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Lessons Learned as a Head Coach

When Zack Graham took over at Douglasville, Georgia’s Alexander High School in 2010 as a first-time head coach, the first thing he made sure to do was surround himself with a dependable staff.
Graham was arriving in Douglasville, a town 30 miles west of Atlanta, after an eight-year stint as an assistant at county rival Chapel Hill. He understood that as he began his new journey, he’d need to have a solid support system.

Flash forward to 2017, and Alexander High has been to the state playoffs every year, won a regional championship and last year finished third in the state.

A major factor in that success has been his willingness to delegate to his assistants.

“When I hired my staff I knew what my deficiencies were. So I put good people around me,” Graham said. “For example: I’m terrible at my computers or technology or GameChanger. I’m more of a pencil and paper kind of guy. It’s kind of the old school part of me. So I put somebody on staff who knows that kind of stuff and he’s very good with it. I think when everything is explained clearly and you tell people exactly what you want done, they’ll get it done.”

One of the reasons Graham got into coaching in the first place was the profound affect that coaches and teachers had on his life.

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"I just wanted to pass it along,” Graham said. “I just want to be a part of kids’ lives. There’s not a greater stage to show kids how to learn about leadership and teamwork than on a ball field.”

When he came to Alexander high to be a first-time head coach, he realized he had a lot to learn in comparison to his days as an assistant. 

“If you’re not used to wearing the head coaching shoes, you don’t really know what it’s like until you’re in that position. There’s a lot of paperwork and there’s physicals you’ve got to keep track of and you’re responsible for their academics. When you’re an assistant coach you just do what the head coach asks and just show up and coach some ball. The head coach is not just a coach but also a secretary. There’s so many different things you have to do as a head coach. Quite honestly it took me a couple of years to get used to all that, juggle it and have the time management for all those things. As the years progress, that stuff becomes like riding a bike.”

But the hard work has carried many rewards. Whereas Graham used to look at wins as a symbol of success, being a head coach has paid off in many other ways.

“In my younger days I would have said winning. But now 14 years later, it’s different. I got invited to one of my former player’s college graduation. A few days ago, I got invited to a wedding. About two months ago, I had a former player of mine get married and I found out she’s having kids and she’s sending me pictures. That’s what’s rewarding about the job.”

Graham has also learned a thing or two to tell others who might be facing their first year at the helm.

“The best advice I can give is to be open-minded. Listen and not just hear. You’re not going to make everybody happy but if you can consider everybody’s opinions I think you can please most. If you’re a closed minded coach that’s your way or the highway, you’re not going to be successful.”

From GameChanger and Rolando Rosa.

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