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May 11, 2012
The X's and O's of coaching

It's more than just the rules of the game 

Dave Ryden didn’t even know boys lacrosse games began with a faceoff when he was hired to coach the sport at Marlboro High School, prior to its inaugural season there in 2006.

He was hired for the position at the end of November 2005, leaving him essentially three months to learn as much as he possibly could about the sport before practice started in March.

Ryden, who surrounded himself with assistant coaches who had a strong understanding of lacrosse, admits now he was surprised he was chosen to coach the program. He understands, however, why he was hired by then-Marlboro Athletics Director Mike Verrochi.

“When they offered me the job, I said, ‘Listen, I really don’t know the game of lacrosse,’ and Mike’s comment was, ‘I watched you coach. You’re an excellent coach. You’re going to do fine,’ ” said Ryden, who previously coached football, basketball and baseball for 15 years.

“The best coaches are usually the best teachers, and the best teachers usually make the best coaches.”

In Ryden’s case, that meant he was hired because others felt he possessed the intangibles needed to manage and motivate high school students on and off the playing field.

Becoming a coach

But there are a number of other requirements teachers need to fill, however, if they want to coach athletics in New Jersey.

Chief among them is the portion of the New Jersey administrative code that says all coaches at public schools must be certified teachers or possess at least 60 college credits and a substitute certificate.

Coaches at parochial schools that are members of the Shore Conference — Mater Dei Prep, Monsignor Donovan, Red Bank Catholic, St. John Vianney, and St. Rose — also must meet that basic requirement, according to Article 3, Section 5 of the conference’s constitution.

Other requirements include:

• All new coaches starting with the 2006-07 school year must take the National Federation of High Schools fundamentals of coaching course and a sports first aid course within one year of being hired.

• All coaches in New Jersey must be certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

• All coaches must be certified in the use of an automated external defibrillator.

• All coaches must be certified annually in concussion awareness, so they are able to spot signs and symptoms of concussions.

New Jersey is one of only 11 states that mandates its coaches to be both CPR and AED certified. Twenty-nine states require neither certification.

“We wanted to be a leader in the health and safety area for our student athletes, and we think we have,” NJSIAA Assistant Director Jack DuBois said. “Around the state there are a lot of off-campus, sub-varsity games and practices being held, and the coach is the only person there. There is no trainer.

“That’s why we thought it was imperative that all coaches be CPR/AED certified and also have this concussion awareness program because they’re going to be the first person on site to provide some type of help.”

While many of the coaching requirements are designed to provide coaches with the tools they need to provide help in case of injury to an athlete, the fundamentals of coaching course provides new coaches with ways of dealing with other aspects of coaching, such as giving constructive criticism, properly supervising athletes, staying organized and the importance of teaching proper techniques.

“We talk about students with handicaps, parent-coach meetings and a lot of coach-to-coach and coach-to-student relationships,” said Bill Bruno, Brick Township school district athletics director, one of three instructors of the course at the Shore. “Supervising the locker room, the buses, those are all components that help young coaches take on the things a lot of people don’t realize about coaching.”

Monsignor Donovan softball coach Meghan Wood, who started taking the fundamentals course in late 2008, found it to be a big help as she began her coaching career. Only 25 years old, Wood said the course gave her an opportunity to learn from other coaches, as well as how better to relate to her players.

“You get a lot of feedback, and it put a lot of different things in perspective,” she said. “I see a lot of myself in so many of the girls ... If I see a girl having a bad day, she goes 0-for-3, I can see her getting down on herself. I can notice that just like any other coach, but I learned to talk to a kid, instead of player-to-player, from coach-to-player.”

Is it enough?

When Ryden was hired to coach a sport he knew little about, he spoke to other high school coaches and attended clinics and practices with the lacrosse coaches at Rutgers. Despite his experience in other sports and ability to motivate athletes, he knew he needed a better understanding of the sport itself.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time around high school athletics, however, knows that coaches are not created equal.

Some dedicate more time to scouting, some go the extra mile to prepare their teams and some simply have a better understanding of their respective sports.

The coaching fundamentals course is broad in nature and does not cover specific sports, and New Jersey does not require any form of sport-specific training.

Ten states do, however, in some form — for varsity-level coaches or new coaches, for example — including neighboring New York. DuBois of the NJSIAA said New Jersey could be headed in that direction.

The National Federation of High Schools offers sport-specific courses coaches can take on its website, and DuBois said completing those courses could become a requirement, but not until at least the 2013-14 school year.

“It keeps them more current with their coaching skills, strategies and philosophies, so I think it has merit,” DuBois said.

Manalapan Athletics Director John Ricci requires his coaches to attend rules interpretation meetings as a way to keep up on what’s changing in their sport, but said he’d need to learn more about sport-specific courses before saying the state should require them.

“I think it’s the responsibility of the school to make sure the coach knows about his sport to coach it,” Przygocki said. “We’ve been very positive about people and supporting people who want to go to clinics within their sport. We would encourage our coaches to do that.”

Every athletics director New Jersey Press Media spoke to for this story wants coaches who are educated and experienced in their respective sports, but that’s not the end-all, be-all. They also want coaches who are educators first, can set a positive example and teach athletes life lessons. 

I look at candidates and see how they’re going to be with the kids, if they’re going to provide a positive experience for the kid,” Ricci said. “I want to hire the person, not the X’s and O’s. You can teach somebody X’s and O’s, to game plan, but it takes a special person to get along with kids and teach them.”

At Marlboro, where Ryden was promoted to athletics director after his one season as boys lacrosse coach, he said he’d like to see a requirement that prospective coaches have some background knowledge and experience with their specific sport.

When asked if he would consider recommending someone for a head coaching position who was in a similar situation to his in 2006, Ryden responded without hesitation.

“Nope. I want to hire the best person for the job,” he said, referencing a current opening at Marlboro. “I’m hiring a girls basketball coach right now. My girls basketball coach, when I interview (candidates), my first run of preliminary interviews is to see if they have experience first, whether that’s freshmen, JV or varsity. Do they have experience?”

Robert Ziegler: rziegler@