Renowned Neuroscientist V S Ramachandran is known for working with strange cases. He lives on the edges of his field, attacking the cases that everyone else puts off as anomalies. One such case, as discussed in the book Thinking, is the problem of synesthesia. In patients with this issue, their senses merge so when they see the number 5, the patient will sense a color, such as blue, with the number. While the actual phenomenon is fascinating and well worth a read, the discussion of the process behind Ramachandran’s thinking about the phenomenon is worth consideration.
You see, he’s dealing with a phenomenon that people shrug to their side and generally ignore as some crazy quirk or anomaly. These are the people who go to doctor after doctor and get shrugged off as if they are “crazy”, simply imagining things, or have something that really isn’t a major concern.
“One theory is that they are crazy. Maybe, but let’s set that aside for a minute. One of the things we learn in medicine is that when a patient is trying to tell you something and you think he’s crazy, it often mean’s you’re not smart enough to figure it out. Sometimes he’s crazy, but usually it means you’re not smart enough to figure it out, so look carefully, talk to the patient.” VS Ramachandran
I couldn’t help but think of how this translates over to my world of coaching.
In the coaching world, if you’re around long enough, you get to observe different reactions to runners running poorly. You have an
empathetic reaction where the coach tries to relate to the athlete, you have a shrugging it off reaction, you have the “that sucked, now let’s try and figure out why it happened” response, and then you have the blame game. The blame game is where the coach blames the athlete, either lack of effort or some variation of it and is almost always accompanied by either berating the athlete or if the coach is more sly, complaining to other coaches about why the athlete didn’t perform.
The reactions are interesting because I think they whole-heartedly tie into the above passage by Ramachandran. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve been guilty of all of the above at some point in my life, as I think every coach has. Although there’s only one time I can remember “yelling” at my team, which was more about team-wide race tactics (Hello, going out in last in a 200 man field and trying to run everyone down…).
The last reaction is the one I’m interested in because I think it happens for a reason.
The Ego Coach
When we tie our ego to our self worth, then anything that attacks that “ego” becomes a threat or an enemy. It becomes an attack on the foundation in which we stand. So when we tie our ego to our coaching, then if an athlete fails, we blame them. They become the enemy. Because, we define ourselves as a good coach, and since we are 100% tied to this narrative, if something comes along and doesn’t fit with this story we’ve created, then the natural reaction is to fire back against it.
It’s most likely not even consciously done. It’s just that here we are trying to “prove” our self, and when a negative result occurs, it’s much easier to put the blame on someone else not doing his or her job, versus taking the hit on ourselves. If our ego is tied to our work, then it becomes personal. And anytime it becomes personal, emotions flare.
So what happens is we get that emotional reaction. Our athlete doesn’t run well. It’s cognitively easier to blame someone else or “effort” than figure out the problem. If we blame them, it’s not our problem and there is nothing to solve. Just like if the doctor rights off the patient as crazy, he doesn’t have to figure it out.
Consistently blaming others is a great way to say “I’m not smart enough to figure out how to coach these people.” Secondly, if we pull the “crazy” card, we now don’t have to address our own inadequacies as a coach, athlete, or whatever our profession is. We’ve deflected the attack on our own ego.
So what’s an Ego Coach do consistently?
- Ties the majority of their self worth based on athletes performance.
- Defines themself almost exclusively from their coaching accomplishments.
- When things go well, it’s because of “my program”/takes a lot of credit. When things go poorly blames athletes.
- Stubborn in their coaching methods. Believes they have all the answers.
- Believes they have “the secret” to coaching and rarely share knowledge.
- Cultivates a culture to convince athletes that only they know how to coach them (i.e. cult like tactic to keep them from leaving)
- Treats it like a pure business, only cares about points/times, and not development.
- Often more willing to bend rules, cheat, push boundaries, act immorally, just to succeed because their ego’s are so wrapped up in proving they can coach.
The business of proving yourself:
I’ve coached at every level. I’ve taken kids to nationals at the HS level, collegiate level, and people to the world level on the professional side. More importantly, if you look down our collegiate ranks we have development across the boards, 4:45 kids becoming low 9min steeplers, 5:20 girls running 4:50s, and so forth. Way back in the day, when I got started, I was of the same mindset as most young coaches, that you prove yourself by coaching people to be fast. When you start out, your coaching ego is relatively fragile and like anyone starting a profession there is a desire to show that you know what you’re doing. Instead of having that belief in yourself and your system, you constantly look for affirmation through external results.
This is where people begin to tie their ego to their coaching.
While not meaning to get on a soap box, as I’m surely as guilty of it as anyone and maybe that’s why I’m okay talking about my mistake now, I think there’s a real danger to going down the path of an ego coach. It’s a losing path, because while you might get results early on, the room for growth and development is limited. Two possibilities arise; either 1) things go bad for a little bit and you have to take the hit personally, thus blaming athletes for their failures or 2) you have to rely on external affirmation, which will never come.
On the second point, because of how the NCAA system is set up and how difficult it is to get in the “college coaching club” I think sometimes young coaches get antsy about proving themselves. They’re eager to tell the world about their latest prodigy, hanging their hat on this kid being the one who proves that they can coach and take them to the next coaching level. (Actually, you see this even more at the pro level, where occasionally athletes are treated like pawns, to be used to prove their coaching ability…). While maybe not exactly the same, whenever people ask me about “proving yourself as a coach”, I always tell them that I get the exact same criticism as a coach when I started at the age of 22 and had only coached a handful of HS kids, as I do now, 8 years later with probably 9 or so people lined up to compete in the Oly Trials next year. The criticism is the exact same, whether public on letsrun or in private, when spread around coaching conversations. The point is that, like my former grad school professor and ex-NFL GM Charley Casserly drilled into our head: “You’re the dumbest person in your city….(and) Criticism is like being in the rain. Once you have been wet, what’s another drop?”
This phenomenon is similar to when athletes start out running. You rely on those PR’s and times to give you affirmation and define your racing career and perhaps beyond. As you become older and more seasoned, the mindset switches to a degree and you see the times as feedback, not some black and white definition of whom you are at the moment.
And that’s what performance is on the coaching side to: It is feedback for yourself whether you are on the right path in coaching or not. It’s like running a mini-experiment where you get to find out if the athlete is where they are expected to be at that time period.
The good athletes and coaches realize this. Separate their running/coaching from defining completely who they are and thus can take a somewhat objective look when things are going right or wrong. As my good friend and 2x Olympian, Moises Joseph, likes to point out (and I’m paraphrasing from our many conversations on the subject) “This is a tough sport with lots of ups and downs. If after every bad race, you blow up emotionally, you’re not going to be around that long.”
Young athletes and coaches often tie their emotional self worth to the race results. This results in the anger, blow up, emotional catastrophe that happens…
It’s impossible not to have an ego, and I’m not sure that a complete lack of ego is what we want. Like everything in life, it’s a balance. And perhaps we all need to go through that younger phase of tying our ego to our work to understand its downfalls.
My good friend, and podcast partner, Jon Marcus likes to talk about how much really cool stuff can be accomplished if we simply put our ego’s aside and did things for the sport and the athletes. And that to me is coaching. It’s not about you. It’s about developing people.
The really good coaches I’ve been around and been fortunate enough to be mentored by displayed this. My HS coach, Gerald Stewart, taught me this lesson when he came up to me after a particularly bad race towards the end of the season which I started off strong but then cratered and said “Don’t worry, it’s my fault, not yours. We’ll fix it.”
That moment stuck in my head (thankfully!) and became how I see coaching. As I tell my college team every year, If you come in and do everything I ask of you, and you run poorly, then it’s on me. I’ll look into it and fix it. If you come in and don’t do what I ask and don’t put in the work that we agreed upon, then how can I know what to fix? It’s on you, because I don’t know what you did and didn’t do. I’d much rather have it be on me.
And guess what, I screw up. Occasionally, I give the wrong training or taper someone wrong or don’t have them prepared for the race that played out. It happens. I feel horrible about it, but it’s an opportunity to learn and do better. When you tie your whole existence to that end result, what it does is it blocks out the ability to step back, see what you did objectively and fix it.
And that goes back to what Ramachandran discussed at the beginning. Often times when an athlete runs poorly and we don’t immediately know why, the temptation is to blame the athlete. Brush them off as “crazy” or tell ourselves that our training is working for A, B, and C athlete so it should work for D athlete too, so it must be their fault. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes that occurs.
But if the kids are doing what you ask, then maybe it’s time for you to step back, realize that it might be what you did and you need to put your ego aside and figure out how to fix it. Next time you think to blame someone else for a problem, stop and think for a minute to see if it was really their fault or if you’re simply blaming them to protect that inner narrative you have in your head of yourself that we call an ego.