3 Big Mistakes I Made When Transitioning to a Head Coaching Position - Mike Neighbors

I kept a log of the “Mistakes I Made” in my first year as a head coach. I kept it in a running list format in a Villa 7 notebook. I kept it handy wherever I went because it was very apparent, very early that mistakes could take place anywhere, anytime. Some were small and probably went unnoticed. Others were huge and were obvious to everyone.  Regardless of the size or the impact of them, I kept the record from Day 1 to Day 365. Here are three big mistakes I made in that first year.


The job description of a Head Coach is completely different from being as assistant.

Over the course of 14 years I had accumulated re-sources that allowed me to be productive in my day. I had forms for this and that. I had a routine that led to an efficient day. So on day 1 as a head coach, I expected that to be the same.  But it wasn’t.  Not even close.

  • I didn’t have a form for keeping up with people contacting me for jobs.
  • I didn’t have a form for what to do when a recruit didn’t want to come to Washington.
  • I didn’t have a plan for delegating assignments to my staff.
  • I didn’t have a plan for what do to when one of my “recommendations” didn’t work.

For my entire professional career, I had been making suggestions. Some were used.  Some weren’t.  Some that were used worked. Some didn’t. None of them however ever came back across my desk to explain to the media or administration. Now my decisions had consequences.

For the last 14 years my decisions pretty much just directly affected me and maybe my immediate family. Now my decisions effected the lives of every player, coach, aide, manager, strength coach, athletic trainer, etc.

My biggest mistake was assuming that “things would slow down” or “you’ll get adjusted to the new demands”. I wish I would have gone in knowing that it was okay to be overwhelmed. That is wasn’t going to slow down. That it wasn’t going to just adjust.  I needed a better plan.  I needed support.  I needed help. I wasted valuable time waiting for things to slow down or adjust.

What would I do differently: I would have spent “free” time as an assistant reading up on the area. I would have paid more attention to the job my head coach was doing. I would have picked their brains about how they manage their time. I would have asked to sit in on meetings with marketing, facilities, administration. I would have not kept expecting what I knew in the past to be good enough.

My last observation concerning this category of mistakes is also a reminder of my Papa Neighbors and his sayings. He always said:

“Someone who is good with a hammer always makes everything into a nail.”

I know it wasn’t an original quote of his, but he was the one who best illustrated it to me over my childhood. And it certainly had application to me and to this situation.

When I was an assistant coach, I believed it was all about player development, scouting, defense, and scheduling. Recruiting was over rated. Give me a player that wanted to be there and I could make them good enough through skill development sessions. Give me enough tape on an opponent and I could help us win a game regardless of the opponent. Offense was for fans, defense wins championships. Give me the time and I could put together a schedule that would get us a good seed for a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.  NOTHING else mattered. Nothing.

Well, guess what?  Those happened to be areas I was in charge of and “had a hammer for.”

I didn’t think all those other duties I had been doing on my way up the coaching ladder really mattered anymore. Since I wasn’t in charge of them, they weren’t important.  Some other coach needed to worry about academics.  Not me.  Some other coach needed to be interested in community service. Not me. Housing? Please, don’t bother me with that mess. Per diem on travel? Don’t interrupt my film session.

That type of thinking can’t happen for a head coach. Everything matters. You need a hammer, a screwdriver, a wrench, a saw, a shovel, a level, a tape measure, etc.  You can’t just be good with a hammer.

If I hadn’t been narrow minded in this area, there is no doubt we might have won a game or two more. There is no doubt my staff would have been much saner. And, there is no doubt I would have been a better leader.


I had assumed the trust I had earned with the players as their assistant coach would directly carry over to the new office and the new title.  Not true.

So, when I began from Day 1 with trust as one of our three core values, I told players the truth. The truth about their situation at UW. The truth about how I saw them fitting in with the change of staff. The truth about my expectations for them moving forward in their career.

Have you ever noticed in your life you don’t listen to people you don’t trust? Think about it for a second. People you are in relationships with. Strangers. Enemies. You listen to people you trust. As always this comes back to a Papa Neighbors quote:

“Don’t listen to anyone who doesn’t have a dog in the fight.”

I am betting after you thought about it, you realized your lifelong learning advice came from someone who had earned your trust.

Look at it from another perspective. Do you tell people the 100%, truth and nothing but the truth, nothing held back truth to people you don’t trust?  Betting that’s a no again.

Only people that love you will tell you your fly was open. Only people that care about you will tell you that you have something in your teeth.

Not saying you don’t listen to others. Not saying you don’t consider their input. Saying that when it comes down to it, you only tell the truth to people you trust and you only listen to truth from people you trust.

As my first year was unfolding, my desire to be transparent, to be an open book, to be 100% honest was well intended, but not so well executed.


This one will be the most embarrassing one to speak about, but was clearly the easiest one to see occurring!

Call it happy weight. Call it stress eating. Call it what you want. Bottom line. I got to an all-time high weight of 236. At 5-11, it’s not morbidly obese, but for someone who played at 185, the 53 extra pounds was not a good thing.

I was snoring uncontrollably and verged on sleep apnea. I didn’t get diagnosed but based on my blood sugar level urges, I had to be getting close to some form of diabetic situation. I wasn’t sleeping well. I obviously wasn’t exercising.

I could include some before and after pictures but no one wants to see that I can assure you. I could give you a ton of excuses and even a few good reasons it happened. But none of them should have mattered.

It was affecting my efficiency for certain and also my teams. They weren’t getting the best of me. And you can only sell “Do as I say” so much before it falls on deaf ears.

With my energy levels lower than ever, I didn’t watch as many films as I could have. I didn’t have the energy to continue confronting all the issues that arise on a daily basis. I didn’t have stamina to make it through a tough practice then still get in a car and drive to recruit and even if I did, was I at my best when I got there?  Probably not.

The list gets longer and more embarrassing.

So, I made a change. I didn’t do anything crazy.  Didn’t have gastric bypass.  Didn’t take a single supplement.  Didn’t starve myself. I simply followed my own advice to my players – make better choices.

It only took about 30 days before there was a noticeable difference. My goal was to get below 200 lbs by our first game. A goal I was able to make with a week to spare.

The sad part, is that this one was the most controllable. It was totally on me. Nothing to do with my “readiness” for the job. Nothing to do with lack of experience as a head coach. Nothing to do with my team. It was controllable and it was on me.

In year two, I can already count the times being in better shape has helped me make better decisions, confront an issue with staff or team, watch and extra film that gave us an edge in preparation, or have enough energy to write that last recruiting letter.

Stay in shape if you are in shape. Get in better shape if you are out of shape. Don’t make the same mistake with your health that I did.

Mike Neighbors is the Head Women’s Basketball Coach at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Coach Neighbors jumped from assistant to head coach in 2013 and since then has led the huskies to a 69-35 overall record.

The above blog post is an excerpt from Coach Neighbors’ article titled “418 Mistakes Later”. To read the full article, go here.

Release Date: 
Wednesday, August 31, 2016