I often use an investment analogy when explaining to athletes how they can improve their performance. Sometimes I invest a dollar of my time and get 50 cents in return from the athlete.
Other times I invest a dollar and get $2 back. The athlete has listened, adapted, and improved their performance. They have invested their time and effort and used my advice to get better. That is what being coachable means to me. But how can we ensure that we get a good return on our coaching investment?
Coachable, Not Compliant
To some coaches, athletes who do exactly what they are told and when are deemed ‘coachable.’ This is fine in certain circumstances:
- Catching the team bus
- Turning up with the right footwear
- Learning the playbook so that they turn right, not left, on a particular play, and the quarterback throws the ball to them, not the defender.
There are specific procedures and essential behaviors that are necessary for the team to operate effectively. Nothing is more disruptive than the star player missing practice or not being available to do their job. In their last preseason match, the Green Bay Packers were forced to punt. Their punter had cramps, so the kicker had to come onto the field to take the punt. A week later, the punter was no longer with the team. He had not been following the advice to stay hydrated and keep mobile. The coaches showed a zero-tolerance approach. I expect that cramps will not be an issue for the rest of the players this season.
However, when it comes to team practices and game design, the autocratic, ‘shut up and do what I say’ approach to coaching may make the coach’s life easier in the short term. Still, it may lead to errors and underperformance in matches. Suppose players spot a mistake or feel that something isn’t working or don’t understand why they are doing a drill. In that case, they should be able to ask a question or offer a solution. Providing they are polite and constructive, that player is helping improve the team’s performance: they are most definitely ‘coachable’.
Those players who sit and nod their heads but walk into the huddle confused or knowing that the play won’t work may seem coachable because they have been compliant, but the team will be worse off for it.
So, the first guideline to being coachable is to find a coach who is good at coaching rather than telling!
If you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, you can seek advice on improving. You might also be more open to advice from the coach. If you think that any mistakes or errors are down to external factors: the weather, the referee, your teammates, or luck, you will find it hard to get better. Advice from the coach will fall on deaf ears as you have removed responsibility for poor performance from your own shoulders and placed it on others’. In the short term, this is a useful coping strategy as you never ‘fail’, yet it leads to stagnation of performance in the long term. This occurs more often with athletes who are early-developers or more able at a young age. Their physical performance ensures success against the smaller, weaker opponents. They don’t have to listen or worry about the technique to win. At some point, the opponents start to grow. Then technique and tactical awareness will be better predictors of performance when everyone is the same size.
Good coaches recognize this and set goals about technique and tactics with their ‘star players’ and hold them as accountable as their teammates to ingrain good habits from the start.
The second guideline to being coachable is to be self-aware and look for ways to improve yourself at all times.
Finally, even within individual sports such as athletics and gymnastics, training takes part within a group. Being mindful of other people shows that you are coachable. For younger athletes, this means waiting your turn, not shouting out for attention, and not laughing at other athletes if they make a mistake. It means respecting others’ beliefs, values, and space for older athletes, even if you disagree with them. This extends to social media. If you are constantly undermining other athletes or the coach, you are harming the team or group.
Conversely, suppose you are supportive and respectful of others, including the groundkeeper, equipment person, and the cleaner. In that case, you are contributing to a positive environment. This allows the coach to focus on coaching rather than being a peacekeeper.
The final guideline to being coachable is to be a better human being!