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What Does 'A Great Coach' Mean?

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Here is a question that bothers me greatly, and it comes up in almost ALL coaching courses and workshops I have attended:

'What makes a great coach?’

I can feel my blood pressure rising just writing it.

Many years ago, I would have compiled a long list of qualities that great coaches have ... but not today.

You see, as I have travelled the world working alongside a vast range of coaches, many of whom are at the pinnacle of their respective field, i’ve recognised that many high performing coaches are totally flawed in characteristics we often attribute to high performance.

High technical knowledge? Not always important.
Organised? Quite the opposite.
Positive? Nope.
‘People person?’ …. absolutely not!
Growth mindset? … I wish.

You get the gist 🙂

Just like athletes, coaches are far from perfect, even the ones producing the top results.

I used to view the coaching world as a jigsaw puzzle, with coaches who are deficient in certain qualities being ‘incomplete.’ I’ve now moved to a ‘cogs’ model.

The more cogs that are working, the more efficient the system runs. But even with less cogs (or in our case desirable qualities) the system still runs, albeit not quite as efficiently. The coach can still produce results, but it might take a little more work, or have a few more rocky roads to travel first.

Sure, there are certain characteristics that most great coaches have in common, and it’s great to dream about what  qualities a ‘complete’ coach would have, but we shouldn’t be under the illusion that ‘great’ coaches possess all of these.

Besides, what does it mean to be a ‘great' coach anyway?

The status of being a great coach often gets attributed to a coach who produces athletes that win medals at an international level. But I'm often a little more inquisitive (don’t mistake this for being pessimistic or cynical) as to how those results came about.

A coach whose athlete’s win international medals, but are left emotionally broken wouldn’t earn my status of being a ‘great coach.’ That could be mistaking being a great 'technician' for being a great coach. A BIG difference.

Nor would a coach who physically or technically ‘destroys’ 40 gymnasts, but manages to squeeze just one into the top spot.

Is a wealthy drug dealer a fantastic business man due to their riches?

Perhaps a wealthy drug dealer knows how to make money, but you’d question their ethics and most likely not look to them in admiration. Much in the same way as I view unethical coaches, who leave a path of destruction in their wake. They don’t get my vote, even if there are medals to match.

I'm in admiration of the methods, not the medals.

Some of the best coaches I know have never actually ‘taught’ at a high performance level. They are elite at running a recreational gymnastics class or a class full of pre-school children. That’s an art in itself and requires a mass of experience and skills.

Being ‘elite’ represents a standard, not a ceiling. I believe it is about delivering an exceptional standard of 'something.'

So what do YOU think? I’d be interested in what you attribute the status of being a 'great coach' to?

What does the term ‘elite' mean to you?

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Comments (21)

   
AndyP

"A coach whose athlete’s win international medals, but are left emotionally broken wouldn’t earn my status of being a ‘great coach.’ That could be mistaking being a great 'technician' for being a great coach. A BIG difference."

I'd also add that there are plenty of great coaches who are never fortunate enough to have sportspeople with the right genetic and mental attributes, coupled with being in the right environment, just as there are plenty of mediocre coaches who "get lucky" with one special sportsperson cross their path and others who follow success.

Would John Wooden (who I think truly was a great coach) have enjoyed the same plaudits in basketball if he had lived in South East Asia for example? And (without diminishing the fantastic work of Coach Mills) I'm sure any half decent coach could have coached Bolt to a 10.1, which many would have considered a considerable achievement based on the prevailing wisdom about super-tall sprinters at the time he burst onto the scene.

21/03/17
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Belfast

Agree totally with you Andy, you have to play the hand you are dealt. For me, a great coach is someone who can improve the physical performance of their athletes by 10% and the mental state by 100%

01/04/17
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Reggie12

It was suggested to me a while back that a coach's "greatness" could be counted by the number of players still involved 30 years later!

21/03/17
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Slofty

Good question. Im inclined to think the ones who can blend the art & science of coaching are the most skilled (not sure if that means great)

23/03/17
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johnkessel

Agree Nick that a great coach can be at any level - too often the Peter Principle happens in sports and you see coaches rise to their level of incompetence. I wrote a letter recently in my USA Volleyball Growing the Game Together Blog (amazingly nearly 10 years old now...) to my "Younger Self" - I wanted new coaches to be great faster, and not make the same mistakes I made in the 1970s - http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Volleyball/Features/2016/December/05/A-Letter-to-My-Younger-Self One of my core clinic slides I use around the world is about coaching malpractice - a heart surgeon friend of my for many years, watching his daughters coach coach in ways that are not founded in the science of motor learning, said to me..."If I practiced medicine now, the way I did just 10 years ago, I would be sued for malpractice..." Sadly, the majority of coaches today are teaching the way they were taught...and not taking advantage of the advances in learning.

27/03/17
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Gem_97

'Who you know, not what you know' has become something to live by now. It is rare you can get in to a coaching job or sustain a coaching job without knowing the 'right' people. Many coaches never reached a high level or cannot reach a high level due to the lack of opportunity or money. It does not mean they do not have the ability or mental capacity or time.

28/03/17
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royjudo

A good coach knows his or her sport,and can teach a session at grassroots level and to a certain standard, they can run a session of individual needs whilst also making the session enjoyable.
Most coaches give their time voluntarily to help others, this in itself makes them great.
I coach inclusive sessions regardless of disability or ethnic origin and have been very successful , but I would not call myself a great coach.

29/03/17
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royjudo

If a coach can run a session, which can give a goal to the athletes and take them off the streets and give them a way of life, especially in underprivileged areas of our country, this must be great.

29/03/17
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AndyP

Sorry Ray, much of what you say I agree with but I have a real issue with this: "Most coaches give their time voluntarily to help others, this in itself makes them great."

I'm afraid I can't get on board with this. I also think the perceived nobleness of doing things voluntarily has the unfortunate consequence of putting some people beyond reproach.

Anyone on here clearly has taken a step to try and be a better coach, but unfortunately we are not necessarily representative of the wider coaching landscape. There are plenty of people out there calling themselves coaches who have no interest in learning or the long term interests of the sportsperson. Unfortunately there are those that are doing it to satisfy there own ego. I've seen coaches drive kids out of sports, only to be have their behaviour overlooked or defended by committees on the basis that they are doing it voluntarily.

Similarly, where coaching is such that athletes are routinely getting injured, does the voluntary nature of their activity make that ok? We wouldn't stand for a doctor causing harm to patients just because they had volunteered with Medicin Sans Frontieres - why should coaches be any different?

I'd take a handsomely payed coach demonstrating many of the other qualities you and others have listed on this thread over a voluntary egomaniac every time.

29/03/17
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CatherineBaker

Love this, and agree with so much of what has been said. So difficult to distil down, and different styles and approaches can be equally successful. Self-awareness is, I feel, key. The more you know and understand why you are coaching, what your strengths are, and what your aims are, the 'better' a coach you can be. I would also argue that, linked to this, higher levels of emotional intelligence can be a game changer. Something I have talked about on this site a lot! Thanks Nick, great post.

29/03/17
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CatherineBaker

Apologies for posting again but I forgot to add something really important. I would also suggest that a great coach brings real passion to what they do - they love their job and their sport, and instil that enjoyment and love of the sport in their participants.

29/03/17
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royjudo

I think I am out of my league here, I am not a professional coach, but enjoy giving others the opportunity and skills, I learnt. Also helping others in life's way. Being a volunteer coach does not make us different from professional coaches.

29/03/17
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Siadankay

Being a volunteer coach is a lot fifferen t than a pro coach , who has to plan a years programme dealing with every thing that ,that entails ,beleive me its 24/7

01/04/17
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AndyP

I'm sure it varies from sport to sport, but bear in mind in some sports Olympians are being coached by volunteers, so in many cases that is not the case. 99% of my coaching has been on a voluntary basis (with a little work teaching football and rugby players how to sprint on the side) and I'd say a standard week is probably around 30 hours, with messages coming in at all hours of the night, consulting with physios, discussing food diaries, liaising with selectors... Setting an annual plan is a given. I've known a good number of professional coaches that do far less work than many athletics coaches so I don't think the professional/voluntary divide is as clear as you suggest.

01/04/17
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alexis.lebedew

Great post - thanks Nick. I've though (and written) before about the idea of setting a higher bar for how we define successful coaching. Too often we define it in terms of competition success, but that should only be a part of it. An important part, but only a part.

29/03/17
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Nollzer

A great coach, has expert knowledge and realises that it is not just sport he is coaching, it is character and a value system.
The test is not the medals or the trophies won but when you are walking down a crowded street and an athlete you coached 15 years ago, shouts Hello, crosses the street and affectionately recalls your shared journey with a smile for an hour. During which recounts his enjoyment and how he is now coaching. The level coached is unimportant, it can be from elite to leisure.

30/03/17
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Siadankay

I think what makes a top coach,can be gauged by the retention of atheletes and how many want to stay in the game with them at the end of their careers

01/04/17
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StephHart

We are passionate, resilient, creative, fun, diverse; we are role models and lifestyle changers. We are life long learners and problem solvers. We inspire others to realise their own potental no matter what their level of ability.
I aspire to be the best I can be because that is my choice.
I don't mind making mistakes in front of other coaches or athletes, I see it as a positive step forwards in my own development.
I know there are coaches out there who feel uncomfortable with this, fearing what others might think of them prefering to stick to what they know.

Great coach or not I do know we have great moments.

09/04/17
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samcallanfencing

As I learned from someone I highly respect, one attribute of a very good (not sure I will go with "great") coach is that that coach has athletes who keep playing the sport. A good goal is not to be anyone's last coach.

10/04/17
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KateO

Great post... and the comments are interesting too. I am liking the discussions over volunteer/professional coaches.
The passion is really important, and if you coach a couple of hours a week perhaps the passion is easier to sustain than it is for coaches who do it 24/7. This is where the 'cog theory' comes into play I guess so the drivers of what makes a great coach can ebb and flow.
For me, the outcome has to be meeting the needs of the athlete consistently every time (or at least trying to) balancing the performance needs of the athlete with the emotional needs.

12/04/17
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jim.mcr

A great coach makes it SEEM simple easy and fun, earns and gives respect and his athletes work hard in return. (Behind all this is a lot of hard work and understanding to ensure that you deliver a simple and fun session that keeps the elite athlete engaged and moving towards their goal.)

12/04/17
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GlennSweeney

Conveniently tying in with the "Best coaching book youve ever read" topic, Im just reading Phil Jacksons "Eleven Rings" ,and I quote a passage. " I cant pretend to be an expert in leadership theory.But what I do know is that the art of transforming a group of young ambitious individuals into an integrated championship team is not a mechanistic process. Its a mysterious juggling act that requires not only a thorough knowledge of the laws of the game ,but also an open heart and a deep curiosity about the ways of the human spirit "

13/04/17
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Coach-Ed

A great coach is someone that takes the time to truly know their athlete.Their likes & dislikes , their strengths & weaknesses , their eating habits , their sleeping habits , their training & work commitment and abilities, their goals and aspirations, & their other commitments and activities, A successful coach uses this knowledge and the coaches skills, to individualize the training program to achieve the best possible outcome for the athlete. there are plenty of coaching books around informing coaches of skills & techniques that are required to achieve great results with athletes. BUT , there is far more knowledge that can be gained, that will improve any athlete, that comes from the athletes themselves.

25/04/17
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Goose

Great thread ! Love lots of the comments and agree with a lot of what is being said.

Throwing my thoughts into the ring I would have to say that a truly great coach is humble, learning and is as comfortable with what they know and excited by what they don't. I totally agree with Catherine in that they are self aware of where they standing emotionally and in terms of their own truths and where their players stand, they can attune and empathise with their players then use the vast matrix of knowledge efficiently and effectively so that small steps of improvement are made each time they connect with them. They have a passion and love for what they do and can draw/inspire those around them to engage in sport and activity for the purpose of learning and growth as a person.

The proof of a great coach are the lasting positive ripples they leave on people's lives, they either plant the seeds of great oaks and cultivate ensuring the climate and conditions are as right as they can be, so that they have the right foundations for growth and development, or they develop and grow the trees by knowing exactly how to make them blossom into something great before sliding away into the background to continue tending the garden they so greatly love.

Sorry for the ramble but I am only a passionate amateur!

30/07/17
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