Great Coaches Learn From Other Sports

One of the fundamental differences between a good coach and a great coach is openness to learning. Good coaches are happy with what they know – their sport, their methods, their people. Great coaches are restless learners and seek knowledge from outside their area of expertise.

The reality is that to be a great coach, we need more than great sport-specific knowledge. We need more than great technical knowledge or tactical understanding of your sport. We need to seek out more than the knowledge of coaches from our own sport.

The skills and techniques of great coaching can be applied to – and learned from – all sports. The fundamentals of great coaching do not discriminate between sports. Coaches who want to be great seek to learn from high performers from outside their sport.

Unfortunately, many sports emphasise a “normalcy” mindset – gain experience playing the sport, become a coach, gain the coaching qualifications and look to other coaches of that sport for support and guidance.

This inhibits success. Being successful often requires a dedication to developing skills and perspectives that are not “normal” in that sport. This could include learning from experts in other sports, or support fields (such as psychology).

Research (cited in Range by David Epstein) shows that the deeper our knowledge in one area, the more likely we are to get long term predictions in that area wrong. Having a slightly more broad knowledge (other sports, psychology, etc.) can help to improve such predictions.

When it comes to athletes, eventual elites spend less time in in their chosen sport as a youngster, and instead having a sampling period. Roger Federer spent most of his youth playing football and many other activities in an un- or light-structured environment.

For great coaches, If something can be learned from athlete development it lies in the rejection of pure specialisation; in the notion that virtuosity surfaces through openness to learning from other sports rather than rote training in your comfort zone.

Top performers are those that continue to strive, grow and develop. They are not comparing themselves to their peers, or asking for more of what they already know. They are looking outside their sphere, outside their sport, to other experts who will challenge them, and whose words might shift their perspective on their own practice even slightly.

Modern coaching demands knowledge transfer, the ability to apply knowledge to different situations and demands. Every area of learning is subject to knowledge transfer. To be a great coach, we need to develop a wide-range of skills, insights and perspectives.

The value of looking outside our sport for educational purposes is not the learning of many facts – a fencing coach might not need to know the minutiae of the basketball chest-pass. The value is in the learning how to think differently – how to think about your sport, your coaching practice or yourself, from a different perspective.

A life lacking in variety and multi-sensory demand will cause the neural connections in our brain to decay quicker. Reading and researching, particularly in other areas or sports, will ensure that our thinking as a coach will continue to evolve.

As an athlete, give me a coach who is 6/10 but open-minded and looking to grow rather than an 8/10 who isn’t. Trajectory is far more important that current destination.

Churchill spoke of a reliance on new activities that use other parts of our minds and bodies to relieve the areas that are over-worked.

Einstein said his greatest skill was having the curiosity of a child.

Perhaps a coaches greatest skill is having an open mind?


P.S. much of the research for this blog post came from books shared in our monthly, email book club. For more info –

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