COACHABILITY...what does it mean?

It is a term you here discussed all the time, this player is coachable, that player is not coachable. What does it mean? What should it mean? In our first post we looked at the player/coach/trainer relationship from the point of view of what does the trainer owe the player. This post we will look at what the player owes the trainer. A player in order to be successful and reach their potential must first and foremost be coachable. In its most basic form being coachable means that a player must be willing to receive information. Under this surface there are layers to this explanation and understanding them is very important for any player, coach, trainer or parent if you want to understand the dynamic that drives development.

For a lot of people they think a player is being coachable if they are pleasant. They look engaged, they say thank you when the training session is over, they give good effort and they always acknowledge the coach when given feedback. This, in a lot of ways, seems like a dream player. The reality is that I have known dozens of players who were, pleasant, gave effort and always acknowledged me, but then went on making the exact same mistake, or doing what ever they wanted to do, in total disregard to the feedback. Being pleasant does not make one coachable. Similarly, I have known athletes who never acknowledged me, never said "thank you" for the work I put in and generally may not even have been very nice people, but if I explained to them a change I would like to see in their game you could be certain that the change would appear, or at least be attempted. In short, how pleasant a player is has no bearing whatsoever on whether they are coachable. They may be easier to coach but easier does not mean better.

When getting to the core of coach-ability we always used the zen principle of emptying one's cup. The story goes that a professor from the west who had made a life's study of zen went to a mountain top to visit a zen monk who lived in isolation. It was a long and hard journey but the professor was anxious to meet the monk and demonstrate what he had learned. When he finally arrived the professor was welcomed by the monk and invited into his little hut. While the professor sat and made himself comfortable the monk offered him some tea. The professor thanked the monk and accepted the offer. The professor then told the monk how excited he was to learn more about zen from the monk. While the monk got everything ready for tea the professor went on and on about zen and its principles and applications. The monk listened patiently. When the tea was ready the monk began to pour the tea into the professor's cup still listening to the professor pontificate. The tea cup was soon full and the monk continued to pour as the tea spilled over the sides and ran unto the floor. The professor jumped up and said to the monk, "You are spilling the tea!" The monk looked at the professor and said, "You are like this cup, you are so full that there is no room for anything else. If you wish to learn you must empty your cup."

We are filled with knowledge every stop we make in our journey, whether basketball or life. Each coach, teacher, trainer, sees a different way for us to accomplish our goals, or a different best practice. The key to being coachable is at every stop to let go of what we learned at the last stop and truly listen to what the new coach is offering, work on it and see if it makes us better or more efficient at our craft. Always carry with you an empty cup, so that you can receive new information. This is the first step to being coachable. It also falls on the coach to be willing to say to an athlete you are not learning, you are not upholding your part of the bargain. I have often heard coaches complain about athletes not taking feedback or listening and wonder whether they have made this point to the athletes themselves. I remember when I was coaching university I had an athlete who was an extremely hard working and pleasant player, but when it came to her shot mechanics she was totally not coachable. We went in the gym for nearly a year and worked on her shot but she made little progress and was unwilling to raise her release point above her head and instead shot the ball straight out from her body. As one might suspect she was a very low percentage shooter from range. Finally, one day I got frustrated and told the athlete that unless she made the necessary change that we were done, and that I would no longer come into the gym to help her. She was distressed by my outburst but it prompted her to make the necessary change in her release. That night at practice she destroyed everyone, knocking down shots from all over the gym. When the practice was over she came over and said, "Thank you." She became extremely coachable from that point on and went on to be a 38% career shooter from the three point line.

The value of the above story is that while the player knew her shot form was not productive and needed work she was not capable of self evaluating the changes that needed to be made. I once heard Tiger Woods asked a question about how his golf stroke felt, he replied, "Feel isn't real." In other words, if you do something wrong long enough, it will feel good to your body and if you operate purely on the surface of how things feel, you will always execute the skill improperly. You must be willing to re-evaluate things and have things feel awkward and uncomfortable in order to make changes. A truly coachable athlete knows that they must have a means to evaluate change that is somehow empirical or outside of the physical realm. Whether it is statistics, video or outside analysis the athlete truly evaluates the change to see if it brings value to their game. Then they can adopt the change or discard it based on the evidence, not on how it "feels".

A lot of coaches believe a coachable athlete is one who stays in "system" all the time. In other words, they do what ever the coach asks of them. I am not sure that this is the best explanation either. I believe that you must be willing to let players go outside system, or find solutions for themselves. As long as they evaluate these changes properly. For a long time I considered myself not coachable as a young athlete. In particular I could remember playing football, I was big for my age and I played a s a down lineman on offense and a defensive tackle on the other side. On the defensive side I was not very effective, I could not make reads I was slow out of my stance and despite my size as I was pushed a round because I lacked strength. Midway through the season, frustrated by not making an impact, I decided to play as a linebacker. Without any feedback from my coaches I stood up out of my stance so I could see the backfield, started getting reads on the offensive movement and started making plays, tackles for losses, sacks etc. I was totally outside system but I was effective. My coaches never corrected me and at the end of the year I was given a trophy by the team as lineman of the year. The key for both myself and the coaching staff was that I had self evaluated my play, found myself to be ineffective and then found a means to play that was not disruptive to my teammates but that allowed me to be much more effective. While I had disregarded my coaches I was a better and more valuable player for it. I believe that in the power dynamics of the coach/player relationship it is negative to have all the power reside with one person or another. If the coach holds all the power the player must do everything as they are told and often opportunities for meaningful dialogue are lost. If the player holds all the power the coach is afraid if they try to change the player they will lose the income from training, or the player will move to another team, then the player simply continues to make all the same mistakes and while they may dominate in their current situation they often fail to mature and be prepared to move forward. They become the player about whom everyone says, "What ever happened to...They were so dominant and now they don't play." Finding a balance where the judgements are made by what truly makes the player more effective, where both the player and coach listen to each other is the key to a healthy coaching relationship.

With all of the above in mind when you go to a training session or practice how do you be a "coachable" athlete. First of all, it is certainly easier and more fulfilling to work with a positive, appreciative athlete. The trainer or coach will have more energy for the athlete who brings that attitude of gratitude. Secondly, work hard, work to fatigue. Do things as hard as you can and then push to do it even harder. The body is a wondrous machine that can constantly adapt to stress and will always be capable of delivering more then you think. Next, bring your empty cup. Always be willing to listen and do, to try what you are asked and see if it makes you better. Don't rebel out of hand to suggestions, be willing to try new things. Finally, analyze your performance on more then a surface level. Know whether you are being effective and whether changes make you better. Don't respond with, "This doesn't feel right." or "I think I am better when I do this." Instead take the time to analyze and come up with solutions that truly make you better. If going outside system produces better results then both the player and coach should accept the positivity of the move and how it makes the team better, which after all is the goal of any good player or coach. If you are gracious, hard working, willing to listen and do and able to properly evaluate what makes you better, by any definition you will be coachable.

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