Applying Marine Corps Leadership Principles to Your Coaching/Teaching

Last May, I was privileged to be selected to attend the Marine Corps’ Leadership seminar in Quantico, VA.  I’ve written about that on the blog and for  It was a great experience.  It changed quite a bit of the stuff we do with the team, but also reaffirmed my views on the importance of ethics/integrity in being a coach/leader–something I wish could somehow become universal.

At the 2019, AVCA Convention, I was asked to speak along with two other coaches (the coaches from Canisius and Slippery Rock) about our experience in Quantico.  While I knew we’d made changes–the seminar showed me that we’d made some radical changes and that they had done almost everything we’d hoped for.  It turns out those other coaches had made changes as well–and for the right reasons; not just for wins on the scoreboard, but wins with their athletes’ outlook and maturity.

This, as always, gets me thinking.  I recently posted something about self-evaluation that referred to the convention.  I wrote it, posted it, and my thoughts immediately turned back to the Marine ‘Motivating Generation Z’ seminar I was privileged to be part of.  It got me wanting to write something more to maybe help coaches understand where there’s a beneficial relationship between what the Marines teach and what I do as a coach/teacher.

Obviously it’s more complicated that what will be below, but at the core of Marine leadership are a set of eleven principles.  These have been codified over time.  I suspect that every USMC officer you come across could rattle these off rather quickly.  So–why not go through that list and see how we can apply them to non-military leadership?

Know Yourself, Seek Improvement
There are a ton of ways to do this–self-evaluate, ask peers for evaluations/suggestions, ask your boss.  Read up on coaching techniques–look at other coaches and programs and ask yourself, “What makes them successful?” and “Why are they not succeeding?”  At the heart of this is ‘know yourself’–if you aren’t a loud person, don’t fake it.  Anyone playing for you will realize this.  It doesn’t matter–loud does not mean effective.  You can lead with an infinite variety of styles, but it has to be YOU and who YOU are.

Be Proficient with Tactics and Techniques
Some of this comes with experiences, but you can enhance this throughout your career by studying books or through time in the gym, ‘experimenting’ to figure out the most efficient drills to use (CAUTION: this is not a universal thing…what works with one group won’t necessarily with another!).    Do you understand different offensive and defensive systems?  Consider how you act during matches–do you make adjustments or stick with a regular lineup under all circumstances?  A great way of getting better–work alongside coaches you respect who know more or have different styles…this will be mutually beneficial.

Know Your Marines and Look Out for their Welfare
We don’t have Marines, we have athletes, but this is important–and it is ignored by many coaches working with elite athletes.  Know their personalities, how they react to comments, what their relationship is with teammates and your other coaches.  Make sure they know you are working hard for them (if not harder).  Encourage them to find ways to get better on their own.  Just as important–give them time off from work…help develop them in multiple directions (darts tournament?  bowling?  …you can foster competitiveness without being on a VB court)

What is interesting is what the Marines see as key attributes in enlisted personnel…they want questions, they want curiosity–they want THINKING, not robots.  Keeping them up-to-date, letting them know the big picture, sharing hardship and joy with them–these all create a feeling of ‘team’ rather than just being there as an employee/replaceable part in a machine.

Set the Example
Poor leaders give orders, but do not follow those principles on their own.  If you tell athletes to refrain from drinking alcohol or putting a midnight curfew on them, you can’t be out with a Yuengling or pinot noir at two in the morning.  If you expect your athletes to follow certain rules, you, as a coach, have to be willing to follow them as well–and if you don’t, there needs to be a good rationale, not just ‘Because I’m the coach….’

Make sure you dress appropriately for your position.  Show initiative–and reward positive examples of initiative taken by your staff and players (this actually goes further back than the USMC to the days of Sun Tzu).  Just as important, don’t play favorites–for a team to function, everyone must be on the same page, following the same rules.  It is the TEAM that enjoys success, not the individual.

The toughest, possibly most important thing–according to the Marines, leaders need to be optimistic at all times.  This doesn’t mean to be pollyanna-ish.  If you are down 24-1, you don’t say “Hey, we can still win this!”  Instead, you talk about scoring the next point, being in the right position, fighting to reach 3, 5, or 7 points before the end.  The minute a leader becomes cynical or negative, the team’s chances of success will fade.  (…and if you read the self-evaluate link above, you know I was guilty of negativity during matches this past year; I’m far from perfect as a leader).

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Ensure the Job is Understood, Supervised, and Accomplished
Pretty simple to say.  Coaches need to think through each drill and make sure players understand what’s going on.  Instructions must be clear and concise.  Ask if they are understood and permit questions/clarification (that’ll avoid frustration if it isn’t done the way you want).  More important, don’t always explain things the same way–change your routine so that it is NOT routine…this will keep things fresh and more likely that the athletes retain things the first time.

For a good leader this is the toughie–you have to make sure you obey the Goldilocks principle.  The level of your supervision has to be ‘just right’.  If you keep interfering with the drill, players will rely on you for everything, no longer thinking for themselves.  If you don’t make sure there’s adequate supervision, athletes will eventually get a bit sloppy (because they are bored or perhaps because you did not explain the drill/objective adequately) and instead of getting improvement, you’ll have simply wasted time.

Train Your Marines as a Team
Coaches don’t ‘control’ athletes in the same way as the Marine Corps operates–where soldiers are effectively on-duty 24/7/365.  You work as a team because a team is always stronger than a group of individuals.  Everyone can give examples of it–where it is beautiful to watch a team in action, as if there’s telepathy going on.  And then, fans, coaches, observers, are all left asking, “How do they do that?”  …the Marines consider teamwork critical–and they practice it!

If people are doing well in their roles, don’t change them unless necessary.  Let them grow!  Unnecessary change brings chaos, but it also potentially reduces the confidence level of an athlete.  When training–related to communication–make sure everyone knows how the drill will improve the team.

For competitive success, train like real life regularly–a hitting line does not happen in competition…train with game-like situations.  (Marines almost always train outside regardless of weather conditions–because that’s their reality)   Want to go further?–make sure each athlete understands the role/job of every position.  A hitter doesn’t need to be a setter, but needs to understand a setter’s responsibilities.  Doing so helps make a better hitter–and can also make the setter’s job easier.  It leads to anticipating game situations…and those moments of telepathy.

Finally–train competitively.  Make everything a competition.  Get your athletes striving to be the best every time.  It doesn’t mean they need to get mad in practice by finishing 2nd or 4th–because it’s a teammate who did better, but the espirit de corps of everyone fighting to get better becomes contagious.  (This is absolutely true–my 2015 team skyrocketed in confidence as the season started and they were able to unleash their competitiveness on a daily basis in practice–and then against opponents…they are currently the best team in LLCC history).

Make Sound, Timely Decisions
As a coach/leader, you can’t ‘wing it’ on a regular basis.  Before a match, you have to think about contingencies, what adjustments you want to make–what are you going to do if/when you run low on substitutions?  Are you going to replace a streaky hitter having a cold streak?  Do you take the time to prepare for likely contingencies and use other principles here (like good communication) to explain why these are important to your athletes?

It is important to consult with assistants before making a decision–but it remains your decision.  Where possible, give advance notice to your staff of what you want done–make sure they are suitable proficient in tactics/technique and have necessary communication skills! …see how all these interrelate?

Develop a Sense of Responsibility in those under Your
This looks like it’s about assistant coaches, but after being at the leadership seminar, I realized this isn’t just about assistants.  Yes, you want assistant coaches who believe in the program and its direction, but ultimately, it’s the athletes who are doing the work.  They need to ‘buy in’ as well–and what better way to do that than make them accountable, directly responsible for aspects of training?  At LLCC, we now assign players to make sure the gym is set up before practice, do take down, make sure all balls are accounted for and inflated, etc.  Everyone has a responsibility that has to be done for us to be successful.  Fail–and you are accountable to teammates who KNOW who didn’t do their work.

It isn’t about punishing failure, by the way–sometimes mistakes are made or things happen (maybe a set-up person had an unexpected delay due to a professor running class late).  These become learning experiences–someone stepping up to fill in on that day or maybe swapping roles for a day if the delay’s known in advance.

The best way to get your players to accept responsibility?  Be responsible yourself as the ‘senior officer’–it goes back to the top of this and setting the example!  Make a mistake–own it, and then learn from it!  If you make an effort to improve, then your athletes are more likely to follow suit!

Employ Your Unit according to its Capabilities
This has to be modified a bit for us coaches.  We don’t have complete control of our schedules necessarily.  So think of this when setting your goals instead.  If you have a team that went 4-27 in a small high schoollast year, is it reasonable to set a pre-season goal of beating the big-school state champ?  If you finished last in a small NCAA D-1 conference, is it realistic to plan for being at the Final Four in December?  What become better goals to set?

You can think about this, too, in terms of expectations within your athletic department.  Maybe your boss has said, “Hey, you’ve got two years to win a conference title!”  Look around you–have you been given the tools and resources which can make that possible?  If not, you have to say something.  In like fashion though, knowing your resources, don’t make promises to your superior you can’t keep.  Set tough goals, but make sure they are achievable.

Seek Responsibility, Take Responsibility
The Marine Corps wants go-getters.  This point is about career advancement–knowing what your supervisor’s role is and being prepared to take that over.  This isn’t important for a head coach, but if you think about an assistant (remembering I’m a head coach writing this)–have I prepared my assistant coach to assume control if necessary?

This hits home–back in 2013, I had a ‘heart incident’.  My assistant at the time, Laura, was five WEEKS into her coaching career and had to immediately assume head coach duties.  She did so and did amazingly well…starting that first day when it happened in the middle of a match!  I’ve tried to make sure that every assistant I’ve had develops as a leader so they can become a head coach if and when they want…but also, so they can make the determination of whether they WANT to be a coach as a career (many realize the work involved and choose not to coach); the Marines are no different–they WANT achievers, so that if you’re not that way, they want you to explore other avenues.

One more thing related to HC/AC relationships.  Assistants don’t always do what you actually wanted or expected.  They have their own opinions.  Before you attack the assistant, ask whether you as head coach, caused the issue through miscommunication or something else.  Before attacking, consider if there is a way to use the incident as a learning experience–not just for the assistant, but the team in general.


Thanks for sticking around on all this…not exactly the shortest blog post you’ll ever see.  I hope this proves useful to you as a coaching perspective.  Ultimately, I’d tell you–contact your local Marine recruiter or base if you want more information or go to the USMC website as well.  You’ll find they’d love an opportunity to help develop leaders with ethics and integrity…even if the young people never become Marines!


PS.  When I went thru, I thought I caught them all–check the blog comments…Kelly Daniel noted I got 10 of the 11 and did a nice job discussing the 11th–>keeping your athletes (Marines) informed!


8 thoughts on “Applying Marine Corps Leadership Principles to Your Coaching/Teaching

  1. I guess you know I’ve coached using the 11 Principles of Leadership. I say 11 because you only presented 10. The one you missed was ‘Keep Your Personnel Informed’.
    – Marines by nature are inquisitive. To promote efficiency and morale, a leader
    should inform the Marines in his unit of all happenings and give reasons why
    things are to be done. This is accomplished only if time and security permits.
    Informing your Marines of the situation makes them feel that they are a part of
    the team and not just a cog in a wheel. Informed Marines perform better.
    – The key to giving out information is to be sure that the Marines have enough
    information to do their job intelligently and to inspire their initiative, enthusiasm,
    loyalty, and convictions.
    – Techniques to apply this principle are:
    – Whenever possible, explain why tasks must be done and the plan to
    accomplish a task
    – Be alert to detect the spread of rumors. Stop rumors by replacing them with
    the truth
    – Build morale and espirit de corps by publicizing information concerning
    successes of your unit
    – Keep your unit informed about current legislation and regulations affecting
    their pay, promotion, privileges, and other benefits

    I honestly believe this is probably the 2nd most important trait a leader can have.
    #1. When people do not know what you know then you prevent them buying into what is to be accomplish. When it comes to coaching, I’m always keeping my athletes and especially parents in the know. Parents have to make decisions for their child(ren). If they have all the info they need, they can make the best decision for their child(ren).
    #2. One think the bothers me the most is someone filling in the blank when they do not know. Societies as a whole with always fill in the blank with their perceived data when there is no data present. Normally this causes conflict and confusion, which is never a good thing in a unit!


    1. Ugh–you know, when I wrote it, I *knew* something was off…didn’t think to count to 11. I got focused on being thorough and missed something pretty basic. I’ve put a note into the blog to check the comments–rather than steal the gist of what you wrote, they can look and get it straight from a Marine’s keyboard!


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