An Expert Coach (part 1)
“I’m just waiting to find an expert coach. You know, one who can keep me from dealing with all these injuries.”
This phrase was part of a conversation a few weeks ago with a potential client who had contacted me to inquire about my background and philosophies in performance coaching. Since that conversation I have not been able to let this phrase go. Over the next 2 weeks I want to break this down into 2 parts: 1) what is an ‘expert’ coach, and 2) can ‘expert’ coaching prevent injuries.
So, let’s start with the obvious question – what is an ‘expert’ coach? To do so, we first have to break it down and understand the concept and historical context of ‘coaching’. McNab (1990) and Lyle (2005) provide the historical context of coaching, beginning with ex-university athletes in the 1800’s, who had developed some experience and prowess within their specific sport(s), later becoming educators and thereby imparting their athletic knowledge on their younger students. In addition, Lyle (2005) notes that some early coaches were also former professional athletes who utilized their intimate knowledge of sport to educate (i.e. coach) others. This early process, extending from the 19thcentury onward, is commonly referred to as the ‘diffusion of sport’ and the beginning of formalized coaching.
Using this background knowledge, along with the emergence of ‘coaching’ as a profession in the 1950’s in Britain and beyond, we can begin to appreciate the close relationship between ‘education’ and ‘coaching.’ In short, Lyle (1997) offers perhaps the best understanding of coaching.
“Coaches existed to train those who competed or exercised…[and] with the emergence of physical education…a strong relationship between education and sports coaching evolved.”
Secondly, we need to better appreciate the definition of an ‘expert.’ Mark Twain once offered his take on experts, in his characteristically pithy manner, noting, “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing at all.” Let’s hope this is not the expert coach in question, though Twain may be closely analogous to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
This idea of ‘expert’ is still worth considering. What is an expert? How do we know when someone has achieved expert status? What qualities, characteristics, or abilities contribute to one’s expertise? Is being an expert coach even possible?
Sure, we could consult Webster for the textbook definition. However, I would propose that an ‘expert coach’ is a bit of an illusory term. The very nature of coaching stands in opposition to this idea of expertise.
In short, no one is an ‘expert coach’.
Huh? How is this even possible? Surely, we can agree that Jack Daniels, Percy Cerutty, Bill Bowerman, Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and others are experts, right?
And here’s why. Coaching is a practice, inherently marred by failures and shortcomings. Even some of the best coaches in endurance sports are not or were not experts. Instead, they remained students of their sport throughout their coaching careers. Sure, you can argue that some are or were more advanced along the continuum of experience and practice, while others are just beginning, but the title of ‘expert’ alludes nonetheless.
And it is this role as ‘student’, with the insatiable curiosity that accompanies, which contributed to their undeniable success and the success of the countless athletes they coached [read: educated] and in turn were coached by. Bill Bowerman once noted, “A teacher is never too smart [read: or too much of an expert] to learn from his pupils.”
No matter how much we know about athlete development, phases and cycles, physiologic determinants, and on and on there is always more to know. Let us assume for a moment you understand the precise principles of periodization theory and its application in running. (Though Kielymay disagree with you…) Bravo. But how will you apply them with your 38-year-old runner who is managing work, family, social, sport, and recreational demands on a fluctuating schedule of 5-10 hrs. of training available per week? Often what you do not know is more important than what you do know.
We, like they, are students.
Assuming the role of ‘student’ is challenging. But in doing so, we progress our understanding of coaching, programming, and training progressions. We show up daily and work to be better than the day before. Hmm…sounds like a pretty good analogy for life, sport, and most things in general.
Perhaps Mark Twain can again provide us some guidance: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so.” Coaching is a reflective process, continually challenging and refining our philosophies and processes, resolving inconsistencies, in order to develop and advance both our own understandings as well as our athletes’ successes.
No one is an expert in coaching because coaching is an ongoing pursuit towards excellence – a lifelong practice of curiosity and humility.
With this enhanced perspective we can better appreciate the challenge of finding an ‘expert coach.’ Perhaps this too remains illusory. Or perhaps it could serve as a great starting point for further discussion.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week – Can an ‘expert coach’ prevent injuries.
Wishing you health, wellness, and productive training. Thanks for reading!
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Joel Sattgast is a physical therapist, performance coach, assistant professor of physical therapy, a Dad, husband, and an athlete. All posts are related to evidence, opinions and thoughts regarding various performance and rehabilitation topics.