I’ve noticed a fear among coaches for several years, but I’ve never seen it addressed which perplexes and intrigues me. This fright arises as a question, “What if ‘X’ change (in training or practice) makes the athlete worse?” A concerned coach usually makes this inquiry after another one proposes a change from what the athlete and coach have always done because there’s a problem that needs solving.
Hi 🙋♂️, “another coach” inviting change is usually me. I’m the guy who sees the problems with training traditions and winds up saying we should do things differently because we can get better results. No wonder why I hear this question so often.
The question is a valid concern, and I’ve asked it too. Most coaches care for their athletes, and all want to keep their jobs secure. The problem, however, is that this question results in paralysis and/or forbidding mistakes. Our culture still treats mistakes as impediments when they are, in fact, the path to betterment. It’s ineffective to ask this question because it fails to give direction, and the general attitude carried on that path is (usually) insecurity. We need better questions and more confident coaches.
Lastly, I have to mention a laughable point. There’s some irony behind that question: Many coaches don’t know if they’ve made their athletes better or worse but ask that question and keep on keepin’ on.
A Better Question
Here’s a similar but better question: “What if you fail to keep athletes healthy and make them better?”
It’s almost the same question, but it leads you in the opposite direction. The old question steers you to avoid failure. The new question directs you toward success. It still invokes some fear but should result in coaches solving the challenges of sports, which requires exploration and impending mistakes because:
- Keeping athletes healthy is hard, complex, and necessary.
- Advancing skills are hard, complex, and necessary.
- Each person is unique and benefits from coaching that respects the individual.
Those three reasons require you to make informed choices with changes in practice and training because even the best-laid plans will go astray, and you will need to change something, eventually. No one has perfect records and too few athletes stay healthy. Coaching requires the course corrections that come after dead ends, as well as the gumption to hold fast and stay true when things are awry but you have good evidence they will improve. Such boldness can only come after the blunders and triumphs born from educated guesses.
We cannot have such a fearful and insecure perspective on practice and training. Such a strategy will always fail, and our athletes are working their asses off to play sports that are so increasingly competitive. If you’ve asked this question or are worried you’ll make your athletes worse, good. Keep reading but not without warning, some things may be hard to hear.
Caution Over Fear
The relationship I’ve seen most often to hypothetical diversions from preexisting plans is anxiety and fear, and the purpose of those emotions is to avoid whatever sets them in motion. In this case, coaches avoid the unknown future that comes after novel changes. But sports are too competitive for such paralyzing behavior, and it’s impossible to turn lemons into lemonade if you don’t know what a yellow oblong fruit is.
If you’re cautious, however, you dart your eyes from side to side, gathering information as you carefully step forward. If you know the terrain already—because you have explored it during opportunities like off-seasons or with your own training—you have a better idea of what may arise around each blind corner.
Caution is the more useful relationship to anything that’s as inevitable as change. Lean into it. What if you do make them worse? You will eventually. You already have! Whether or not you admit it to yourself is another matter. Regardless, diminishing your athletes is unavoidable. None of you are perfect, and despite the efforts of academics, there’s no recipe for being good at sports. You might as well be prepared for the inevitable other shoe to drop by dropping lots of shoes.
When you have a history of overcoming adversities, you can become highly confident in navigating future follies when they arise. You are confident and cautious. For instance, if you change something and the athlete worsens, you don’t panic. You stay calm, knowing you need to gather more information before pulling the plug or reverting to what you’ve always done. If your intentions still fail to match the desired outcome, you confidently course correct.
All coaches would benefit from feeling sure enough to navigate such inevitable challenges instead of being halted by hypothetical questions. You can develop that confidence by marching into the din of battle, being as informed as possible of potential outcomes, and committing to adapt to whatever comes your way. Most importantly, once you overcome challenges, you update your self-talk and beliefs, realizing you can adapt to failures, which changes your life for the better.
- If I inform them about the potential change, and we agree it’s a worthwhile experiment, we do it.
- The athlete should always have some input because it’s their career. The older the athlete is, the more input I want from them. There have been numerous times I have shelved a suggestion because the athlete wants to choose a different path, for one reason or another.
- Injury Risk
- If I have good reasoning that their injury risk is high, I will strongly suggest a change. It’s still their choice, ultimately.
- There’s strong evidence it will make them better (and/or prevent injury).
- Off-season: yes
- Midseason: For big changes, wait until the off-season, duh. (Unless they are in pain and need a change to keep playing.) Small changes can happen midseason.
I’ve gotta expound on that fourth point. The off-season presents opportunities that only some exploit. It is the best time to make mistakes from chasing hunches and wild geese. You may not end up where you want, but if you’re curious and creative, I can almost guarantee you’ll learn and have fun. The latter is in short supply these days. Our culture has dove headfirst into #hustleporn and needs proof from peer-reviewed papers for any choice between dawn and dusk. I wonder, how many wipe their ass without first researching if two or three-ply is more optimal?
Ultimately, this incursion of evidence is a good thing because many coaches, from the little leagues to the pros, have no fucking clue what they’re doing. We must find a middle ground between joyless utility and shit-giggling shenanigans. We’re still just playing (and coaching) games—something we all used to do because they were fun. I know at least one researcher who would agree that if athletes and coaches create fun practices, they advance their skills and athleticism more than one approved by David Goggins.
So, back to our question: What if you make them worse? If you do it at the right time, create fun, and learn, you’ll end up where you want to be. And now a counterintuitive question, but perhaps the more important one: What if you (or your athletes) never make mistakes?
Are you or the athlete getting better?
Are you or the athlete learning?
So what the fuck are you doing?
Keeping athletes—and yourself—sheltered this way does a few things: it tells the athletes you don’t believe in them, it architects beliefs that you can’t learn from mistakes, and it provides you with a false sense of security. You get to tell whoever is in charge, your ego or your boss, “Hey, I didn’t make them worse! It’s not my fault!” I remind you that many failure-avoiding coaches still get fired, lose business, or several athletes under their care rupture something. So why continue this charade? You can still lose everything while doing your damndest to avoid failure.
If I was your boss, I’d leave you with this, “Yeah, but you didn’t make them better either.”