Henry David Thoreau

That Coach Is Best Who Coaches Least

In his classic political manifesto Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau writes, “That government is best which governs least.” It’s an interesting idea. Thoreau does here not deny that government serves a necessary function, but he does contend that it performs this function best when it does the bare minimum for the citizens it serves and gives them the freedom and the responsibility to handle the rest.

At the risk of undercutting the very point I’m about to make concerning endurance coaching, I would like to point out that, according to the most rigorous available social scientific research, smaller national governments do not, in fact, produce better outcomes for their people than large ones. It’s actually quality that matters in government, not size. But if less is not actually more in governance, I believe it is in endurance coaching, which topic I will now turn to.

I am by no means alone in this belief. Recently I came across the following tweet: “The goal in coaching is to develop self-sufficient[,] adaptable athletes prepared to thrive in the competitive cauldron. Give your athletes the mental and physical skills. Get them to the point where they trust in their preparation and let them go.” These words were written by Vern Gambetta, an elder statesman in the area of track and field conditioning, and they sound a lot like something Thoreau might have written had he been a coach instead of a philosopher. A pair of small word substitutions–“That coach is best who coaches least”–would have spared the transcendentalist thinker from being dead wrong.

The best coaches, Vern and I and others like us agree, take a hands-off approach to guiding their athletes. Sure, there are some successful coaches who take the opposite approach, authoritarian micromanagers who do everything but train and race for their athletes, but I see them as exceptions that prove the rule, and they are only successful in a limited sense. The infamous Chinese running coach Ma Junren is an extreme case. Junren ruled his stable of women athletes with an iron fist, controlling every aspect of their lives—how they trained (roped to a motorcycle sometimes), where they lived (all together in a barracks), when they slept, whom they dated (no one), what they ate (caterpillar fungus, among other things), and which performance-enhancing drugs they took. He even told them exactly what to think during each segment of a race. The results were a few drug-tainted world records, a lot of unhappy runners who would carry the trauma of Junren’s (sometimes physical) abuse for the rest of their lives, and a giant cheating scandal that put a quick end to the sad saga.

Again, this is an extreme example, but milder forms of overcoaching are extremely common in my profession. A lot of coaches assume, quite naturally, that the job of a coach is to coach. From this perspective, a coach is only doing their job when they are actively coaching an athlete. “Do, this, don’t do that.” I believe that the proper job of a coach is to coach as necessary–to give athletes all the guidance and support they truly need and not a lick more, because the more athletes do for themselves, the better prepared they will be to cope effectively and make good decisions in instances where their coach can’t help them. To simultaneously exaggerate and oversimplify the point: Bad coaches try to make themselves indispensable, while good coaches try to put themselves out of a job.

I’ll give you an example of what this kind of coaching looks like. Recently, one of my athletes texted me to report that she had felt surprisingly good in performing a set of critical velocity intervals that morning, and to ask if I thought she should accept or turn down an invitation from her roommates to do an unscheduled easy double that same evening. This runner had recently returned to serious training after an extended, burnout-induced break and was now regaining fitness very quickly, and loving it. I was loving it too, but I was also a bit concerned about her getting carried away, and I sensed that she sensed the same risk, and I further intuited that in asking her question she was actually looking for permission to skip the double. Despite believing this was indeed the right call, however, I judged it better in the long view to let her make her own call. Here’s how our text exchange went from there:

Me: Is there a small voice in the back of your head warning you not to let excitement turn into greediness and greediness into unnecessary risk-taking?

Her: I feel like I know it’s unnecessary and while I love the headlamp jogs with my roommates, it might be a little greedy.

A single instance of enabling an athlete to see her own way to the right move instead of making it for her doesn’t mean much, but with repetition such instances produce a more “self-sufficient, adaptable” athlete, to again use Vern Gambetta’s words, hence a more successful athlete. And shouldn’t that be every coach’s goal?

I don’t want to give you the wrong idea here. My image of the ideal coach is not one who is largely passive and does the bare minimum for athletes. There’s a lot to be said, for example, for cultivating a strong relationship with each individual athlete and letting them know you care about their success and well-being, objectives whose fulfillment requires proactive behavior on the part of the coach. I myself do this in ways that range from texting “Safe travels!” to an athlete who’s making a long drive on a given day to sharing studies, articles, and videos I come across that are germane to something we discussed in a recent video consultation. The overarching principle is that of doing everything possible within the coaching role to help an athlete succeed. The point I’ve endeavored to make here is that oftentimes not doing something for (or to) an athlete is more helpful than doing it.