Every day, in every profession, we hear people celebrated as “great coaches.” And it’s mostly true. The worlds of sports, education, and business are brimming with legions of talented, remarkable coaches — perhaps more than at any other time in history.
But here’s the question: what does being a great coach really mean? Is it a flattering catchall, or is there a more useful way to understand the essence of what the best coaches do?
When you look deeper, I think great coaches come in three evolutionary types. You can think of them as three species, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
First, there are great coaches of behavior. These people tell you what to do, how to do it, and when to show up. They focus their energy on making sure things go as planned. You might think of these as the Daddy Coaches, old-school guys. You show up, they’ll provide the machine to make you better. Their key asset is their system, their process (Exhibit A: Nick Saban.)
The second type of great coach is one who deals in knowledge. They are focused on the information — what to learn, when, and what it means. They deal in the currency of ideas and techniques, and on making sure the right links are made at the right time. You might think of these as Teacher Coaches; they’re found more in quieter, individual pursuits. If behavioral coaches are about the what, knowledge coaches are about the how and the why.
But there’s a third type of great coach. A mysterious type who often go overlooked, because what they do doesn’t look like coaching. It looks more like magic. Because these people have the ability to alter someone’s destiny in the time it takes to eat lunch. They aren’t about the how or the why — they’re completely, utterly about the who. Their core skill is to see someone in a way that they don’t yet see themselves; to give their lives a larger narrative, sense of belief, a higher purpose.
You might call them a Soul Coach. And a perfect example in my profession would be Peter Kaplan, who died of cancer last week at 59.
You likely have never heard of Kaplan. He served as editor of several publications, most notably the New York Observer from 1994 to 2009. His real job, however, was hiring, mentoring, and serving as godfather to an entire generation of top journalists far too numerous to list here. To writers, he operated like a favorite uncle, constantly giving them targets to reach for, and nurturing the belief that they could do it. As one put it, Kaplan was Dumbledore, and NY journalism was his Hogwarts.
It’s instructive to see how he used his skills. As Doree Shafrir wrote, getting hired by Kaplan was “like getting tapped for one of the most thrilling secret societies in the world.” In his New York magazine piece, The Wizard and the City, John Homans describes the scene:
[Kaplan’s] signature move was this: He’d escort his 24-year-old quarry into his office in the New York Observer’s townhouse, cock one of his groucho eyebrows behind his big round horn rims, pause, clear his throat, pause again, clear his throat, pause. Some more inarticulate noises. And then, if you were lucky: “Do you wanna be a star?”
What a come on! What young writer wouldn’t say yes to such an offer? And with that, Peter had implicated his prey in his own vast ambition, which made for a fantastic ride. Peter thought that journalism could change the world, and he mythologized himself by mythologizing everyone around him, imagining career trajectories and inflection points, allowing his people to believe preposterous things about themselves — which sometimes came true, partly because he believed in them himself…. He was prepared to find something in all people, from his dentist to the counterman at the Viand coffee shop. He was never a snob. And when you’d entertained him, said something he found smart or funny, brought him a tale of human foible, he let you know it with that big laugh. So entertaining him became part of the mission.
When we think of the greatest coaches, I think it’s good to remember the Kaplans. Not the ones with the information or the system, but the ones who had the simple human ability to connect, to communicate their belief in us, and who worked to make that belief come true. Information gets replaced; systems grow outdated. But the nice thing about inspiration is that it leads to other things. It never really ends.
As Phil Weiss wrote:
[Kaplan] taught me how to be a writer. Even in the hospital in his robe with tubes in him, he wanted to nurture me. That was the reveal in Peter’s life: He loved the role of nurturing people’s gifts. All his creativity and glamour and imagination he poured into others, and yes, that gave him power. A lot of the celebration of Peter now is a reflection of that power; and the widespread grief includes many people like me, people who lost someone who so believed in them that he got them to believe in themselves, now what will we do? That’s the way we’ll honor his spirit, to live up to what he thought of us, to show him, tapping his cigar in the clouds, that he wasn’t wrong.
When it comes to providing warm, happy feelings, this video is better than a plateful of turkey, stuffing, and sweet-potato pie (well, almost). Kelvin’s story is vivid proof of T.S. Eliot’s words: “The great ages did not produce more talent than ours. But less talent was wasted.”
One of the most fascinating areas of science is the study of pressure performance. It’s fascinating partly because we’ve all been on both sides. We’ve all succeeded, and we’ve all choked. (Well, except for Derek Jeter.)
The question is, why? Our instincts say the answer lies in our character — with our innate cool, our grace under fire. But is that true?
A Harvard professor named Alison Wood Brooks recently gave us new insight into this mystery. She didn’t study the Super Bowl or the stock market — instead she performed an experiment using perhaps the most terrifying pressure known to humanity:
It went like this: Brooks brought a group of volunteers together, then surprised them by informing them that they would be soloing the first verse of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” A short time before they performed, subjects were told to repeat one of three phrases out loud.
1) I am calm
2) I am anxious
3) I am excited
Then Brooks used voice-recognition sofware to measure the quality of their vocal performance — pitch, volume, and rhythm. The results:
- “I am calm” performers scored 53%
- “I am anxious” performers scored 69%
- “I am excited” performers scored 81%
Here’s why: the mantras functioned as psychological framing devices. The “I am calm” group performed poorly because the words denied the reality of the situation. Their words claimed they weren’t nervous, even while every cell of their body was vibrating with nerves. The disparity created tension, so their performance suffered.
The “I am anxious” group told the truth, but it wasn’t a useful truth. The negativity hurt their performance — though it’s important to point out that they didn’t do as poorly as the “I am calm” people.
People who said “I am excited” performed better because the frame was both useful and accurate enough. They acknowledged the heightened emotion of the situation and funneled it in a positive direction. It wasn’t the truth, exactly, but it was aligned with the truth, and thus proved useful in dampening nerves and enabling better performance.
“When your heart is already racing, you can use that high arousal in a positive way by being energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate,” Brooks says. “People’s intuition is to try and calm down. You are better off running with your high arousal and channeling it in a positive direction.” (You can find out more about her study here.)
For us, I think the lessons are useful.
- 1) Mantras are useful
- 2) Don’t BS yourself. Embrace the excitement.
- 3) When in doubt, be positive (duh, but still)
Anybody got any other pressure-coping methods they’d like to share? Please feel free.
Some of you might remember Karen X. Cheng, the Bay-Area resident whose “Dance in a Year” videos went viral a few months back. (Backstory: Cheng, an amateur dancer, posted daily videos of her 365-day transformation from rank beginner to dance goddess.)
Here’s some news: Cheng seems to have started another viral phenomenon through a new social-media website. It’s called GiveIt100, and it’s based on a simple idea: you practice something for 100 days and share video each day.
I highly recommend checking out the site’s project page — just roll over a video and it starts playing. You can see people learning Russian, doing pullups, unicycling, drawing, painting, programming, juggling, playing guitar, you name it. You can see the clumsy early attempts smoothing out into fluency and speed. You see the disbelieving smiles.
Of these inspiring stories, perhaps the most inspiring is Cynthia, who suffers from MS and who is using GiveIt100 to share her daily progress toward learning to walk again. (Tip: keep Kleenex handy.)
I could see this site being useful for students, teachers, coaches, and athletes of all ages; either posting their own sessions or learning through the experiences of others. I could imagine it being used as a source of coaches and mentors. Or as simply a source of daily motivation (after all, who needs a pep talk about daily discipline when you can see and feel the proof?).
I have a hunch GiveIt100 may be a glimpse of the future of talent development, because it uses the power of social media to support good habits, provide useful models, and help people coach themselves and each other. And also because this approach is aligned with the fact that when it comes to developing talent, it’s not so much about who you are — it’s about what you do.
Have any of you guys tried it yet, or know anybody who has? What do you think?
One of the nice/strange things about my job is that it strongly resembles being a parachute jumper. You drop out of the sky into interesting places, where you meet people, explore, and look for patterns.
In the past two weeks, I’ve had in-depth conversations about performance with two professional sports teams, two schools (one inner city, one private), one special-forces unit, and one huge multinational business.
Here’s the weird part: in a profound way, they’ve all been the same conversation.
They’re all obsessed with that elusive, magical quality we call character. Grit. Resilience. Reliability. Ownership. Because, as the work of Paul Tough, Angela Duckworth, and others have shown, character supports performance the same way a concrete foundation supports a house.
So it’s with a sense of karmic happiness that I bumped into this remarkable story about a high-school football team in Ohio that was struggling with precisely the same issues, and which found a straightforward solution that’s worth sharing.
Actually “struggling” is putting it kindly. Until a few years ago, Bedford High’s team was terrible. The team was in shambles. No discipline. No identity. How bad was it? The coach, Sean Williams, says that when a Bedford player scored, his teammates on the sidelines would yell and complain because they should have been the ones who scored.
Then, two years ago, Coach Williams made an innovative move that surprised everyone.
He brought in a character coach.
Like many useful innovations, this one feels completely revolutionary and forehead-slappingly obvious at the same time. The thinking goes something like: we have a strength coach and an offensive-line coach – so why in the world shouldn’t we have a coach to focus on the most important element of all?
So Bedford did. Two times a week, led by a 31-year-old entrepreneur/coach named Keith Tousley, the team started gathering in sessions that were part motivational seminar, part group therapy. From the article:
On Monday, to accompany his talk, Tousley gave players a worksheet titled “How we WILL BEAT Kent Roosevelt.” Every player sat quietly and filled in blanks as he spoke. The worksheet had nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Among the sentences players completed were:
“Find ____ in what you are doing.”
“Stay _____ .”
“Compete for something ____ than yourself.”
One of the benefits of this approach stems from the fact that character is contagious. A Bedford player named Tyvis Powell was one of the first to get on board with the new program, and now, according to Williams, “all these guys are mini-Tyvises.“ Another benefit is that improvements in character tend to cascade into every other area of the team and individual success — classroom, family, and beyond.
So, did the experiment work? Let’s just say this year’s team is 9-1, and playing tonight in the state playoffs.
The real question is, is this a model that could be adopted in schools, businesses, teams? What are the challenges/opportunities involved with establishing “character” as a distinct quality to be improved? What do you think?
UPDATE: Bedford won 21-14, advancing to the state semifinal.
The determination is awesome.
But what really matters is stopping, thinking, and changing strategy.
Meet Amira Willighagen. She’s 9 years old, from Holland, and she sings really, really well.
The best part? Amira has never had a single lesson. Raised in a musical family (dad’s an organist; mom plays flute, brother violin), she learned by watching YouTube videos of great opera singers.
Here’s the interesting thing: when you start to look around, it turns out that there are more than a few Amiras out there. Like these kids. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one.
In fact, they’re everywhere. Kids on skateboards are doing tricks that no one has ever done. Skinny teenage violinists and pianists are playing concertos that were previously considered playable only by world-class masters. There’s no way to precisely measure it, but indications are clear: we seem to be experiencing an epidemic of prodigies.
The question is, why? Is it better teachers? More nurturing parents? More global competition? More motivated learners?
My answer: all of the above. But one factor might be bigger than all of them: YouTube.
Because YouTube is perfectly aligned with the way the human brain was designed to acquire skill. Namely:
- 1) You stare at someone doing something amazing
- 2) You love it so much that you can’t stop thinking about it
- 3) You try it, reaching for a target
- 4) You compare your result to the target
- 5) You reach again. And again. And again. (Repeat.)
We instinctively think of being self taught as a drawback — but as Amira and the other prodigies show, it’s actually an advantage. With YouTube, she has opportunity to stare at what she loves. To study top-quality talent, to model her technique on proven methods. To listen deeply. To reach for a target, over and over — her brain getting faster and more accurate with each reach. And above all, to have ownership over the process.
Quick thought experiment: imagine if, instead of spending enraptured hours singing along to YouTube videos, Amira was informed by her parents that she would be driven to weekly lessons, where she would practice scales and do vocal exercises with some teacher she’d never met. Can you feel the buzzkill?
Not all of us can be prodigies. But there are a few takeaways from their learning process that can apply to everyone.
- 1) Staring at great performers is underrated. You could argue that it’s the most important thing a learner can do. Why not give learners regular opportunity to stare/mimic the best in the world? Why not mix age groups, so that younger kids get the chance to watch better performers?
- 2) Coaches are overrated in the early days. Those days are the time when someone’s identity gets connected to the skill — where they learn to derive real personal pleasure from executing the skill. That’s the time for parents to take a step back, be supportive, and refrain from getting overinvolved.
- 3) Ownership is everything. Because at bottom, developing a talent isn’t about parents or coaching or school — it’s about creating and sustaining the love that fuels the hard, fulfilling work of getting better.
A while back, I wrote about an absolutely tremendous letter which a Little League baseball coach and former major leaguer named Mike Matheny sent to the parents of his players. Since Matheny is now coaching the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, I thought I’d observe the occasion by reposting a few key passages of what’s become known as the Matheny Manifesto. (For more, I recommend you check out the whole thing here.)
I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans, and now here we are. The reason for me saying this is that I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. I think that it is best to nip this in the bud right off the bat. I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that this experience is ALL about the boys. If there is anything about it that includes you, we need to make a change of plans. My main goals are as follows:
(1) to teach these young men how to play the game of baseball the right way,
(2) to be a positive impact on them as young men, and
(3) do all of this with class.
We may not win every game, but we will be the classiest coaches, players, and parents in every game we play. The boys are going to play with a respect for their teammates, opposition, and the umpires no matter what.
Once again, this is ALL about the boys. I believe that a little league parent feels that they must participate with loud cheering and “Come on, let’s go, you can do it”, which just adds more pressure to the kids. I will be putting plenty of pressure on these boys to play the game the right way with class, and respect, and they will put too much pressure on themselves and each other already. You as parents need to be the silent, constant, source of support.
I am a firm believer that this game is more mental than physical, and the mental may be more difficult, but can be taught and can be learned by a 10 and 11 year old. If it sounds like I am going to be demanding of these boys, you are exactly right. I am definitely demanding their attention, and the other thing that I am going to require is effort. Their attitude, their concentration, and their effort are the things that they can control. If they give me these things every time they show up, they will have a great experience.
I need all of you to know that we are most likely going to lose many games this year. The main reason is that we need to find out how we measure up with the local talent pool. The only way to do this is to play against some of the best teams. I am convinced that if the boys put their work in at home, and give me their best effort, that we will be able to play with just about any team.
Isn’t that great? And is it any coincidence that Matheny has gone on to succeed at the highest level?
I think it goes to underline a simple truth: great coaches are first and foremost great communicators. They’re not like heroic ship captains, always knowing where to steer. They’re more like radio stations, adept at sending the right signal at the right time to enable people to steer themselves.
PS- GO CARDS!!
About a mile from where I live, there’s a soccer field. If you were to pass by, you would see elementary-school teams practicing in the traditional way. Coaches set out orange cones, and kids form lines and wait their turn to participate in various drills.
If you saw them, you might think: Seems like a lot of kids are just standing around.
A few blocks away stands a high school. If you were to pass by, you would see a math class. The class operates in the traditional way: students sit silently in their seats as the teacher gives her lecture.
If you saw them, you might think: Seems like a lot of students are zoning out.
You might think those thoughts. But you wouldn’t have a way to objectively measure the effectiveness of their learning. You wouldn’t have a yardstick.
And you should.
If science has taught us anything over the past few years, it’s that all learning spaces are not created equal. High-quality methods of practice are efficient, because they are aligned with the ways our brains actually improve. Ineffective methods are inefficient, because they are aligned with tradition, or emotion, or the teacher’s ego, or what looks good.
There are an infinite number of ways to screw up a learning session. But high-quality practice sessions share a few basic characteristics. Which means that it should be possible to create a simple metric to measure practice effectiveness. And since that yardstick doesn’t seem to exist, I thought I’d take a crack at creating one.
Please say hello to the Skill-ometer, an attempt at measuring practice effectiveness by measuring seven key elements.
Here’s how it works: Score your practice session by responding to each of the following statements on a scale of 1-5: 1=strongly disagree; 2= disagree; 3=neutral; 4=agree; 5= strongly agree
- Intensity: We gave 100 percent effort and attention.
- Engagement: We were emotionally immersed in the tasks we took on. We knew what we had to do, and it felt like a game.
- Practicality: We practiced exactly the skill that we’ll be using later, in the same way that we’ll be using it in “game situations”
- Repetitions: We embraced the value of repetitions, especially for the most challenging skills
- Clarity: We understood the day’s goal, and where it fit in the larger picture
- Reachfulness: We were pushed to spend time on the edge of our abilities, struggling and reaching just past our current competence
- Fun: It was hard, but not miserable. There were moments of laughter and surprise.
Scoring: (Out of a maximum 35)
- 30-35: You are in the elite zone, hanging out with Peyton Manning and Yo-Yo Ma. Keep doing what you’re doing.
- 25-30: This is a B-plus. You are highly effective, with a few things to work on.
- 15-25: This is closer to a B-minus. You do a few things well, but have some clear weak spots that need addressing.
- 5-15: You need to rethink your approach and design. Start by finding those in your field who score higher and study them.
Now, this is just a rough first attempt, but it’s interesting that most of these elements are about design and communication — areas that are 1) controlled by the coach; 2) can be planned for in advance.
I think it underlines the fact that the most effective learning sessions don’t depend on what happens in the classroom or on the field, but rather on what happens in the days and hours before, when the teacher or coach is thinking, planning, and communicating.
So here’s my question: what other factors do you think should be included in this metric? What other characteristics mark your most effective learning sessions? I’d love to hear your suggestions and ideas.
But in fact, as the psychologist Carol Dweck and others have shown, this idea is mostly wrong. Motivation is largely social; fueled by our interactions with the people around us. In other words, motivation is less about what’s in your heart, and more about how you connect with your social circle.
Check out this passage from a new soccer book called Stillness and Speed, which tells a story about a promising but unproven younger player named Robin Van Persie and a veteran star named Dennis Bergkamp. It begins with Van Persie recalling an afternoon on Arsenal’s training ground.
Van Persie had finished earlier and was sitting in a Jacuzzi which happened to be by a window. Out on the field he noticed Dennis doing a complicated exercise involving shooting, and receiving and giving passes at speed. Robin decided to get out of the bath as soon as Dennis made a mistake.
“It was a 45-minute session and there wasn’t one pass Dennis gave that wasn’t perfect,” [Van Persie said.] “He did everything 100 percent, to the max, shooting as hard as possible, controlling, playing, direct passing… That was so beautiful! To me it was plainly art. My hands got all wrinkled in the bath but I just stayed there. I sat and watched and I waited, looking or one single mistake. Bu the mistake never came. And that was the answer for me.
“Watching that training session answered so many questions I had. I can pass the ball well, too. I’m a good football player as well. But this man did it so well and with such drive. He had such total focus. I found myself thinking, ‘OK, wait a minute, I can play football well enough but I’ve still got an enormous step to take to get to that level.’
And that’s when I realized, if I want to become really good, then I have to be able to do that, too. From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment. With every simple passing or kicking practice, I did everything at 100 percent, just so I wouldn’t make mistakes. And when I made a mistake I was angry. Because I wanted to be like Bergkamp.”
Van Persie, of course, went on to become a huge star. It’s a familiar pattern. You start out thinking we’re pretty good. Then you have the thrilling, slightly frightening experience of seeing somebody who’s on the next level. Then, using that person as a north star, you start taking steps that direction.
From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment… I wanted to be like Bergkamp.
Those moments are powerful because they’re fundamentally unpredictable. They can’t be scripted by a coach, or inspired by mere words. They’re more like social lightning bolts, high-voltage connections between people that happen when you least expect them.
That said, I think it’s possible to engineer these moments by paying attention to the design of our learning spaces. Because while these lightning bolts may be uncontrollable, the odds of them happening are increased if you follow certain rules. For example:
- 1) Design for openness. Don’t separate the stars from the rest of the group; instead, provide space for lots of mixing of various skill levels, whether it’s in the office, the classroom, or the locker room.
- 2) Build in free time. In our hyper-busy world, we tend to be allergic to unstructured time. Yet these moments — when someone sits idly by a window and stares in rapture at a brilliant performer — are exactly when this sort of connection happens. So let it.
- 3) Be quiet. So many coaches, parents and teachers feel like they need to be talking in order to motivate their learners. But it’s exactly the opposite. Words shatter the spell.
Can you imagine Van Persie’s reaction if a coach would have come over and started giving him an inspiring speech about how he should be more like the veteran star?
Uh, thanks coach — but I really gotta go.
And Van Persie would have been absolutely right. Because it’s not about the coach, the teacher, or the parent. It’s about creating a learning space that’s aligned with the way motivation really works.