At a recent Endeavorun retreat in San Diego, Jake Tuber and I made a list of key traits of effective coaches. This was not an arbitrary exercise. Jake and I are in the early stages of collaborating on a book about coaching, and we’re trying to nail down our shared beliefs and convictions about the craft. The effort spilled over from one day to the next, and it was on day two, in the middle of a conversation about empathy, that I blurted out, “Curiosity!”
The notion that curiosity is a key trait of effective coaches is hardly original. In his book Applying Educational Psychology in Coaching Athletes, Jeffrey Huber writes, “Great coaches are curious seekers of information and are resourceful at discovering answers to questions, finding solutions to problems, and creating novel responses to puzzling situations. . . Curiosity motivates coaches to ask the question Why? And look for ways to improve their coaching effectiveness.”
Curiosity is also infectious, according to executive coach Natalie Jobity, benefiting not only the curious coach but also the curious coach’s athletes. “With curiosity,” she explains in a post written for on the International Coaching Federation blog. “there is exploring, uncovering, exposing, digging, considering, or reflecting. These lead to shifted mindsets, creative perspectives, new understanding and learning, which is at the heart of effective coaching. . . With a culture of curiosity comes a culture of trust, openness, and collaboration. These are the foundations of creativity, and why many savvy leaders today try to adopt a coach approach in their conversations and interactions with their teams and colleagues.”
These statements make me feel good about myself because I am intellectually curious, and always have been. But the point of this article is not to convince you that I am a great coach because I’m curious. Instead I would like to show you the value of a curious mindset for athletes with a couple of recent personal examples.
The first involves Paula, a runner I coach. There are lots of fear-driven people in the world, and for a long time Paula was one of them, to the detriment of her training and racing. Fear of failure all but guarantees failure. Fear of uncertainty breeds uncertainty. And fear in general is just plain unpleasant, ruining the athletic experience. Unnecessarily, I might add, as there are plenty of examples of athletes who experience no more fear than is useful, and who benefit thereby.
I’m no psychologist, but I genuinely believe everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph, and as Paula’s coach I was willing to work as hard as I could for as long as necessary to help her overcome her fearfulness—and more importantly, so was she. Recently, that work has begun to pay off. When fear recedes, something has to take its place, and for Paula that something has been curiosity.
Paula had a rough 2022, delaying her preparations for an important half marathon this spring. Lately, her training has been going well, but she’s uncertain whether she has enough time to get as fit as she needs to be to perform as well as she wants to perform. In the past, this situation would have pressed all of Paula’s buttons, filling her with fear and apprehension. Now she’s simply curious, eager to discover how much progress she can make between now and race day. Whereas in the past Paula believed that she had no choice but to be afraid in such circumstances, she’s come to recognize that another way is possible, and although I share her uncertainty concerning what is possible in her upcoming half marathon, I am certain she will perform better and enjoy the journey more than she would have done had she not discovered the power of a curious mindset.
The reason I push athletes like Paula toward a curious mindset is that I myself have benefited greatly from having one. In the depths of my struggle with long covid, curiosity saved me from despair. One night early in the ordeal I sent my brother Josh a text message that read, “I feel so bad it’s interesting.” That about sums it up. I liken the experience to traveling to an exotic foreign country that you don’t like and will never willingly return to but that nevertheless holds your attention and that you probably won’t regret having gone to. Being fascinated by what was happening to my body didn’t make me feel any less miserable, but it alloyed my misery with a sustaining desire to keep going and see what happened next.
The same mindset is now helping me navigate my way through what I hesitate to call a comeback to running. Having more or less given up hope of ever returning to the sport when I couldn’t even climb a flight of stairs without resting halfway up, I feel immense gratitude for the little bit of every-other-day hobbling I’ve managed to survive thus far, yet I have no clue where the process will lead. If I lacked a curious mindset, such uncertainty might provoke anxiety, but I feel none—not because I don’t care where it leads but because my curiosity gives me a different perspective on the uncertain future, which, although it might not be good, is certain to be interesting.
I’ve always thought of curiosity as one of those things that you either have or don’t. It’s related to the Big Five personality trait of openness, after all, which like other personality traits is largely fixed after youth. But Paula is living proof that an athlete who struggles to access her curiosity for a time can change. In the aforementioned blog post, Natalie Jobity shares tips on nurturing curiosity in coaching clients that I plan to use with future Paula’s. If you could stand to be a bit more curious, check them out and apply them to yourself.