it was okay to be overwhelmed. That is wasn’t going to slow down. That it wasn’t going to just adjust. I needed a better plan. I needed support. I needed help. I wasted valuable time waiting for things to slow down or adjust.

What would I do differently: I would have spent “free” time as an assistant reading up on the area. I would have paid more attention to the job my head coach was doing. I would have picked their brains about how they manage their time. I would have asked to sit in on meetings with marketing, facilities, administration. I would have not kept expecting what I knew in the past to be good enough.


Again ‘assuming’ got the best of me. I had assumed the trust I had earned with the players as their assistant coach would directly carry over to the new office and the new title. Not true.

So, when I began from Day 1 with TRUST as one of our three core values, I told players the truth. The truth about their situation at UW. The truth about how I saw them fitting in with the change of staff. The truth about my expectations for them moving forward in their career.

Mistake category #2 was born!!!

Have you ever noticed in your life you don’t listen to people you don’t trust? Think about it for a second. Friends. People you are in relationships with. Strangers. Enemies. You listen to people you trust. As always this comes back to a Papa Neighbors quote:

“Don’t listen to anyone who doesn’t have a dog in the fight.”

I am betting after you thought about it, you realized your life long learning advice came from someone who had earned your trust.

Look at it from another perspective. Do you tell people the 100%, truth and nothing but the truth, nothing held back TRUTH to people you don’t TRUST? Betting that’s a no again.

Read in a book that if you want to find out if someone trusts/likes/respects/gives a crap about you, simply ask them for feedback on something. If you get ALL positives…they don’t!!! So true. We have all given a presentation or a talk in which everyone tells you what a great job you did. But you know you fumbled some words. Or you had a ton of “verbal graffiti” like, you know, um, um, um, um. Only people that love you will tell you your fly was open. Only people that care about you will tell you that you have something in your teeth.

Not saying you don’t listen to others. Not saying you don’t consider their input. Saying that when it comes down to it, you only tell the truth to people you trust and you only listen to truth from people you trust.

As my first year was unfolding, my desire to be transparent, to be an open book, to be 100% honest was well intended, but not so well executed.

Once I had earned their trust and had earned each other’s trust, it was easier to accept. They believe in before they buyin (as Kevin Eastman told me at a recent clinic.) That could be restated… They Believe in after they Trust In…


This mistake shares a lot of crossover with the previous one we just talked about. It stemmed from years of observing and collecting ideas. I wanted to start this. And implement that. Wanted to have this and that. Wanted to promote our program in this way and that. I wanted us to travel this way and that. I wanted our locker room to have this and that. You get the picture.

What I quickly found was that even if you implement them all, you can’t keep track of them all.

A few examples… At Xavier, Sean Miller gave a special colored practice jersey to the practice player of the week. Those guys fought like warriors to earn that jersey. It was amazing to watch them compete for it. Tried it. Complete and utter failure. Our girls didn’t want to be different. They would actively avoid it. What worked for Sean Miller didn’t work for me.

At Tulsa we had great success sitting our team down and explaining our shot selection process. We had adopted the Don Meyer method of evaluating our shot efficiency. It led us to unprecedented success with the program. Complete and utter failure with my first team. It, in fact, hurt us. It caused more problems than it did good.

We had team goals, game goals, position goals, four minute war goals, etc… The result was that no one knew what to really focus on. Didn’t know what was important and what wasn’t.

It carried over to our X’s and O’s too. We had too many actions. Too many defensive thoughts. Too many “what ifs”… again creating confusion with our team.

It was the same with my staff and support staff. We had so many things we were trying to do that we weren’t very good at any one thing. It was difficult to even keep up with the projects we constantly had on-going. I lost track of who was doing what, when I had expected them to be done, and ultimately even what the purpose of the project was.

The solution was to SIMPLIFY…Once we started to strip away and get to what WAS important, we improved. Our theme of ONE was born and from that point on, we all focused on ONE thing at a time… and now the second that we begin to look ahead, someone in our basketball family is quick to point out that we are getting ahead of ourselves.

You have to try things for sure. You have to make mistakes to learn from them. But don’t be stubborn and don’t be afraid to change or be different…

For the second part of this article, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *