Jun 15, 2018
Secrets to Success

Phil McSpadden, Head Softball Coach at Oklahoma City University, leads the most successful NAIA softball program in the country. A former high school baseball and softball coach, he took over at OCU in 1988, and has compiled 1,613 wins against only 367 losses.

He has guided OCU to 10 national titles (including 2016 and 2017), four national runner-up finishes, 29 trips to the NAIA Championships, 21 50-win seasons, and six 60-win seasons. In 2014, he was inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

In the following, he talks about teaching life lessons, coaching girls vs. boys, and continually improving.

What is your coaching philosophy?

I recognize that softball is only a game, but I believe players can learn from the lessons it has to offer. Just like life, sports is not always fair. I try to teach our athletes that and help them grow from it.

My philosophy has always been to be a human being before being a coach, and that keeps me focused on how I can help my athletes become better people. At the same time, I try to learn from my players how to be a better person myself.

What brought you to OCU, and why have you stayed?

I played baseball all my life and through college, but I never planned to get into coaching. And I certainly never planned to be a softball coach. I turned down the job at OCU at first because I still saw myself as a baseball coach. But I did some soul searching and when they called back a week later, I took the job.

The longer I was here, the more I enjoyed it. When I hit 50, it finally dawned on me — I guess I’m a coach for life. All the years I’ve been here, I’ve never applied for another job. Other schools have contacted me but I have not even gone for an interview.

Initially, did you find coaching females different than coaching males?

When I began coaching softball I called Kenny Sooter, who coached girls’ and boys’ basketball for years and is in the Oklahoma Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame. I had never coached girls before so I was looking for advice. He said, “You coach girls the same way that you coach guys.” I latched onto that and have used it ever since.

In time I learned that when coaching women, it’s important to be liked. Guys don’t always expect to like their coach, but they will respect him if he’s had success in the past. Girls are more likely to listen to you if they can relate to you — your resume is secondary. So I try to focus on getting to know my players outside of softball. I encourage them to come into my office and tell me what’s going on in their life.

How have you continued to be motivated year after year?

I’ve always been extremely competitive and I’m motivated by that. In order to grow I talk to other coaches. I want to get better, I want to learn, and I want to pick their brain. But it all comes back to loving the competition. I love the chess match of coaching a ball game and that’s what drives me still. Maybe I was born to be a coach and didn’t even know it.

What do you look for in your assistant coaches?

I try to recognize my strengths and weaknesses and hire coaches based on the areas where I fall short. I’m not the most outgoing person, but one of our assistants is. I’m not the most organized person but another is. I am good at reading people and being able to see their strengths — recognizing how they can assist us.

You have won 10 NAIA titles. What has set those championship teams apart from the others?

It’s all about getting everybody on the same page. We’ve won it in years when we weren’t the most-talented team and we’ve lost it in years where I thought we had the most talent. The best teams have players who are willing to make sacrifices to win a national championship. That means putting the team over themselves.

That doesn’t mean that everybody has to like each other. On one of my national championship teams we had a pitcher and a catcher who butted heads all the time. We had meetings with them to get it resolved but it never really was. After the final pitch of the final out, guess who’s jumping into each others’ arms? What matters is that the players are focusing on getting better as a ball club and making sacrifices that are necessary by every individual to be successful as a team.

How do you balance being demanding without being demeaning?

That can definitely be challenging. I believe that everybody wants accountability and discipline. Different people will have different definitions of what those words mean, but we all need structure. If somebody falls short of expectations, I’m not afraid to tell them.

But I also get to know my players and their personalities so I can figure out how to best coach each of them. Some need to hear your voice and others may need to be left alone. But I still let them know if they have disappointed me. The goal is for players to realize that if I holler at them, it’s a compliment because it means I know they’re better than what they’re showing.

They know that any criticism is not personal. If I yell at a player, I might have a conversation with her afterwards about what I said. I want her to know that I didn’t say anything to embarrass her, but I was frustrated and want her to reach her potential. It is a fine line, and that’s why it’s so important to develop relationships off the field — so they understand my expectations and intentions.

What are your goals for the future?

The best reward you can get from athletes is when they buy in and know that their coach will fight for them. And there’s nothing better than getting to celebrate a successful season with a group of athletes and fellow coaches. I can’t describe how horrible I feel when I’m giving hugs to seniors who were with us four years and didn’t get a title. So one of my main motivations is to be able to celebrate winning another title with a new group of kids.

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