Am I Telling or Coaching?

Coach Philip reflects on how to help get the most out of athletes and how most of the work a coach has to do is almost intangible and may go against the common stereotypes of coaching that modern representations have characterised. There are some interesting learning points here for both coaches and athletes.


One of my more memorable moments on a course was when I completed my British Triathlon Mentoring Course with Alan. This looked at the role of a mentor and was a fantastic addition to any coaching CPD.

During the course, we were discussing how you interact with people. We were paired up and allocated a number: one or two. Then we faced each other, raised our hands to about shoulder height, put our palms together (high-five style!) and were given the following instructions:

  1. Number two's: Do nothing

  2. Number one's: Push against number two's hands.

The majority of the group ended up facing each other, standing upright as number ones pushed against number twos hands and number two kept them upright but taking number one's weight/force. However, this was not "doing nothing". The minority of the group (the number two's who had done nothing) had to catch themselves before falling as they were pushed back.

The same was done in reverse, but this time the instruction wasn't to push, but to pull the other person, everyone had to catch themselves as they stepped forwards. The lesson here is that when you push someone into doing something, they generally resist. If you lead someone, they are a lot more likely to follow you.

How does this relate to coaching? Well often the view of a coach is one painted by the films (usually American) of a stern "Coach" who has his method and everyone either steps up to his mark or steps out of the team. This may be effective in certain environments, but to get the most out of an athlete there should be more of a motivational approach and less pushing someone to do something as they will only push back!

Clearly, there will always be hoops that need to be jumped through. However, these will always be set relative to your goal or dream. For example, if you want to break 40 minutes for 10km, you will also need to be able to run 5km in less than 20 mins! Clearly a coach has to be reasonably strict at bringing someone back into the realms of reality if the goal is unattainable. However, that is an outcome that has to be reached rather than a process that needs to be completed to achieve your goal – there is no magic formula to become a world champion! The process cannot be forced upon someone, inevitably, if it is then the athlete will suffer or walk away and you won't get the most out of them! This process has to be built around the athlete to help them achieve their goals. Every athlete is different.


Here are some great reminders that I have learnt and use to ensure I continue to encourage an athlete without pushing them:

"It is very difficult to listen when you are talking."

I can admit that I myself have been found guilty of this one! This isn't specifically talking out loud to someone and not listening (though that is true too)! More that you find yourself listening to a conversation and preparing what you want to say next in your head or your internal dialogue takes over. You then miss what is being said and therefore make it difficult to add meaningfully to the conversation! As a coach, it is so important to make sure you are listening, but also be aware that at times the person you are talking to is having a separate internal dialogue which means they could miss what you are saying. 

"A coach has two eyes, two ears and one mouth – they should coach in that proportion!"

If you think about it, then only 20% of coaching is prescriptive from coach to athlete. 80% of coaching is feedback from the athlete. This is clearly impactful for the coach – are you "telling" too much? Equally important for the athlete is that subscribing to this proportion of communication: the coach isn't going to tell you what to do all the time, their role in this instance is to help coach you/lead you through the thought process or action of getting it right for yourself. Is your view of coaching unrealistic: you believe that it will be prescriptive, whereas in fact it is likely to be more reactive? It is as much about what you put in and feed back to the coach as it is about the programme you are following. Your feedback will help them make informed decisions on where to go next!

"When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear."

I love this analogy. It is so important for coaches to consider this. We have all been there. There is a fantastic athlete who is sat in front of you, talented, skilled, yet not motivated, not listening to advice, not conforming to a training programme. If you think about the point of pushing v pulling, we know you can't force your way into their existence yet sitting in the wings is excruciatingly frustrating. These athletes are so frustrating as a coach as their commitment does not correspond to their talent. With a bit of consistency and commitment they could go so far...yet the pupil is not ready. When they are ready though, a teacher, not necessarily the same one, will be recognised as a teacher. In many instances it is hard for a coach to swallow this reality, yet it is so important to keep the athlete in the sport. Jack Daniels said that as a coach you should spend the time on the unskilled yet motivated athlete and this is so true. As a coach, when you realise this, it is easier to let these athletes be who they want to be and in time, perhaps, the athlete will be ready to start working in a coaching relationship. Until then, they are best on their own.