We recently caught up with University of Pennsylvania women’s lacrosse coach Karin Corbett as part of our Lacrosse Magazine March issue “Next-Level Thinking” package. In Corbett’s 15-year tenure as head coach, she has compiled a 161-89 record and was named 2007 IWLCA National Coach of the Year. During that time, the Quakers have won eight Ivy League championships and made eight NCAA Tournament appearances.

What follows is an extended version of our conversation, where Corbett shared her tips for development as a successful lacrosse coach.

What does it mean to be a good coach?

Being a good coach is really making good use of your staff. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, finding [assistants] who complement [your style] and really having a group staff, so it’s not just you. I think I am a stronger coach because I’ve had such great assistants.

Also, don’t have an ego and trust in your assistants that you’re in this together, knowing that it’s our program, not my program. Make sure that your coaching staff is filling in your gaps so that you can be the best coaching staff as a unit. Be very clear on the lines between the players and the coaches, and get your kids to understand that you are in this together.

You need them to buy into your vision and be a part of what your goals are for your program. Always have them feel like they’re a part of [the process] and you’re all in it together.

When you first decided to become a lacrosse coach, what resources did you turn to for improvement?

I learned a lot from all of the coaches who coached me. As you start your coaching journey, learning from head coaches is very important—things they do really well, things you might do differently—so that you can formulate your coaching style. What do you feel works within your personality? Always try to learn your strengths and weaknesses.

I was very fortunate to work with a lot of different coaches. Some may look at that as jumping around, but I look at it as a real positive. My first coaching job was as a field hockey head coach at a high school, not knowing much. Then I became an assistant lacrosse coach at Rutgers under Denise Wescott, then an assistant at Villanova before another head coach for high school field hockey. I coached under Peel Hawthorne for field hockey at William & Mary, then I was a Division III head coach in lacrosse and an assistant coach in field hockey. Finally, I worked under Chris Sailer at Princeton [before coming to Penn]. I felt that I had a lot of experience to draw from with different coaches and their styles and I thought that was a great advantage.

If you don’t have that path, I think it’s really important to try to find some mentors and do a lot of reading on leadership and coaching. The more you can read and educate yourself on different styles and things that work well, the better. Some you will relate to because of your personality and others you won’t, but you have to draw from a lot of different people and styles to figure out your own coaching style.

How have you developed as a coach? What have you learned?

I have a thirst for reading about coaching and leadership. Be really open to new ideas and never feel like you know best.

Be flexible and patient with the kids, because they have to buy into what you’re doing and you really have to get them on board. Get them to be part of the process with the understanding that you’re in charge. If they feel like they can be a part of it and will be heard, they’ll run through walls for you.

One of my favorite books has been Mike Krzyzewski’s "Leading with the Heart.” But I also incorporate a lot of different books that my kids have to read, different leadership websites of coaches I really admire. It’s hard to find coaches of women who are women. There are not a lot of books out there about coaching women. Coaching men is different, so you have to adapt those books a little bit to women. But I’ve never walked away from a book without learning something interesting.

What can coaches always improve on, no matter how many years of experience you may have?

If you feel like you know it all, you’re already on a downward spiral. Every year at the end of the season, you have to sit back and think:

  • What went well? What didn’t go well?
  • What didn’t I do well, personally? What did I do well?
  • Why did we or did we not meet our potential?
  • Looking forward to the team that you will have next year, what changes will you need to make?

You need to adapt and change every year, depending on your personnel. Be introspective and look at yourself first. It’s really easy to blame outside sources. To be successful, you have to look at yourself first.

What should a daily to-do list for aspiring coaches include?

In the spring, your list will be about how you’re planning practices, what your ultimate preseason goal is, where you want to be at the end of each week, where do you want to be at the end of each month, where do you want to be for your first scrimmage, what is your plan for the middle of the season? You need to think of all that as you’re making your daily practice plan.

It’s important to not fill a practice plan with just drills. Figure out what your team is doing well and what they aren’t. Create drills for what you need, not necessarily straight out of a book. Drills can be great, but if they don’t correlate to what you specifically need to work on as a team, they’re not going to help your kids as much.

What about club coaches, specifically?

It’s usually just so much easier to scrimmage during practice. I hope that club and youth coaches really care about the development of the kids, not the placement of the kids and where they’re going to go to school. There needs to be a lot more teaching. Organize practices around teaching and touches on the ball. Scrimmaging does not get you that.

These kids are playing so much more, but they’re coming to us without being able to understand a 3-on-2 concept. That’s very frustrating. They’ve been playing since they were 6, and they don’t understand a 3-on-2? What’s up with that?

You’ve got to teach kids the game, not just scrimmage. Scrimmages are easy. You don’t have to say a whole lot. To teach drills, you really have to be hands on. It’s tiring. It’s a lot of work, but it’s what’s needed at the youth and high school levels.

To be successful and remain successful, what role should a coach play?

You’re not looking for the prize at the end. You’re always thinking ahead, analyzing your weaknesses and what you can do better.

For example, last year, we weren’t going to be good on the draw. We had graduated two of our best draw players, and another went down with an ACL injury. We knew it was going to be a weakness for us, so we focused in the fall on how to be a takeaway defense in order to create more scoring opportunities because we weren’t going to win the draw [as frequently].

You can’t have a cookie cutter system all the time. Your personnel will change, and you have to really assess what you’re going to be good at, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then create the team around that. Have your kids hold themselves to high standards and be part of creating those standards, so they understand the work it will take to fully buy in.

We work on leadership development a lot. We’re not easy on them. I call it tough love. We challenge them to be better.

In turn, I ask them to do the same for me and my staff. What are we doing well? What do you need from us? That’s really important.

Stay tuned for more in the next installment of our multi-part “Advice from a College Lacrosse Coach” series next week.

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