It’s been a while since I committed to writing more on this topic and how it impacts endurance athletics. Part of what stopped me, I think, is accidentally implying the betterness of some coaches over others knowing full well that there are a handful coaches who read this blog. I guess I worry a little about pushing a hot button or two without intending to do so.
But then I recently visited Paulo Sousa’s blog and read his Flavor Of The Day Coaching piece, which is a re-post of this Slowtwitch thread. Clearly, Paulo doesn’t shy away from saying things that might chap someone’s behind. Without over-generalizing his assertion that great athletes don’t necessarily (or rarely) make great coaches, I do get his point when considering my personal hesitation to pick up coaching because I’m concerned that I would have a hard time creating a program that’s not primarily driven by what I’ve learned about how I, personally, respond to training and racing. I think it takes a special effort to really step back and view another athlete’s training plan without looking through the lenses of our own experiences.
I also have to agree with the assertion that the very best coaches tend to be mediocre athletes that had some moderate success mostly due to hard and smart work, instead of those that picked things up naturally and easily. My childhood swim coach, Jim Young of Lanier Aquatics in Gainesville, GA, is a great example of that. I remember him explaining to me years ago that he wasn’t all that great of a swimmer. I will tell you, however, that he is a great coach that has done more with a small town swim program consistently over decades than pure chance could explain away. In fact, while I was there, he left for one season and returned the following. The whole team’s performance dipped that season that he was gone and we had another coach.
But I didn’t really want to spend much time pontificating if or why great athletes can coach well in this post. That’s not my point at all. The real reason I brought up Paulo’s post is because is because of this quote:
Because they are not bound by a long-term plan, athletes by definition have difficulty with focusing on long-term plans, they focus on what seemingly works here and now.
I agree completely that those coaches not bound by a long term plan will have less far-reaching success than those who are able to see years down the road. In lay terms, how far you can look down the road is your time horizon. Lately I’ve been reading up on Requisite Organization (RO) theory, a robust way of determining someone’s cognitive capacity in a business setting created by the late Elliott Jacques. It’s good stuff, but the literature I’ve seen is all business related, not athletics related. Now, I don’t know if a lot of top athletes have shorter time horizons, but I admit to wondering about that every now and then. In the very least, a top athlete does have to blind themselves to the likely outcome on their bodies of long multiple years of very, very hard training. Maybe it’s easiest if you don’t tend to think that far in advance. Maybe not. I’m not pointing any fingers here.
Having said that, I will say without further hesitation that a great coach is a coach with a longer time horizon. One thing about RO that tends to get Human Resources peoples’ panties in a wad is that time horizon is something you are pretty much born with and managed not to have wrung out of you by some kind of trauma. Sure, time horizon does tend to increase over one’s life as a result of learning and experience and wider frame of reference simply from more time on this earth, but someone who’s 30 years old with a 2 year time horizon will always see further down the road than a 30 year old with a 1 year time horizon, unless the 2 year person is irreperably damaged by major trauma in the meantime. There are a lot of people who get their noses out of joint when you suggest that maybe, just maybe, not everybody has the innate brain power to be President no matter how “hard they work.” (Let’s not get into a political discussion about this year’s selection of candidates for U.S. Prez, please. I’m registered Independent and don’t have a clue who I’m going to vote for, so let’s just leave it at that.)
Same goes for prospects for being a Great Coach. I propose that the truly outstanding ones, the famous ones we hear about for years to come, have longer time horizons. They have the long foresight to build programs to greatness over many, many years. When I read Paulo’s comment pasted above, I see within his argument of why great athletes might not be great coaches, a hidden inference that the holdup with these athletes is a too-short time horizon to really have that long term view necessary for greatness. Again, whether top triathletes tend to have inadequate time horizons for coaching greatness, I can’t really say. I will say that the longer the time horizon, the rarer it is in the general population and therefore true also in triathlete populations, no matter how cool we triathletes think we are (and we are), we’re really not all that special. That was a lengthy way of saying that really long time horizons are rare, even among the highly educated triathlete set.
Also, in keeping with RO theory, a long time horizon isn’t the only qualifier to make a great coach. It’s necessary but not sufficient. Desire, technical knowledge, positive value system and temperament are all critical. I think that for many triathletes, a one year plan without much thought to the years after is probably adequate, especially if the coach has all of the other success factors, depending on their personal goals in the triathlon portion of their life. For some, a longer view is warranted. I do think that it’s important that we consider this factor when choosing a coach and ask questions to determine whether the coach we want at least has an equivalent, if not longer, time horizon than ourselves. As for me, I would want my expert advisor to provide me a perspective that I can’t get on my own. I imagine that many of you would like the same thing. Something to think about.