In sport, we can get too bogged down with the roles and responsibilities of the coach. Sometimes we can get too academic or philosophical about what their job is. However, I think we can agree that they are responsible for helping an athlete get better (and we will all have diverging opinions of what “helping”, “athlete” and “get better” are).
Coaches – are you growing with your athletes?
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” I became aware of this in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and it struck a chord with me, because until then that had not been my own experience of coaching. I was “getting better” simply by coaching (“chopping the tree”) and not paying any attention to my personal development (“sharpening the axe”).
At the same time, I was expecting the athletes I worked with to use any means necessary to grow, and take their growth seriously – but I wasn’t taking my own growth seriously. If I had spent more time sharpening the axe, I would have been a better coach for them.
One of my (many) major blind spots was thinking that I had to have the right answer, especially when the question came from a young person. It was only when I became interested in my own development, and started to try to work on my self-awareness, that I came to realise that being a know-it-all is miserable for the people around you.
In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown states that being a know-it-all leads to distrust, disconnection and unnecessary conflict. We don’t trust people who do not struggle, and we cannot connect with people we cannot relate to. As a coach, developing trust and a connection with the athletes is vital – and it was only through “sharpening the axe” I realised that I was not helping the athletes as much as I thought I was.
We gain experience by “doing”, but it is often the most experienced people who know what corners to cut. In Gridiron Genius, Michael Lombardi talks about the lessons he learned from a career working with the best (and some average) coaches in the NFL. He believes that growth can happen naturally, but the best coaches are the ones who are consistently working on themselves.
The problem is not having new, innovative ideas. It is getting old ideas out of our heads. Burnout happens not from trying to solve lots of problems but by trying to solve the same problems over and over again. If we are constantly “doing” and not spending enough time “thinking”, it is harder to see which old ideas are still working most effectively.
We need a bit of space to reflect on what we do and, more importantly, how we do it. Reading and research will ensure that our thinking continues to evolve. The brain never stops growing in response to experience, so it is important to put ourselves – our actions, behaviours, habits – under the microscope on a regular basis, and to expose ourselves to new ideas and ways of thinking.
As coaches, we are not responsible for the results. We are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results. It is our duty to make sure we are the best versions of ourselves that we can be, to give the people we are priveleged to work with the greatest chance to succeed.