One Quick Way to Spot a Good Coach


Letting the players play: UCLA’s John Wooden, during a game

Here’s a simple truth: if you want to develop your talent, nothing will help you faster than finding a great coach.

Trouble is, great coaches are tough to find. They’re rare as diamonds. Their skills are subtle. They don’t tend to stand out at first glance.

So how do you spot one?

In LBOT, I give a few pointers (page 32, if you’re curious). But here’s another answer, a quick shortcut: To find a good coach, look for someone who is comfortable not doing anything.

Not talking or yelling or waving their arms. Not making speeches or issuing praise or pacing the sidelines. Not doing anything except the most important thing: sitting back and letting the performance happen.

Somewhere along the line, our culture started believing the false idea that the coach was a hero, the center of the action, and that coaching ability was related to the sheer amount of brilliant instruction they could produce. You see this especially in soccer — you know, those coaches who spend the whole game shouting detailed instructions — Pass to Stevie! Go to the endline! Cross the ball!— as if they are joysticking a live-action videogame.

Those people catch our eye because they are showy and loud, but they are not necessarily effective. A good coach spends a lot of time — especially during games — sitting calmly with their arms folded and their eyes on the action. They are comfortable in their stillness, at peace. Because they know their job is not to direct the action like an orchestra conductor, but rather to create learners, to equip players to encounter problems and solve them. That means leaving them alone.

PS – Of course, this isn’t the only way to spot good coaches. What works for you? Feel free to share any other “tells” below.

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13 Responses to “One Quick Way to Spot a Good Coach”

  1. Craig says:

    Dan, Coach Wooden was the epitome of a “quiet” coach during the games. Detail oriented in practice and always quick, but not in a hurry! Walton often said the games were a breeze after practicing/competing with his fellow Bruins! Cheers, Craig

  2. erik krause says:

    Phil Jackson, too. The Zen Master.

  3. djcoyle says:

    On Twitter, a reader made an interesting point: it’s easy to spot a number of highly successful coaches who are doing the exact opposite of being quiet: Nick Saban, John Calipari, Pat Riley — they all seem to be super-active, coaching all the time.
    Of course, there’s going to be exceptions to any rule, but still, how do we account for those guys?

  4. Heike Larson says:

    This insight applies elsewhere in life, too, not just for coaches. Dr. Montessori emphasized over 100 years ago how important it is for a teacher to learn to fade into the background, to become an almost invisible observer, and to not interfere, especially when a child is engaged in a task and struggling in what you’d call “intensive practice.” Here’s a compelling quote by Dr. Montessori, from her book *The Absorbent Mind*, on just that topic:

    “When the child becomes interested in an object, the teacher must not interrupt, because this activity obeys natural laws and has a cycle; and if it is touched it disappears like a soap bubble and all its beauty with it. The teacher must be very careful now, non-interference means non-interference, in any form. Often mistakes are made by teachers here. … If a child has a difficulty and the teacher interferes to show how to deal with it, the child wil leave the teacher with the work and go away. The interset of the child was not in the mere task, but in conquering that difficulty. If the teacher is going to conquer it instead, well let her, my interest is gone. … Praise, help, or even noticing a child are often sufficient interruption to destroy activity. … The great principle which leads to the success of the teacher is this: as soon as concentration appears, pay no attention, as if the child did not exist. We can note what he does in a single glance, without paying any attention that makes him aware of us.” (The Absorbent Mind, page 229-230)

  5. Dan:

    Great post. Seeing John Wooden’s photo reminds me of a favorite part of The Talent Code: his M+ M- M+ format for teaching his players (i.e. he tells them what to do, what not to do, and then, once again what to do). Clear, concise, distilled, elegant. No wonder it worked.

    Anything more is a speech that’s too hard to follow and put into practice.

    Works beautifully off the court too, like in parenting, for instance, and at places like stores and other commercial establishments where you want to get your point across without a lot of fuss.

    One other thing: I had a coach once who, for whatever reason, emphasized what I “can’t” do. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that” – she’d say. Needless to say, it was ineffective. People respond better to hearing (and seeing for themselves) about what they CAN do. A good coach draws that out and articulates the message like Wooden.

    Great post!

  6. Walter says:

    Nick Sabean, Calipari, Riley to name a few. Let’s not forget Bobby Knight!!Knight goes against everything a coach should be but he was very sucessfull. And of course my high school basketball coach Mr. Curgin! I think a lot of coaching is their own personal personality. The above coaches coach with a lot of passion and show it all the time. However, as Mr Curgin use to say to us “I teach in practices and coach games”! Curgin was the opposite. He didn’t say much in practice but made slight corrections and adjustments, come game time however he was very vocal, but it was in a constructive positive way. For example if our opponents took a 15 foot shot just before we went to rebound you could hear him telling our forward to “Look over your shoulder” as a reminder to box out the player behind him which our forward was not aware of. Once we rebounded he wouldn’t say “get it down the court Joe is open” Instead he would say ” Look up Look up Look around”. He wouldn’t make decisions for us but instead made of aware of options. Different players respond differently to different coaching styles and coaches must adjust their characteristics and coaching styles according to age, gender and ability of their atheletes.

  7. Richard says:

    Firstly, Heike, I like the Montesurri concepts of learning, but struggle with the idea that all children “want” to learn, particularly some of the aspects of schooling (maths and literacy” that they need to have an understanding of. How does the Montesurri system manage those children, as i have one of those. If he finds something he is interested in (most things other than school work) he is focused can explore and concentrate for hours.

    Secondly, re “what to look for in good coaches”, there is a dangerous middle ground here that taken in the wrong context can lead to problems or lack of performance. I have seen many coaches who “do nothing”, but they “do nothing” in games, in practice and in preparation of the team and players. I understand what Dan means here and agree with it, but we have to be careful about context. Coach Wooden, as is widely known, had great detail in his practice sessions and this requires large amounts of work and preparation of course.

    How do we ensure administrators and decision makers understand that the best coach is not the one who makes the most noise in “game time” but also that there is much to coaching than just the game.

  8. Angel says:

    Vicente del Bosque, Spanish football team coach

  9. Jason says:

    Wooden is looked at as one of the all time great coaches but also keep in mind it took him 16 years to “master” coaching before he won his first national championship. Also if you read anything on Wooden he was not concerned with winning (although that is how the public perceives success). He was concerned about the process, giving your personal best effort, controlling things you can control, and making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.

  10. Alex says:

    It depends I think, frequently soccer coaches and players must show result imediatelly, most teams don’t give them time to learn and sack them out if they don’t perform and if they give time frequently the fans keep adding pressure which makes performance even worse. There are few clubs that I remember having more patience with their coaches/players.

    For youngsters I think the type of coach you describe is pretty much always better.

  11. Sedona Cole says:

    I couldn’t agree more, coaches should not take center stage with ego’s playing a role. I think the most important thing for a coach is to ‘see the vision of the potential of their client, and then hold them accountable while inspiring them to ‘be’ the vision. I read a quote recently from a very esteemed online coaching (even group coaching!) and mentoring site. It said ‘The definition you’ve placed on yourself – or have allowed others to place on you – is precisely why you have what you have, do what you do, are what you are and act how you act’. (Source: The best gift we can ever give ourselves is that of a coach. It’s impossible to ‘see our own back’, (beyond our limitations) when others can! Great post!!

  12. Hello Daniel, I will agree with you, a good coach is trained to “LISTEN” and to make the most out of being silent in order to provide the right tools to the coachees to succeed in their personal change plan.

  13. Greg says:

    This is a good article and a quiet calm demeanor can be a valuable asset as a coach, but there are so many different coaching scenarios based on the level of the athletes that are being coached, the sport, the type of sport (individual or team), etc, that there are qualities that will be shared by all coaches of all sports and all levels as well as qualities that will differ for the various situations

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