Coaching philosophy Education for grown-ups

Education for grown-ups pt 1 – The good listener

”For dogma is expressed in the form of assertion, and is unshakeable, but at the same time any practical opinion can be said to harmonize with it”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

In many educational contexts teachers are identified as communicators of values, skills, and knowledge from a certain community. They are regarded as instructors or drill sergeants rather than coaches and their students are identified as recipients in a practice and of being initiated into an acceptance of the givenness of that knowledge and those values and skills. We feel tempted to say to these students that they must do as we conceive ourselves doing. 

This view of teaching seems problematic as it presupposes that we can know in advance what it means for the students to go on the way we expect them to. And if they do not accept this givenness of our knowledge is then that dissonance located only in the student?

Regardless of which a teacher must let his students understand themselves and their actions in order to apply them to new, always different situations. And then it does not suffice with conformity, to always following instructions. That does not create the necessary agreement, the attunement, between environment, body and teacher.

This is difficult, because just as for the craftsman that only have a hammer and for whom everything looks like nails, so often we mistake the rules we are following as working even when they are not.

”As a coach, adopting a top-down approach is bound to fail. You do not want silent and ignorant athletes that just follows orders. Knowledgeable athletes become partners and improve the training process”

This is how maybe my greatest coach inspiration Dan Pfaff answers a question in the fantastic new book “Training talk – conversations with a dozen master coaches”. He likens the coaching process with a company that is constantly at risk of failure if management cannot listen to and adapt its processes to a constantly changing world. And believes that the management does well to listen to the “worker on the floor”, since he is usually the one who both first sees new problems as well as finds new solutions to them.

And all the while there are certain foundational pillars of a movement or a task that needs to be stable, to always happen, for a movement to even be of that type. In the beginning of learning, or when re-learning something, we are forcing behavior into something that is not currently natural and those common building blocks are sometimes not known to the student at all. Then the guiding towards a discovery and stabilization of those “general rules” might certainly include instructions and commands, but always with an eye open for what follows them, for what they meant in this situation with this student. 

Real teaching can never be a one-way road – it is also education of the teacher. And the good coach is the one who listens as actively to his students as he wants the students to listen actively to him or her.

But being a good listener is not only something that we should aim for only for our students, but also for ourselves as well. Only expressing our own opinion, or being so distracted by technology or our own thoughts makes us isolated, misinformed and intolerant. To be a good listener one has to play down one’s own ego, one’s own thoughts. It’s all too easy to fall into behavior that closes the discussion more than we would like, like the tendency to interrupt leading to half-finished sentences and an inability to absorb what is truly said.

Kate Murphy, who has written a book about being a good listener, says that something she has noticed in all the really excellent listeners she interviewed was that they all had a very calm demeanor. This expresses an openness, that while it could be unnerving, also forces the talker to weight their words more carefully. Because to someone who actually listens one has to take responsibility for what is said. Maybe that means that the archetypical “no nonsense” American football coach often portrayed in TV series is not producing a fruitful climate for either conversation or learning?

Usually the beginning coach greatly overestimates their own knowledge or competence, and is thus less likely to view a situation with eyes open to what sets it apart from other situations he or she has been exposed to, while the wiser and more experienced coach would be more likely to ask questions and to explore different viewpoints before deciding on a plan. This is not only to please the student, but because the student, or other peers, actually can contribute to a more constructive plan.

My friend, who is a well-regarded and highly experienced Sommelier in the Michelin guide-domain of fine dining, once said to me that nowadays, as opposed to earlier in his career, he always asks his guests what type of wine they prefer and then simply just gives them that wine all night. Obviously he also has to know when and how he should break this general rule, and it is in this knowledge his brilliance in his craft is to be found. Making the effort and having the wisdom to to read the situation at hand is what separates the novice from the master.

But as well as it might be true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I think good intentions is quite often a predisposition for keeping on one’s toes, taking the risk of being corrected, in the coaching role. And hence I will give this advice in order to be a coach rather than a drill sergeant:

Coach tip #1: Find students you care for

Coaching philosophy Education for grown-ups

Education for grown-ups pt 2 – Guided by principles

One is often lured into thinking that starting point of making day to day decisions in coaching is the long term plan. But it probably ought to be something else than just whatever performance goals that you have for the coming year of training (or 4 years as in an Olympic cycle). Rather than having the metrics outcomes shape our purpose, should it not be the other way around? That our basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes form and shape those day-to-day decisions?

Knowing our purpose and having a vision help us make our decisions on that daily basis and holds us responsible for taking actions that truly will translate into success on the larger scale. It serves to protect us from falling for trends and fads that might lead us astray from what we would like to be. It makes us less likely to just mindlessly repeat what others are doing or what we were given when we were athletes ourselves.

One could imagine this as a way of being able to create rules (training programs) but still be able to think outside of them and to break them when necessary. In order for such an intentional breaking of the “bounds of sense” to be a constructive and creative act, rather than as an act of disobedience, nonsense or madness, it should have the potential to be judged by others as a wise choice. And for this to happen it should conform with a viable system of concepts.

It is like when you say to your children that it is wrong to break windows. But in reality it is not always wrong: what if there’s a fire? In order to be able to set rules we need principles, otherwise we would always end up with endless “what if’s”, never being able to do anything because there is always more situations to think of where that rule would not work.

And even if we could go through all the “what if’s” they still only would apply to what we already know. The discovery of the first black swan illustrates our severe limitations when it comes to predict the future from history alone. One single observation invalidated a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. Outliers by definition lie outside the realm of what normally happens, so the past might not reveal to us the possibly of their existence at all.

Good coaches are better equipped to both learn from history without getting held hostage by it, to see clearly what’s in front of him or her and to take action because they have a coaching philosophy. And that concept makes the futile attempt at rigid pre-determined plans less important (…”everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”) instead offering us the freedom to ”roll with the punches” on a daily basis.

”I would say that honestly I wouldn’t be half the coach I am if it wasn’t for the challenges presented to me by working with Annie. Whether it’s the experiences like coaching at the Games, designing training programs, refining movement or simply answering her questions about why we are doing what we are doing, there are countless lessons I’ve learned.”

Jami Tikkanen

Jami Tikkanen is one of the most highly regarded coaches in CrossFit. He should be, having coached Annie Thorisdottir to two titles and Björgvin Karl Guðmundsson onto the podium. He is also one of my favorite coaches in the CrossFit world since he has a philosophy that goes well with my own, not only putting himself in the position to change and shape his athletes but also realizing that for long term development the athlete also has to be able to change the coach to some extent.

For Jami it seems to be not only about the medals won, but also about the journey and the change that this journey will impose on the people taking part of it. He does not speak like he has all the answers, instead takes a pragmatic approach that might allow him to work with and help many different types of athletes.

Let’s compare this with quotes on coaching philosophy from legendary football coach Louis Van Gaal, who managed Ajax to win three league titles and the Champions league and Ben Bergeron who trains some of the world’s fittest athletes like CrossFit-superstar Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir who has won the Games twice.

“The problem of scouting for Ajax is the club’s unique mode of play, which means that you have to assess whether a player’s qualities will match a position within the system”

“What does he look like? This is my first priority. Based exclusively on appearance. Yes, even his hairstyle”

“Not everyone fits into the system. This has been proved often enough. To the regret of Ajax and also, of course, to the regret of the players involved”

Louis van Gaal

“Most importantly, a great coach can get inside their athletes’ heads. They know what motivates them, what pushes them, when they typically rest, their strengths and weaknesses. Do they respond better to whispering or yelling? When they are dragging their feet in through the door, do you need to give them a little push to get going, or do they really need to take a rest day?

Ben Bergeron

Bergeron goes on to say that building athletes “starts with building better people” and that “behind every champion, regardless of sport or discipline – better people make better athletes”.

He seem to share with Van Gaal a knowledge of a “best way” or “best system” and one can imagine that with them it’s more of a one way street when it comes to be their athletes. Either you fit into this particular system and “bring home the bacon” or they are not the coach for you. Different principles guiding the process, apparently all able produce Champions.

What should be avoided at all cost is to have principles that you don’t let guide your coaching decisions. In his excellent book on coaching Brett Bartholomew makes the point of authenticity being the linchpin for all great coaches and gives the metaphor that morale on the battlefield comes from unity more than anything else, and that the rise and fall of that unity is always felt by the ranks. If words are spoken and actions are taken, one should mean them, and that this goes a long way towards maintaining a sense of unity with those around us. “Excellence is self-evident, and so is bullshit” Brett goes on to say.

If Brett is right (and I think he is) it might do you well to, every now and again, think about why you coach and what you want you legacy to be (Medals? Money? Fame? Relationships? A System with capitol S?).

And maybe, in order to try to keep authentic, instead of only measure the reduced qualities of the athletes (like the back squat or the vertical jump) also look in the other direction, past even the macro-level of the training plan, and try to measure our own adherence to our philosophy? Would not that also include the specifics of the athletic performance as parts of the whole?

The metric I use I have stolen from one of my favorite coaches, Anna Swisher, who I had the pleasure to work with during a couple of years when she worked for Eleiko Educations before moving on to the role of Coaching Education Manager for USA Weightlifting. The first time I attended a seminar she taught she told me about the “wedding test”. That she, as having a coaching philosophy being largely about relations with her athletes, found that the greatest win for her as a coach was if she got invited to her athletes weddings – if they regarded her as family of sorts. Not a casual buddy of course, as this would compromise the work to be done and the decisions that has to be made. If you cannot also deliver performance then you’re likely not “wedding material”. More like being relatable, as in having a good relationship.

I would like to extend this metric onto other anniversaries as well, like birthdays (because I do like parties) but apart from that shortcoming I found the thought-experiment very usable!

Coach tip #2: Measure what is more likely to keep you authentic, rather than the adherence to rules.

Coaching philosophy Education for grown-ups

Education for grown-ups pt 3 – Hermits have no peer pressure

Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.

Richard Rorty

When we are making judgments we like to think that we are objective, logical and capable of taking in and evaluate the information available to us with equal weight. But in order to make sense of the world with relative speed we are prone to simplify it to the extent that we embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject information that contradicts it. Presented with someone else’s argument we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses, but we are equally blind to spot the weaknesses of our own. This is what is normally called a ‘cognitive bias’.

In the sixties Thomas Kuhns book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” changed the way we think about scientific progress. His theory sort of embraced the idea of biases, disagreeing with the idea of science as a steady, cumulative “progress”. Instead he structures science into a set of alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases. In the paradigm of ‘normal science’ the scientists share definitions and concepts, and engage in solving puzzles thrown up by discrepancies between what the paradigm predicts and what is revealed by observation or experiment. Since they share a common language they all work in the same direction, making great advances within that theory.

We define rational belief as one which is arrived at by the methods which we now consider reliable

A.J. Ayer

While finding confidence in people who are using the same tools as you is important for the progress of those tools, in order to see the flaws of the tool such an exchange is not enough. Because those peers, if they approve us, are part of the same network, holds the same definitions, viewpoints and biases as ourselves. For that we need to look further away however uncomfortable that may be. The moment we get caught up in our own greatness, we kill our ability to reach our potential.

But – and this is important – even the education of the revolutionary or the prophet should begin with acculturation and conformity. One should know his history before trying change it, if not only because that all that is revolutionary is parasitic on what is actually in function now and at least somewhat proven to have worked before. To attempt abnormal discourse without being able to recognize it’s abnormality is madness in it’s most literal sense. Learn first why a tool is used, before you discard it: it’s good protection against the constant onslaught of gimmicks and fads.

There seems to somewhat of a gap between science and best practice in how training principles and methods are applied, which could be explained by that on the field the specific situation at hand is seen more clearly than “in the lab” where the eyes are set on the general. And while the general is well enough for developing a tool, in order for it to also serve a purpose, have external validity, one should have knowledge on the demands of the environment where it’s to be used.

Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people…or find a different room.

Michael Dell

Once I attended an Eleiko course in Amsterdam that was taught by Anna Swisher and Mike Gattone (both now with USA Weightlifting). When the audience presented itself I remember thinking that if I would be teaching now I would be terrified because among the attendees was several doctors of exercise science, coaches for PSV Eindhoven, the dutch national track cycling coach, the Japanese national speed-skating coach and the list went on and on!

Not much later, when i did start to teach that very course, it dawned on me that it’s not a situation to be terrified of, but instead to seek out. To be held accountable by coaches way more experienced than yourself, to discuss and learn from them as well as learning to take responsibility for what you say in order to be able to hold your own when presenting. I cherish every such opportunity that comes my way.

Other heroic coaches actively contribute to the meetings between people that are not exactly ‘peers’ but ‘more than peers’ differing in experience, methodology and viewpoints.

People like Anders Lindsjö the Swedish weightlifting coach, who competed in the Olympics in 1992 and in addition to his successful coaching career still help to organize meetings between coaches with great ambition, where one are expected to present their coaching philosophies.

Or take Dutch Henk Kraaijenhof, coach of such world class athletes as Nelli Cooman, Merlene Ottey and Mary Pierce. With a career that it would be hard even to dream of, but still organize “Helping the best get better”, a small invite only seminar in Holland. With international speakers of excellent quality and offering a place to meet and to learn from other coaches who know more, possess unique skills and experiences.

I turn 45 this year and have coached sports for 25+ years, but the superior experience and possibility for growth that I can find in places like that is nothing short of fantastic. Precisely because those places are full of people who you did not choose and does not necessarily share your language and can spot the weaknesses of our thinking and for that I am deeply thankful.

When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you have an answer, when these passages makes sense then you might find that more central passages, ones you previously understood, have changed their meaning

Thomas kuhn

The common advice in coaching literature of “finding a mentor” is good, but not enough. You have to look further than that. To be better as a scientist, one better do time in the field, and to be the better coach one should keep an eye on the frontline of science.

My wife, who is very wise, sometimes says that “you don’t know what you have said until you get a response”. And while speaking to the already converted is important and will get you going, in order to increase your options outside of what you already know, outside of what is normal, you need to challenge yourself more and different.

Coach tip #3: Understand your roots. Get challenged by your superiors. Make an effort in understanding the opposing views, if not anything else it might make you understand your own ways better.

Coaching philosophy Education for grown-ups Rants

Teaching without ends

”The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices”

Martin Heidegger

What separates successful athletes from merely athletes is the ability to execute fast and intense movements.

However, the attempt to forcefully perform a movement will create tension in muscles other than those needed for the movement, resisting the movement rather than supporting it. If you tell people to focus on engaging a muscle, it makes them think, which slows down movement. You can’t be thinking about your “traps”, “glutes” or “lats” when you need to move fast.

Relaxing helps to avoid giving force to the movement, instead letting the force come from the momentum of a turn of a foot or the hip, from a step or a stance, from the precision of the directness of the movement.

Moreover, relaxing is not only about the physical effort. It is also a matter of attitude, both in the moment and in the approach to training. Practicing and performing requires a quiet mind: a mind that is empty of expectations, ideas, and presuppositions. A mind that just does it.

How could one understand what it means to relax in a particular movement until one mastered that movement and, in a way, has become that movement, when at the same time mastery of the movement in itself involves already being relaxed. How can we teach and explain something that seems to require an experience of that thing in order to understand it?

It seems impossible to teach such subjective abilities through only direct instructions of how particular movements are performed. Rather it seems that coaching should be as much about showing the method of practicing, as giving direct instructions, and to instill faith in those methods.

This requires expertise, knowledge and facts, but also courage, empathy and understanding, and sometimes I think coaches spend a little too much time developing the first of these qualities, and a little too little time on the others.

One of my favorite pastimes is watching coaches who balance all these qualities when they teach, watching them expertly swing in tune with a group of students and guide them to new learnings about themselves and others. Something similar to the conducted attunement of an orchestra, where there is harmony between different instruments that can both be recognized as part of the same melody, as well as distinctly different from each other. 

Watching that makes me all warm inside.

I once got reprimanded by my seniors for saying in an opening speech for a course that I was about to teach that I was “a coach just like them, only possibly with more experience of teaching”, and that I invited open discussions that coming weekend, in order to create a better course.

This apparently, by my seniors standards, gave a bad impression of my organization. I was to be clear that I was to teach, to instruct, and the attendees would take in my knowledge. There had to be a clear hierarchy, for the pupils to take me as seriously.

I do not agree with them.

When it comes to parenthood, something that is often stressed is the importance of consistency with decisions and consequences. It is said to cause confusion when parents change their mind, and that this will harm the process of learning and hinder the conformation to the social sanctions that govern our practices.

Personally I think that what is really detrimental to this process of learning is when the parent does not change their mind when confronted by sound arguments.

The art of coaching is no different in this respect. Arguments are something to be taken seriously and compromises are often both possible and necessary.

As a coach or teacher, you can rely on the power you have by virtue of your office. It can be the right to distribute tasks, decide what is wrong or right, promote or demote, punish or reward. But there is also another type of power, a more informal one, which is based on being the one with the most experience or the greatest wisdom.

Submission is never the most developmental approach in any context or relationship. If you want to see commitment and development over time, there are many indications that it is wiser to lean more on the informal power than the formal one.

“The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.”

William James

In our time, there is often a call for strong leaders who are clear and know the art of simplification, but what we need is primarily something else: Leaders who stop managing, manipulating and making fools of their followers or pupils.

The coach, much like his pupil, must have an open mind to oppose his natural reaction to get stuck in rigid models that might not apply to this situation. He must resist his tendency to look for sets of rules, for an explanation, a formal notion or something else that does not capture all the complexity of a concept such as “learning”.

But all this is fine and dandy – yeah yeah – “as a coach you need to keep your eyes open, adapt to situations and try not to be Hitler”? Isn’t this just another way of saying “it depends”? And as with all arguments that advance to this, necessary but insufficient point we need now to proceed to what it actually depends upon, or what we can do to make better decisions here and now.

So I am going to make two practical suggestions on how further the chances to be that good coach, the one with the “open eyes”.

“Knowledge consists of knowing that a tomato is a fruit, and wisdom consists of not putting it in a fruit salad”

Miles Kington

1. Describe before explaining

While athletes might be lacking in scientific knowledge, they tend to know a fair bit about their sports, and their practice of them. Discussions with them on these matters easily extend both into how to use the skills you have been working on in live action, and to sharpen the drills for improving them.

Ask the apparent questions in order to see what is already in front of your eyes: When do athletes struggle in racing or during competition?

At this point rid yourself of all the physiological models you have learned and describe those situations without explaining why they happen. That will momentarily rid you of preconceptions, and illuminate the path forward.

Use the language of the sport which is familiar to the athlete. You will move into a territory of training where your athletes have knowledge to add to yours. This will lead to relevant discussions on how to tweak the drills you will choose for them.

2. Learn a new skill

Us coaches do a lot of hard things like standing in front of a lot of people talking, directing and making decisions. But isn’t it often enough also the case that we no longer challenge ourselves with new skills while at the same time ask our athletes to do just that?

At this point in time we are often so far removed from learning new motor skills ourselves that we lose out on this aspect when we try to motivate people and encourage them when they learn such new skills that we ask them to do.

Perhaps we could be even better coaches if we would keep up to date with that feeling of how frustrating it is to be bad at something. How it is to damn well know how to do something, but still not be able to show it.

It is frustrating to fail. It requires finding positives in parts when the whole is a mess. Remembering this could be useful.

When asked for help or coaching we all too often show the final product, instead of meeting them where they are now. Instead of coming up with drills simple enough to provide a possibility for relaxation we show off.

Doing so can be more than a little demoralizing, and maybe we would recognize this better if we found ourselves on the other side of these situations regardless of how senior we are.

“A teacher who can show good, or indeed astounding results while he is teaching, is still not on that account a good teacher, for it may be that, while his pupils are under his immediate influence, he raises them to a level which is not natural to them, without developing their own capacities for work at this level, so that they immediately decline again once the teacher leaves the schoolroom.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Let’s take a practical example of bad coaching, where the coach specifically did not follow the advice above. The result was alienation of the athlete, with the risk of the athlete walking away from the challenge or even quit the sport.

The sport of this particular athlete was cycling, and to give you some background I could tell you about the short summers and long winters in Sweden, meaning a large chunk of the yearly training has to be done indoors.

When cycling on a spinning bike or a bike steadily mounted in a machine to provide resistance, the riders only have to focus on producing power, whereas normally they also have to control the direction and stability.

One of my neighbors asked me if I could show him how to ride a bike on rollers, you know, the kind of rollers that you just set a regular bike on. The bike moves freely, meaning it could easily fall off the rollers if you make the wrong movements.

Cycling on rollers might provide less physiological overload, because of their larger demands for creating stability. Peak force and power output are lower than on an ergometer, but the need for balance while producing it makes this training quite similar to actual cycling. I have seen far more transfer of improvements to real cycling because of this.

The internet is littered with videos of failed attempts while riding rollers . This is not strange at all, because in the beginning it’s a little bit like trying to run on ice.

One has to be relaxed, but as we have noted one does not relax just because one is being told to do so. This video I found on random is a very reasonable first attempt.

Anyway, I filmed myself riding in my living room and sent the video “for inspiration”.

How do you think he felt when he watched this? How much could he value whatever large steps forward he took on his first sessions, when he put them relative to this rather than where he started from?

Experts in all fields appear fluid and natural but in reality they have made conscious efforts to shape the way they perform. Simply having the same knowledge of how to perform exercise is not what makes great coaches great.

  • “The philosophy of dissonant children”,’s_wittgensteinian_philosophical_therapies_as_an_educational_conversation
  • “On Heidegger on Education and Questioning”,
  • “Quiet Minding and Investing in Loss”,
  • “Vi behöver en annan sorts ledare”,