Coaching: The Pursuit of Mastery

Coach One

From the age of six to thirteen Coach Mac taught me everything there was to know about hockey and life.  Coach Mac was, and still may be, the toughest man I have ever met.  He did six tours in Vietnam, ran some private security operations, and if you give him a few beers, he will loosen up and give you some insight into being a Sergeant Major of the Marines Corps.

We won or came in second in our youth league, spanning the East Coast, every year for five straight years.  To this day, self admittedly, he does not really know much about hockey.

He knew about teams, hard work, discipline, and holding yourself accountable.  Despite being so young, there was not one kid on that team that would not run in front of a truck for him.  I imagine it was the same way in the Marine Corps only people’s lives were at stake.

Lead by Example

I played hockey for Mike Fay at the Williston Northampton School from 1997 – 2001.  Coach Fay was the antithesis of a drill sergeant in the Marines.  He was quiet, treated us like young men, and we lived and trained by setting higher expectations for ourselves.  Conversations were matter of fact.  We carried ourselves well, everything in the locker room was healthy, and everyone on the team carried their weight.

As an adolescent, I needed a coach that was not there to intimidate me, but to lead by example and show me the proper way to train, play, and live. Similar to Coach Mac, every player on that team would stand in front of a truck for him.  My senior year we finished second in New England and won 16 straight games which is still a school record. A completely different approach with the same result, winning.

So how do two coaches with completely opposite approaches get the same result?

What is the common thread that creates success as a coach?

I believe the common thread involves their approach to the learning

Growth not Fixed

In coaching, developing a growth mindset, allowing athletes to learn from their failures, and creating a culture that fosters progression and not final results develops trust and a winning attitude.  These coaches both understood the process of learning.  Freshmen do not walk on campus expecting to outplay seniors.  There is a process and development to their learning.

A coach that looks at athletes and thinks, “You’re good,” or “You’re bad,” is applying a fixed mindset to an athlete that needs to learn progression and develop an ability to learn. Athletes need a growth mindset to develop weaknesses and mature physically and mentally to reach their full potential.  No athlete is in a static state if they are constantly learning.

In 2007, my mentor and CrossFit coach, Paul Beckwith, invited me to coach a group of Army soldiers through an easy day of pushups, air squats, and pull ups.  Your first coaching gig is pretty overwhelming.  It does not make it any easier that there are over 50 soldiers and almost none of them came from a strength background.  I spent the entire session trying to tell them all of the things that were second nature to me.

How do you describe a push up or the mechanics of a pull up in front of people that you have never met?

The result was a ton of terrible pushups, quarter squats, and embarrassing pull ups.

By all accounts, my first coaching job was an epic fail.  Instead of telling me how poorly I did, we discussed small areas to improve.  He knew there was no such thing as a “natural born coach.”  You have to fail, get better, learn, and grow.

Focus on the Process

Coaching, like everything, is a process.

There is an evolution to your cues, movement descriptions, and the depth to which you deliver that message.  The only way to get better is to do it and do it a lot.

The amateur coach struggles to communicate from a lack of experience.  They may have one or two cues to help someone find their glutes or squat better.  As they become more comfortable, they learn to handle the fails and have the depth of experience to keep working until that client finally understands.

A professional coach has been in the trenches and seen it all.  Getting a group of 30 athletes moving in unison is a cakewalk. Understanding all 30 athlete’s strengths, weaknesses, and specific program tweaks is just another day at the office.  The master coach, however, is less concerned over movements and flow.

The master coach develops trust, commitment, and a culture that fosters a growth mindset.  There is always something to improve.  No athlete or coach is in a static state.

Developing a culture of continuous learning is at the heart of coaching success.

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