Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What Coaches Can Learn From Great Managers

What Coaches Can Learn From Great Managers
What Coaches Can Learn From Great Managers: “Breaking All The Rules” In Selecting And Coaching Your Athletes
By Kirsten Peterson PhD
From Olympic Coach, Vol 16. No#2, Summer 2004
Athletes don’t change all that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left
out. Try and draw out what was left in. That is hard enough.

This paraphrase is at the heart of the best-selling management book entitled First, Break All the Rules. Through numerous in-depth interviews of the best versus average managers, the authors of this book question the conventional wisdom about how to select for and develop productive employees. The main findings of this book have some interesting implications for coaches interested in maximising the performance of their athletes.

Understanding Skills, Knowledge, and Talent
Central to this book’s message is that skills, knowledge and talents are distinct and different concepts. The authors argue that understanding these distinctions are critical for coaches eager to tap their athletes’ potential in its entirety. One such distinction that great coaches already know but that managers are just beginning to realise, is that while skills and knowledge can be taught, talent cannot. What is interesting for coaches is what falls under the heading of “talent” and is therefore considered unchangeable. For the sake of clarity, here is how each of these terms is defined.

Skills are the ‘how-to’s’ of a role – capabilities that can be transferred from one person to another. Knowledge, on the other hand, comprises what you’re aware of factually as well as what you have learned from experience.

Experiential knowledge is what you pick up over time as you reflect back on your experiences and draw connections and patterns and includes, among other things, your unique perspective, your biases, and your values. The athlete who is able to analyse her competitive experiences to determine what works best for her during competition is developing her experiential knowledge.

Talent, the authors contend, is distinct from knowledge and skill and is the product of how your brain’s pathways developed and in response to your unique upbringing and which kinds of thinking and behaving were rewarded or punished along the way. In short, your talents are your recurring thoughts, feelings, or behaviours. The authors have identified three types of talents:

Striving – this talent explains the ‘why’ of an athlete. What motivates her? Is she competitive, achievement oriented, afraid to fail?
Thinking – this talent explicates, the ‘how’ of an athlete. How he thinks. Is he disciplined? Organised? Spontaneous?
Relating – this talent explains the ‘who’ of an athlete. Who he is drawn to or repelled by, is he introverted or extroverted?

Great coaches therefore, should find their players roles that play to those players’ talents and can do so in two ways. They create the environment that allows each athlete’s talent to flourish. Second, they define the right outcomes and allow each athlete to find his own route to those outcomes.

Some coaches might question the idea that qualities like ‘drive’ and ‘motivation’ are unchangeable. There is little that is as frustrating as the highly skilled athlete who is not motivated to train or compete to her perceived potential. Few sports psychologists escape the question from coaches wanting to know how to better motivate those one or two gifted, but seemingly uncoachable athletes. Great coaches, like great managers, have learned something from this kind of frustration, and have learned to redefine the issue. Accepting that an athlete’s source of motivation is unchangeable does not necessarily mean that you cannot succeed with him. It may just mean that you have not yet individualised your approach enough to help this particular striving talent emerge.

Lesson #1: Individualise Your Approach to Cultivate and Maximise the Talents of Your Athletes

Great managers will tell you to focus on each person’s strengths and manage around his weaknesses. Don’t try to fix the weaknesses. The lesson for coaches? Don’t try to perfect each of your athletes. Instead do everything you can to help each athlete to cultivate his talents. Help each athlete to become more of who he already is. Keep in mind that this does not mean that athletes cannot learn to do things differently. Skills and knowledge are malleable. Talent, however, is not.

Great managers can describe in detail the unique talents of each of their people, what drives each one, how each thinks, and how each builds relationships. Great coaches do the same. Ask your athletes about their goals, about where they see their career heading, and how they want to interact with you. Other great questions for your athletes:
Ø Do you want public recognition or private? Written or verbal?
Ø Tell me about the most meaningful recognition you ever received. Why was it memorable?
Ø How do you learn best?
Ø Who was the best coach you had? How did he or she help you?

Great managers consistently reject the Golden Rule: Don’t treat your people as you would like to be treated….treat them how each of them would like to be treated. The hardest thing about being a manager is realising that your people will not do things the way you would. But get used to it. Because if you force them to, two things happen. They become resentful – they don’t want to do it. And neither is productive over the long haul.
Lesson #2 – Spend Most of Your Time with Your Best Athletes
“The harder he works, the better he performs, and the more leeway he gets from me.” – Jimmy Johnson, NFL Coach

Great coaches such as Jimmy Johnson break conventional wisdom management rules by refusing to apply one-size-fits-all approach to the athletes in their charge. They reject the traditional approach that suggests that the best use of time is to bring up the lowest performers, and to assume that their best athletes are doing fine without them. Great managers agree, for the following reason:
It’s fair – the only way to treat someone fairly is to treat them as they deserve to be treated (not treating everyone the same) bearing in mind what they have accomplished
It’s the best way to learn – You as a coach can’t learn about excellence by only spending time with those athletes who need more work. Ask questions and spend time with your best athletes. Listen to what they do, watch how they do it. Replay it, dissect it, and understand what happened and why it worked.
It’s the only way to reach excellence – The best managers don’t use ‘average’ but ‘excellent’ as the standard to judge performance. Those who are already performing above average are the ones most likely to reach excellence.

Lesson #3 – Be a Catalyst
Great managers refuse to limit their role to controller or instructor. Instead, they spend their time trying to figure out better ways to unleash their best performers’ distinct talents. Certainly all coaches would consider teaching to be central to their role, since sport acquisition is obviously critical to athletic success. Taken on its own, however, skill is often not enough. Consider Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who languished as play-off non-contenders for several seasons before Michael was persuaded to redirect his considerable skills to put the interest of the team’s success over his own. Here are some ways that you become more of a catalyst with your athletes:
Ø Strive to cut out a unique set of expectations for your athletes that stretch and focus them
Ø Highlight each athlete’s unique style. Draw his attention to it; help him understand how it works for him and how to perfect it
Ø No news is not good news for athletes – it kills behaviour. Great coaches don’t forget to continue to reinforce the talents of their best performers. If you see your stars acting up, it is a sure sign that you have been paying attention to the wrong behaviours and the wrong people

As the authors of ‘First, Break all the Rules’ rightly pointed out in their introduction, there are more differences than similarities between the world’s best, be it coaches or managers. Beyond these differences in style, however, there do appear to be some universal truths in how best to help your athletes achieve their best. Don’t be afraid to break some rules along the way.

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