How Coaching Has Changed
I first started coaching high school athletes after graduating from college in 1966. Then in 1980 I started working with adult athletes, mostly in running, road cycling, mountain biking, and triathlon. (I’ve also coached endurance horse racing, rowing, Nordic skiing, and even a firefighter who needed to pass a periodic physical test.) My coaching has continued with few interruptions until now. Altogether it’s been about 55 years. Coaching has changed significantly in those six decades—and so have I. I started out as a strongly authoritarian coach who often used anger to try to motivate athletes—something I learned from my college days. That’s the way it was done back then by “good” coaches. My, how things have changed. Those coaches are now mostly dinosaurs. Of course, there are still some autocratic coaches belittling and ordering their sweaty subordinates around. Some of these coaches are even quite successful at producing athletes who perform at the highest levels of their sports. But that method is not as effective in preparing most athletes for high performance as it was 50 years ago. Athletes have gotten a lot smarter.
So if authoritarianism was the accepted mark of a good coach 50 years ago, what would we say are the characteristics of good coaching today? That’s a huge question to try to answer. The following are some characteristics that I see as defining good coaches in the 21st century. This is by no means a complete listing of what makes a good coach. In fact, it’s somewhat brief and may even come across as some sort of combination of the Golden Rule and the Boy Scout Oath. But that’s okay, as both have merit. (I’ll delve into “successful” and “happy” coaching in later posts.)
Qualities of a Good Coach
Here’s my suggested list of the qualities of a good coach today. It is by no means all-inclusive. I’m sure you could add more qualities to the list. I’ve also included a few of my personal experiences, both good and bad.
- A good coach’s primary consideration is the safety and well-being of the athlete. One of the first conversations between the coach and the athlete should be about safety. For example, when and where does the athlete do various types of workouts? Are the time of day and the venue safe relative to traffic, weather, and terrain? Are there alternatives? What is the condition of the athlete’s kit? Is anything not safe? Is the athlete eating a healthy diet that supports his or her level of training? Has the athlete been diagnosed with any significant health issues past or present? Is the athlete taking any medications? Was the medication prescribed by a doctor? Does the athlete have any physical impairments, no matter how insignificant (from leg length discrepancies to scoliosis to vision impairment and more)? I’d strongly suggest having a new client’s health and well-being confirmed by a medical professional.
- A good coach is concerned with the athlete’s mental well-being just as much as with his or her physical standing. Psychological stress from any root source (job, family, finances, etc.) can have devastating effects on the athlete’s readiness to train and compete. That’s when having a sport psychologist on your coaching “team” is essential. Your role as coach is to identify, not solve, such matters. Seek professional help.
- A good coach understands that while he or she is the athlete’s employee and that the athlete comes first, there still must be respect for the coach’s lifestyle and family time. Be gentle in making this point with your clients. But do make it. There are times you can be reached, and times when you can’t. This can be a difficult conversation with some athletes. (I fired one athlete who did not understand that I also had a life. Not fun but necessary at the time.)
- A good coach shows respect for his/her athletes and treats them as he or she would like to be treated. Respect starts by accepting that the athlete is exceptional in some way and that your role is to identify, nurture, and amplify their unique talents—not to whip them into submission. That is best accomplished by treating the athlete as a person, not as an object to be manipulated for your personal benefit. You are here for the athlete—not the other way around.
- A good coach’s primary role is to help the athlete grow and succeed in sport (and also in life, which is secondary but nonetheless important to your purpose). A coach has a unique role in the athlete’s world. You may well come to know more about the athlete than anyone else in his or her life. The athlete may often seek your advice on topics outside of the normal coach-athlete relationship. This presents an awesome responsibility that you must carefully treat with respect while maintaining a healthy distance on significant matters in the athlete’s life (I was once asked for advice on marital problems). After being coached by you, athletes should feel they’ve become better people. If you can accomplish that while keeping a safe distance from the athlete’s needs beyond sport, you’re making the world a slightly better place. (See Wooden in suggested reading list below.)
- A good coach keeps training simple and focused on the basics. Nearly all athletes will improve with that alone. Those who don’t are exceptional in some unique way and will need more focused attention—that’s when the real fun begins for you. In keeping it simple for most athletes, the first step is to teach the basics of success in sport by achieving a goal at the athlete’s lowest level of previous failure. This could be something as elementary as completing a short block of training or even a challenging workout. Celebrate the accomplishment. Then take a small step toward the next higher challenge. Keep this progression going until you finally arrive at the ultimate goal for the athlete. The only variable is what the athlete’s unique goal set looks like. Every athlete is unique in this regard. While for some it may be simply completing a block of training, for another it may be improving their power or pace, or a personal best in a B- or C-priority event. It could even include overcoming fear, as in open-water swimming or fast descending on a bike. Whatever it may take, continually and systematically ingrain the fundamentals of success while gradually preparing the athlete for the ultimate goal—the event. Make sure the athlete understands what’s necessary for success in that event, and drive those measures home by repeating and rehearsing the details frequently in workouts. Don’t assume they understand because you explained it. Practice it over and over and over.
- A good coach, in keeping it simple, uses training language that is common to the athlete—not “sciencese.” This is also a good test of your ability to communicate: If you can’t explain it to a child (or an athlete), then you don’t really understand it. Keeping it simple also means that the athlete, in order to fully understand their training, should have a role in its development and management. Ownership also improves dedication to the plan. A long-term goal for the coach is for the athlete to learn how to successfully self-coach. That may sound counterproductive to your business but will actually produce great success for you as a coach.
- A good coach is never done learning. You can’t possibly know everything—but strive to anyway. You should always be a student—even if you’re considered an expert. Learning in order to become a better coach is a never-ending journey. (In 1980 I realized that my 1976 masters degree had a lot of holes in it, so I began reading research on a daily basis. Today, some 40 years later, I still read research daily.) The other side of this coin is that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” when asked a question. Making something up off the top of your head only makes things worse. It will eventually come back to bite you. Everyone understands that you can’t possibly know everything. (The experts I have the most respect for are the ones who say those three words on occasion. The coaches I have the least respect for are those who appear to know everything—they’re faking it.) What are you capable of achieving? What are you working on? How are you growing?
- A good coach teaches the athlete that the competition is with and within. Athletes compete with, not against, other athletes. Competitors are not the enemy. It’s because of competitors that the athlete is motivated to improve. They are the reason for the performance challenge. Once this is realized then the true competition happens within the athlete—motivation, persistence, and patience all occur internally. You can’t give any of these qualities to the athlete. Your role is to give direction to the internal challenge.
- A good coach has a healthy working relationship with the athlete that grows stronger over time. You get along with each other, have a friendly working relationship, enjoy your conversations, show mutual respect, and confide in each other. You are honest with the athlete when it comes to progress made toward the goal. If your honesty is questioned, even if it only has to do with small stuff, then your usefulness to the athlete’s mission begins to suffer. Your integrity as a person is just as valuable as your coaching knowledge. Never sacrifice integrity to impress the athlete or anyone else. Be yourself. You’re not perfect, and that’s okay.
- A good coach listens more than talks. The sign of a good coach is someone who asks the right questions at the right times—and then listens to what the athlete says. Listening involves understanding. Once you understand then you can be of help. Do not dominate the conversation. You don’t learn anything when talking. Listen so you can understand what is needed and then take action. (I took up golf 20-some years ago so I could be on the other side of the coach-athlete relationship. I’ve had 5 or 6 coaches and have come to more deeply understand the athlete’s dilemma—what works and doesn’t—from being the athlete. Some of the coaches were good; some weren’t. I’d highly recommend being coached yourself in order to better understand how to be a good coach.)
- A good coach knows his or her own weaknesses as a person and as a coach and is always working to improve them. Ask the athlete for feedback and accept at face value whatever you are told. Don’t challenge the opinions you receive but ask for examples. Are they accurate? They must be, or at least they are to the athlete. Can or should you make changes? Are there weak links you should be working on to become a better coach? Never stop growing.
- A good coach doesn’t make excuses. Be honest about mistakes and failures. They happen to everyone. And it isn’t always the athlete’s fault, as authoritarian coaches often imply. Your role is critical to the athlete’s success. Evaluate how you did. Have a debriefing with the athlete following an important event or at the end of the season. Ask for feedback. What could you have done better? What are you learning? The purpose is to grow as a coach.
- A good coach, in preparing an athlete for an important event, understands that training involves a carefully planned process (shared with the athlete), persistent and dedicated implementation, on-going and frequent evaluation of progress (including the athlete’s observations), honest progress evaluation (no lying), plan adjustment, and repetition. A steady flow of feedback from the athlete is critical to success.
Suggested reading on the topic of good coaching:
Any book about or by UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, especially The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership. Wooden is the definitive “good” coach.
An eye-opener on how not to coach: Win At All Costs. I hope this makes you angry and helps you better understand the authoritarian coaching style.
The next installment of this personal three-part discussion on the basics of coaching will be “Thoughts on Successful Coaching.”