Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, had a concise approach towards leading a successful organisation the 1980s. A successful Coach, or Leader, had to “Listen, Learn, Lead”. Given how successful he was as a Coach (winning 3 Superbowls – the first less than two years after the team had only won 3 games all season), it surprises me that, almost 40 years later, many coaches still feel the need to tell their athletes what to do, as opposed to listening to them and helping them to find out the answer for themselves.
In my experience, this is often a problem with coaches who have achieved success. With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend we know more than we do.  However, to make the best possible decisions we need access to as many options as possible, so isn’t it in the best interest of the coach to seek these options from the athlete(s) in front of them? To have the greatest impact on an athletes learning, I think it is important that when they say “I have a problem” that our coaches don’t automatically say “I have a solution”.
It is not the ability to talk but the ability to listen that separates the good coaches from the great coaches in our sports. When it does come time to speak, the best coaches talk with their athletes, not at them. The answers generated in this conversation do not all need to come from the coach and the winning idea is often not from the loudest person declaring they have the answer. Ultimately, it has to be the athlete who decides which is the winning idea to their problem.
In The Talent Code – a must read for all sports coaches – Daniel Coyle describes the traits shared by Master Coaches (or teachers) in sport, music and art. These coaches were all “successful” in that the people they had worked with had gone on to achieve highly in their given field. The traits that they shared were that they were quiet, listened more than they talked, and gave short instructions. Alistair McCaw, who has worked with elite athletes as a Sport Performance Consultant and Mindset Coach, believes it is important for the coach to give 1 – 2 sentences of clear, concise instructions while athletes are participating in purposeful practice.
The good news is that the ability to talk easily with anyone is a skill that is learned, not a personality trait. Frank Senso, who interviewed hundreds of people as anchor for CNN, describes in his book Ask More that he had to learn to “listen with the eyes” to build rapport with the person in front of him. People appreciate a conversation in which they feel acknowledged, heard and respected. Coaches can ensure they develop a strong, trusting relationship with their athletes by working together to come up with a number of options for their particular problem, and allowing them to choose the solution that works best for them – NOT simply what the coach feels is correct.
As a side note, what Master Coaches did not do was give pep talks and constant “motivational” messages while their athlete / musician / artist was practicing. This aligns with John Wooden, another legendary coach (UCLA Bruins basketball) who didn’t believe in emotionally firing up athletes because he didn’t want them to be emotional, as it would affect their ability to make good decisions. Decisions need to be based on reason, not emotion.
In many sports, this need for the coach to be vocal comes from insecurity. I have been that coach that has felt vulnerable in silence, and felt compelled to say SOMETHING, regardless of whether it is helpful to the athlete or not. This insecurity is misplaced because it is no longer the coaches job to have the answer, it is their job to help their athletes find the solution. I believe for our coaches and athletes to fulfill their potential, this dynamic has to change.
Where there is anger and frustration, there is fear. I am frustrated when I see Know-it-All Coaches, who believe that the way for their athletes to fulfill their potential is to follow their instructions. My fear is that our coaches are not properly prepared to work with young people in 2019, in a way that maximises their chances of success.
In every coaching session, we have a choice; to take as much as possible or give as much as possible. I believe most of us would agree that the coach should give as much as they can. For me, this now means giving the athlete in front of us the floor the time and the space to come up with the answers themselves.

Published by Blair Cremin

Club Development Manager at Scottish Fencing. I use sport as a vehicle to help others become healthier and happier.

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