NABC Insider goes one-on-one with basketball coaches and administrators at every level of the sport. Today's feature is Cairn head coach Jason O'Connell.
Why did you become a coach?
“The main reason that I became a coach is because I love basketball and the platform it can be to impact people. I couldn’t imagine not being involved in the game that has helped to shape and mold me into who I am today. I think that athletics as a whole, specifically basketball, is one of life’s greatest classrooms. It taught me a lot about life, especially in the areas of commitment, work ethic, and perseverance. Being a coach gives me the privilege to use the platform I have to help shape the next generation of leaders.”
What personal experiences have had the biggest impact on you as a coach?
“I was fortunate to both play for as well as coach alongside of a variety of coaches who had a wide range of coaching styles. Since I always had the desire to coach growing up, this gave me a unique opportunity to be able to think through who I wanted to be as a coach both relationally and strategically.”
You made the jump from a Division I graduate assistant to Division III head coach. What was most challenging about the transition?
“The most challenging part about transitioning into a head coaching role from a graduate assistant was the realization that I now set the tone for the program. The direction of my team and our culture was my responsibility. I resolved to stay true to the vision I had, being patient and believing in it, regardless of circumstances. As a graduate assistant at Eastern Kentucky we had great success, winning the OVC and making the NCAA tournament. I walked into the opposite as a head coach, where the program I took over was coming off a 2-23 season the year before. As we were taking the time to build the program, I had to learn that rather than focusing too much on the immediate results, I should instead focus more on our team vision and what we were growing towards. As a new head coach this was tough, but patience paid off.”
If you had to craft a mission statement for your program, what would it say?
“Our Cairn University men’s basketball program is committed to seeking excellence on and off the court, where every player not only cares about the outcome of games but also is committed to and focused on both building their relationships with their teammates as well as growing personally. We strive to glorify God through the game of basketball by living out our faith in Jesus Christ.”
How would you describe your coaching and leadership style?
“I have a collaborative leadership approach. I think it’s important to empower your assistant coaches and players to have shared ownership. The more they are invested in the program on a deeper level, the more they will care. This type of ownership only strengthens our culture. As a coach, I’m relationally driven. Each player is different, and I work hard to understand and appreciate those differences so I can effectively communicate, teach, and invest into them. I try to lead by example though the way I carry myself as a coach, a husband, and a Christian. I hope when my student-athletes look at me they see someone who authentically demonstrates the values in my own life that they hear me say are important.”
What resources do you utilize to develop professionally?
“There are two primary ways which I grow professionally. The first is through learning from my colleagues about what they are doing to build their culture, game strategy, and all things coaching. One of my favorite events of the year is going to the Final Four where I can connect with other like-minded coaches and share ideas. The second way is through reading books. I value the habit of reading throughout my work week, making sure I am investing in my professional growth throughout the year.”
What advice would you give to other young coaches just starting out in the profession?
“First is to remember it’s about the people you are impacting and not just trying to climb the ladder. A lot of coaches, especially young ones, are quick to hop from job to job. I have tried to keep the relationships at the core of my ‘why’ and that has been huge. The second is to be willing to do the little things. If you can do the little things well you will be able to be trusted with the big things. Lastly and most importantly, have a strong support system around you. I have been blessed with a very supportive wife and family. They have encouraged and motivated me throughout all of the ups and downs of my coaching journey. Having a strong support system around you is crucial, and in my opinion the most important thing you can seek out to sustain you in your time as a coach.”