On Coachability

There is no trait I have found in an athlete with a higher correlation to performance than coachability.  Yes, I know, shocking to hear this from a coach.  Newsflash, coach likes it when his athletes do what he says!  Actually just doing what coach says is not true coachability but we will get to that later.  I have ruminated much on this subject of late and decided to put some structure to my thought process in order to limit subjectivity.  In reflecting on my career, I defined the group of athletes I have coached who have demonstrated the ‘highest level of performance’ as those who had accomplished at least one of the following:

  • Qualified for national championships / Olympic Trials
  • Represented their country in international cross country races
  • Won small college national titles in cross country or track
  • Qualified for the NCAA division one national championships
  • Finished in the top 10 at a major ultra / trail event…like Western States, etc.

Once I had that list of athletes, I evaluated them across these traits, assigning a score of 1-10 for each:

  • Physical aptitude
  • Injury resilience
  • Intelligence
  • Work ethic
  • Mental capacity for discomfort
  • Coachability

“…none of these athletes scored low in coachability.  It was clearly the outlier.” 

When I looked my score sheet over at the end, the only category where I evaluated every single person at no less than an 8/10 was coachability.  It should be no surprise most of these athletes scored well across the board, but there were some low marks.  Interestingly most the athletes had one area with a particularly low score.  Where that low score came varied, but none of these athletes scored low in coachability.  It was clearly the outlier.  I think you could go through the same process with athletes who have shown the greatest improvement (many of these highest performers would be on that list too) and get the same result, coachability would likely stand out.

What exactly is coachability?  It is certainly a term thrown around often in the athletics world, and even in the business world now.  It seems to fall into that ‘we know it when we see it’ category though.  Indeed, this is the way I approached it with the list of athletes I was evaluating.  It was not until I had scored everything out that I started to think about how I would define what it means to be coachable. Essentially, we all know coachability is good, we all know we want to be coachable and work with coachable people, but by lining out exactly what that means we should be able to find it a little more often and even improve upon it. 

“…it would be best to think of coachability more as a skill set than a mindset or a singular trait.”

As I started to think about all these athletes I rated as highly coachable, it struck me that it would be best to think of coachability more as a skill set than a mindset or a singular trait.  It differs from physical aptitude, injury resilience, etcetera that way.  Those are straightforward concepts, essentially self-explanatory in nature.  Not so much with coachability, it is broader and more nuanced.  So, I started building a list of the actual skills that when summed up seemed to make for a coachable athlete. 

  1. Listening.  Yes, listening is a skill and quality listeners are rarer than most people would assume.  Unless those people are teachers or coaches who know finding a great listener is akin to finding gold.  A good listener can shut off their own internal dialogue and truly take in what they are hearing.  They hear first and react to what they have heard later after they have a firm and accurate grasp of the content.  Because of this, one thing you will notice about strong listeners is they ask questions.  Their questions are direct and specific as they are trying to understand what is being presented and not seeking argument.  A good listener will usually look at you when you speak, and they rarely interrupt.  The strongest listeners are patient, they will let the speaker convey the information.  Most of all, I think good listeners are present.  Their mind, and hence their ears and usually their eyes, are in the here and now.  When I talk to Lizzie Bird, she is always right there, present in the conversation.  She asks questions, she sorts through what I am say right then and there so we can be on the same page when the work starts, or the race comes up.  If she has concerns, if she is uncertain, she lets me know immediately.  Given I have coached Lizzie more remotely than in person over the last few years, her skill as a listener has been a massive key to her continued success.
Meredith Rizzo demonstrates skilled listening!
  1. Attention to detail.  It does not matter what I tell and athlete, or even how they grasp the instruction if they lack attention to detail when they attempt to put that instruction into practice.  Again, questions are a great sign that someone has attention to detail.  Athletes who ask questions are bringing attention to detail to the task from step one.  Discipline is also a huge part of this.  My athletes will all tell you I am nit-picky (that’s the nice way to put it) when it comes to the rest interval during workouts.  Two minutes means two minutes!  Back before I saw most workout recaps on Strava or a screen shot of a smart watch app, Megan Rolland would type out workout recaps on her phone and text me them.  She would report the exact time of every single rest interval along with the time from the repetitions.  It should be noted, I never asked Megan to do this.  But I never had to wonder if she knew how critical being precise on those recovery times was, she was showing me she understood with her attention to detail.  Megan’s track career was marked with remarkable consistency and steady development, she earned both with her impeccable attention to detail.

He believed in himself, and that is a far greater tool than belief in a particular aptitude or fitness earned in training.

Greg Montgomery’s confidence is part of his coachability.
  1. Confidence.  This is a biggie.  Confident people are comfortable with themselves, and you have to be comfortable with yourself to accept critique.  If an athlete gets defensive or shuts down when their deficiencies are pointed out, they have little chance to progress.  Athletes who know that a comment on their ability is not a comment on their worth are coachable.  Athletes who know they are of inherently of value can accept criticism as an opportunity for growth.  Greg Montgomery is maybe the most confident athlete I have ever worked with.  I could tell Greg that an opponent was more talented, had better foot speed, and was more developed in training and his response would be ‘ok, so tell me what I need to do to beat him.’  Most often we were able to beat those opponents by out racing them between the lines, by being smarter and more efficient and more committed.  But that all started with his confidence to accept that he was not gifted enough to just show up and win….confidence to accept who he was and feel good about it.  He believed in himself, and that is a far greater tool than belief in a particular aptitude or fitness earned in training.
  2. Growth Mindset.  Most people who have been around me know I am a huge fan of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ concept.  For anyone unfamiliar, after years of research in education she asserted that there are essentially two mindsets…..fixed and growth.  People of a fixed mindset believe their abilities are fixed and there is little to be done to improve upon them.  Conversely, those with a growth mindset believe they can improve at things through work.  Because they believe they can improve they work harder and with greater engagement in the process.  Marisa Howard is the quintessential growth mindset athlete.  My first meeting with Marisa was right after the 2016 Olympic Trials, which she had missed with a stress injury, an injury she had experienced multiple times.  She was on crutches when we met for coffee and shed tears in our very first conversation.  I told her she would need to change her entire approach to training if she wanted me to coach her.  She had experienced success, but it was clear she was not going to be able to stay healthy without significant changes and without health success was waving good-bye.  She was all in immediately.  She had a great belief that she could get better at things she struggled with, that she could reach the elite level, and was completely willing to embrace brand new training mechanisms even if they were way outside the box.  She picked up a jump rope, got into the weight room, picked up swimming, started doing consistent quality drills, and reduced her run frequency to four per week.  She set lifetime bests at every distance she raced on the track within a year of that first conversation and has steadily improved since.  Her growth mindset was the biggest key through that first year and remains her greatest strength as an athlete.
  3. Capable of trust.  To be a coachable athlete, someone must be capable of trusting someone else.  This is an interesting one, and like the skill of listening I think there are a lot of people out there who at least at certain times are not capable of truly trusting.  This can be for many reasons, usually having to do with someone having broken their trust.  We all have our trust broken at certain times in life of course, and hence I think everyone goes through periods where trusting is hard.  The severity of these breaks in trust varies immensely of course.  When a significant other breaks trust in your teenage or college years it can certainly do some damage, but most will bounce back from such just fine.  However, if a parent broke one’s trust routinely in their formative years that will likely have a much more detrimental and long-lasting impact.  One instance that falls in between those two is when trust has been broken by a previous coach.  I face this one often as I work with adult athletes so of course I am not their first coach.  The ways trust can be broken by a coach vary widely of course, from simply not being willing to adequately support an athlete at times of struggle to outright abuse.  Obviously, I am not going to give examples by name here, but I have coached many athletes over the years who unfortunately have had trust significantly broken by parents, teachers, church leaders, or coaches.  These athletes should NOT be shied away from!  It is hard work earning their trust, but they need people to invest in that hard work.  There are few greater gifts than an athlete placing trust in you when it is hard for them because of their past experiences.  When I have been able to achieve that with such an individual, I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to care for their trust.  These athletes have become incredibly coachable once they are capable of trust, but it certainly takes effort, time, and patience.

There are few greater gifts than an athlete placing trust in you when it is hard for them because of their past experiences. 

Those are my components of coachability, the components of the trait I see having the highest correlation to success.  Are you a skilled listener?  Do you operate with attention to detail?  Are you confident in yourself as a person?  Do you have a growth mindset?  Are you currently capable of trust?  If the answer is no to even one of those, then you are not as coachable as you could be and hence you are limiting your potential.  The good news is if you look at coachability as a skill set made up of these elements, you soon realize you can work on any of them.  If you are a coach (or manager, or teacher, or leader of any type), are you helping people become more coachable?  Are you holding them accountable for listening and having attention to detail?  Are you building their confidence and working to earn their trust?  Are you asking them to have a growth mindset?  If coach and athlete, manager and worker, teacher and student both understand coachability and are willing to work on it potential will skyrocket.