As a coach you spend a lot of time helping your athletes improve their technique, conditioning, and skill sets.
But technical mastery is almost useless if you can’t get your athletes to trust the process, find ways to take ownership of their performance, and lead each other.
Ultimately, great coaches are excellent teachers and leaders.
These books, written by some of the best coaches in history, will give you the tools to help get your athletes to maximize their potential and become better people along the way.
Most importantly, they contain lessons, tips, and strategies that coaches of any sport can apply to their organizations and athletes.
Here is a breakdown of my favorite books for coaches, including some key quotes from each book.
The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh
3-time Super Bowl winner and Hall of Famer Bill Walsh looms large over the sport of football.
Walsh was brought to San Francisco in 1979 to take over a fledgling 49er team that had gone 2-14 the year before. He took a small market team that was the joke of the league and within three years, Walsh won his first of three Super Bowls with the 49ers.
His book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, is a distillation of the leadership philosophy that Walsh used to turn around a team that was at the bottom of the standings and in complete disarray from management down.
Walsh emphasizes establishing a clear Standard of Performance, a template of expectations and behaviors for your players and organization. The goal? For every team member, from the receptionist to the star players, to know their job and to perform them at the best of their ability.
In addition, Walsh provides templates for dealing with adversity, how to bounce back after crushing defeats, how to lead with positivity, the necessity of having a hard edge, and gives a series of ideas and steps for building your own Standard of Performance.
An enjoyable and surprisingly vulnerable look at what it takes to drag an organization from the recesses of mediocrity to the pinnacle.
- “The culture precedes results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on your way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.”
- “You demonstrate a lack of assuredness when you talk constantly in negatives. When attempting to help someone attain that next level of performance, a supportive approach works better than a constantly negative or downside-focused approach.”
- “I would work with [Joe Montana] on basic fundamentals that would bore a high schooler to death. Joe had four Super Bowl rings. How did he get them? Why was he on that practice field? Joe Montana understands what mastery means.”
Above the Line by Urban Meyer
Urban Meyer is a three-time national college football champion. He won two national titles at Florida in the 2000s and another at Ohio State in 2014. The title run with the Buckeyes provides the examples of Meyer’s leadership philosophy, which is detailed in his book, Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Season.
Unlike many leadership books, which offer plenty of platitudes and motivational slogans, Meyer goes beyond mantras and encourages leaders to develop a system and process that makes excellent leadership the default instead of something that happens by accident.
Meyer emphasizes intentional leadership, relentless effort, and taking accountability. More importantly, he provides skills and ideas for implementing excellent leadership.
- “For every goal you are pursuing a process is involved. There is a pathway you must follow. To achieve your goals you must commit to the process with daily Above the Line behavior.”
- “You will play like you practice. You can’t practice on autopilot and play with purpose. How you compete in practice will determine how you compete in games.”
- “Trust is earned through your behavior, not granted by your position. And it is earned through repeated behavior over time.”
Where to Buy — Above the Line by Urban Meyer
How Good Do You Want to Be? by Nick Saban
Nick Saban, head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, one of the winningest teams in NCAA history, wrote this book after he won his first national championship. Although the book was written when he was still at LSU (after he’d brought them their first NCAA title), the teachings and philosophy Saban outlines has brought him a dazzling amount of success with the Tide.
His coaching philosophy, written out in How Good Do You Want to Be? and developed while he was at MSU with psychiatrist Dr. Lonny Rosen, is all about focusing on the process of being excellent. In other words, focus on executing your task at your absolute best, one play at a time, with no mind to the score or the results.
This type of mindset allows players to stay present and get closer to their peak ability, foregoing the mental ups and downs that come with dwelling on the past and obsessing on the future.
Saban is pragmatic and straightforward when it comes to dishing out what it takes to be successful on the field, in the classroom, and in life. A great read by one of the greatest football minds to pace a sideline.
- “You persevere when you can look adversity in the eye and see it as a challenge.”
- “Adversity creates opportunity.”
- “Your disposition and your expectations about what it will take to get you where you want to go are truly the core of not getting frustrated by the task at hand. Expect it to be hard.”
The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
While most of the books on this list are more motivational in nature, and typically tell the story of one team or organization, The Culture Code is a broad-based and scientific look at what makes world-class organizations so world-class.
Coyle simplifies what makes teams great, finding they share all share the same three attributes: Psychological safety, shared vulnerability, and a consistent and established sense of purpose.
The Culture Code contains a ton of examples and ideas for implementation. Reading through the book a couple times I ended up with over 20 pages of notes and countless “ah ha!” moments.
With The Culture Code as a guide you will have plenty of tips, starting points, and ideas to use starting today to build a better (and higher performing!) team environment.
- “Culture is a set of living relationships. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”
- “It’s possible to predict performance by ignoring all the informational content in the exchange [between team members] and focusing on a handful of belonging cues.”
- “Cohesion happens not when members of a group are smarter but when they are lit up by clear, steady signals of connection.”
- “Successful cultures [establish and maintain purpose] by relentlessly seeking ways to tell and retell their story.”
11 Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson is the winningest coach in NBA history. Two-time NBA champion as a player, Jackson would lead a pair of star-heavy organizations, loaded with big egos and all the baggage that came with them to an incredible eleven championship rings in less than twenty years.
His book, 11 Rings: The Soul of Success weaves his coaching philosophy, rooted in Eastern philosophy and Native American spiritual practices, with the big moments leading the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jackson’s leadership philosophy is rooted in compassion, benching the ego, and giving players the opportunity to discover their own destiny. You can also check out my more comprehensive review and set of takeaways of 11 Rings: The Soul of Success here.
- “You can’t force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.”
- “Foster an environment in which everyone played a leadership role, from the most unschooled rookie to the veteran superstar. If your primary objective is to bring the team into a state of harmony and oneness, it doesn’t make sense for you to to rigidly impose your authority.”
- “After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority.”
Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion by Pete Carroll
Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, is a Super Bowl champion and three-time NCAA championship winner as coach at USC. His book, “Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion” tells Carroll’s story from a young athlete to NCAA champion coach. (The book was written before he won a Super Bowl with Seattle.)
The journey covers how finally came to his championship-winning philosophy, which came to happen after years of struggling through the coaching ranks. Carroll’s coaching philosophy is broken down into a series of expectations that everyone on the team and in the organization is expected to aspire to.
For Carroll, this includes “doing things better than they have ever been done before” and a series of rules, including no whining, being early, and protecting the team on and off the field.
Win Forever is an inspirational guide for coaches who are working on creating a philosophy and set of principles of their own. For players (and coaches too), the big takeaway is to compete at your hardest with everything you do. Do that, and you are winning forever.
- “If I began to change to please others, I would be miserable.”
- “How we practice defines who we are. It is not only something we have to do in order to compete, but our practice is a competitive activity in and of itself.”
- “A player who is fully prepared on the practice field will feel ready to meet whatever comes his way on game day and thus, feel more confident and able to minimize distractions of fear or doubt.”
- “There are no choices: you are either competing or you’re not!”
- “We never dragged the past along with us, because the past is not a place where we can compete.”
More Book Reviews:
7 Things Athletes Can Learn from “Michael Jordan: The Life” by Roland Lazenby. The ultimate biography of the GOAT, Lazenby dissects the source of killer instinct and gives texture and background to some of the biggest moments of Jordan’s career.
Looking for more reading material? Check out this list of my favorite mental toughness books for athletes.