Every year I post a list of the books I’ve learned the most from (for example 2014 list, 2013 list). Over time, my reading interests have shifted as I evolve as a coach. I’ve found myself branching out to ever-expanding domains, while still trying to return to the basics. This year’s list is a perfect example. We have a mix of books covering in-depth science, social sciences, and psychology to lead the way. However, they are paired with reads by some of my favorite coaches from both past and present. While the tendency is to venture outwards and onwards as we extend our knowledge base, a trip backward, revisiting the classics is a must. It provides perspective and keeps us grounded in our understanding of how training evolved.
To make this list, a book has to make me think. It could be hundreds of thought-provoking insights, or one powerful sentiment that changes my coaching paradigm. These are all books that introduced concepts that have changed how I coach.
Additionally, I’m including a list the books which are currently piled up and on my to-read during Christmas break list. Maybe a few of these will find their way onto next year’s list.
Books About Coaching:
Speed Work for Distance Training. Bob Schul. This little gem is put out by our last American to win the Gold Medal in the Olympics at the 5k. It’s the ONLY book that gives you any sort of idea what training the Igloi way was all about. Schul was coached by famed Hungarian coach Mihaly Igloi, who invented a unique system that relied heavily on intervals and running by feel. Unlike other contemporaries, Igloi never published a book about his training. Schul does a great job of outlining the training that guided him to Olympic gold.
Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts . Stanislas Dehaene. In recent years, I’ve tended to favor books that explore the mind. While the physiology of performance is well-studied, understanding the complexity of human cognition is still in its infancy. Yet, the mind is where performance breakthroughs lie. In this book, the author explores the way consciousness works. It’s an enlightening read that demonstrates the power of the subconscious. In coaching, the lessons on learning and how we pick up feedback and decide what is important are invaluable. The impact attention has on everything is also quite enlightening.
How to be a Leader. Martin Bjergegaard & Cosmina Popa. A simple short read on what it takes to be a leader. Consider this text an introductory treatise on the components of a leader in the modern world. Escaping the “self-help” style of many leadership books, How to be a leader offers a deeply philosophical take.
First Ladies of Running. Amby Burfoot. One of my central tenants in coaching is: know your history. With the latest book by former elite runner, Amby Burfoot comes a tale of the origins of women’s elite running. We learn about the pioneers of the sport. While there are stories on the women’s training, the overall lesson for a coach is what this group of ladies overcame to start the integration of the sport. If you coach women, definitely give this one a read.
Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach. Frans Bosch. The title of the book says it’s about strength training, but like anything Bosch puts out, it’s really a book designed to make you think and question your assumptions on training. Be forewarned, this book is dense. That means it’s jam-packed with research and technical terms that make it a slow, but worthwhile read. Mladen Jovanovich sums up Bosch’s work (and it’s controversy) nicely in this review. Above all, this book will make you think, so read it.
Strength and Conditioning for Endurance Running. Richard Blagrove. While this is certainly a traditional strength training book, unlike Bosch’s, Blagrove fills a need. His is all about strength training for distance runners. He knows his stuff too, having worked with several of the UK’s top runners. If you’re looking for an in-depth but simple to implement program for your runners, this book is worth a read.
The Well-Built Triathlete. Matt Dixon. Venturing outside of your sport is one of the ways to keep your thinking fresh and alive. Dixon is a master at managing ‘recovery’ in a sport that has a heavy tendency to overtrain just about everyone. I generally have stayed away from the triathlon training books because they always feel a bit watered down, but Dixon’s book is heavy on well thought out principles that translate to every level.
Athletics: How to Become a Champion. Percy Cerutty. This year, all of the classic Cerutty texts have been rereleased and what a treasure trove it is. While Cerutty was certainly eccentric, in many ways he was ahead of his time. He introduced heavy lifting for runners decades before scientists espoused its benefits. Pick up this book and understand what training the best was like in the 1960’s.
My Current Reads that have already made a big impact:
Great Thinkers. The School of Life. Having read through a few chapters, this collection of lessons from some of the great thinkers and philosophers in history is filled with usable knowledge. The lessons (and perspective) contained in this volume is immense.
Tools of Titans. Tim Ferriss. With over 700 pages of profiles, this one is going to take a while to get through. I’ve just begun to skim through and the handful of profiles I’ve read have some fantastic information. For example, the Derek Sivers and Josh Waitzkin chapters are filled with gems that are simple, yet profound. This is definitely a resource book that you’ll flip to and reference for a long time to come.
The Consolations of Philosophy. Alain de Botton. Life lessons from the greatest philosophers in history. De Botton distils the teachings of well-known philosophers into applicable lessons in dealing with modern life.
Status Anxiety. Alain de Botton. De Botton is one of my favorite authors for his clever prose and unique way of getting his message across. I’ve seen the documentary that accompanies this book and am excited to dive in. As the title implies, it’s all about how our modern search for status is one of the root causes for anxiety.
The Brain Always Wins. John Sullivan and Chris Parker. I’m excited about this one, because it’s essentially a primer on how the brain impacts performance.
Overall Top Books Read in 2016:
Ego is the Enemy. Ryan Holiday. There is a big difference between confidence and ego. The former leads to excellence and fulfillment, while the latter leads to failure and suffering. Holiday makes this clear, and shows how self-awareness is a critical skill that determines which path we take. (If you want to learn more, Brad interviewed Holiday about the book here.)
Geography of Genius. Eric Weiner. Plato once said that “what is honored in a country is cultivated there.” Weiner travels across geographies and time to show us that this is precisely the case, and how the most groundbreaking ideas often emerge from broken ground. A must-read for teachers, coaches, managers, or anyone else whose job it is to cultivate high-performance cultures. And, Weiner’s wildly entertaining writing is in a league of its own.
Grit. Angela Duckworth. Talent x effort = skill and skill x effort = achievement. Duckworth shows us that it is not nature or nurture that matters, but rather how we nurture our nature, and she unveils the latest science on how to do just that. The ability to hang in there and persevere when the going gets tough, what Duckworth calls “Grit,” is key. She won a MacArthur Genius grant for her research underlying this book.
How to Have a Good Day. Caroline Webb. This book takes the last century of psychology and behavioral economics research and turns it into concrete daily tactics. Webb, who is a senior adviser on leadership to McKinsey, offers evidence-based tips on everything from managing email to turning “transactions into interactions” when dealing with strangers. If you enjoyed Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, you’ll love this.
How to Stay Sane. Phillipa Perry. This simple, short book with a provocative title might be best summed up as the anti-self help book. The book starts with a simple question, “Everyone accepts the importance of physical health: isn’t it just as important to aim for the mental equivalent?” Perry answers with 4 to-the-point chapters: Self-Observation, Relating to Others, Stress, and What’s the Story? This book might not make you feel good, but it will give you no BS tools to stay sane.
Letters from a Stoic. Seneca. The ancient Greek philosopher Seneca teaches us that what we think are modern ailments aren’t so new or unique. In this collection of letters, Seneca provides life advice that is as timely today as it was when he wrote it over 2000 years ago. He touches on topics like how to manage endless distractions, balance work and play, and deal with stress. When we read this book we couldn’t help but notice that much of modern behavioral science research is simply proving what Seneca observed centuries ago.
Originals. Adam Grant. Originality is certainly part art, but it’s also part science. Grant combines the latest research on originality with the stories of the world’s foremost original thinkers to uncover the practices and methods of decision making that yield breakthroughs. It’s quite engaging to read original thinking on originals from an original himself.
Presence. Amy Cuddy. How we hold our body affects our mind and how we hold our mind affects our body. Cuddy opens with an intimate story of how she nearly lost both her body and mind and what she did to gain them back. From there, the book dives into the still unfolding science on mind-body-performance connection, something Cuddy is at the forefront of from her post at Harvard University.
Surfacing. Siri Lindley. If you are interested in learning more about the single-minded pursuit of excellence—where it comes from, what it requires giving up, and how you can transition to something else—then this book is an important read. Lindley, one of the best triathletes to ever live, shares her bumpy road to the top of sport and how she walked away from competing.
Top Dog. Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman. Competition is the name of the game, and this book explains in detail the science behind it. Why do some rise to the occasion when the spotlight is on? Why do certain teams gel while others fall apart? Do men and women respond differently to praise and punishment? These questions, and many more, are answered in this fascinating book.
Tribe. Sebastian Junger. A riveting examination of the importance of community and what’s at stake—for both individuals and society—when we lose it. Junger doesn’t waste a word in this tight and compelling work. This was tied with When Breath Becomes Air for our favorite book of 2016.
The World Beyond Your Head. Matthew Crawford. How we physically interact with the world has an enormous, albeit not often recognized, influence on how we exist in it. Crawford, who is one of our favorite living philosophers, examines embodied cognition and all the forces pulling on it—from the commercialization of everything, to technologies that remove us from our physical surroundings, to income inequality. He explains that in order to fully live in the world, we must more fully live in the world, not just in our heads.
When Breath Becomes Air. Paul Kalanithi. An utterly moving book about living and dying. A strong reminder that you should follow what interests you now and strive to not spend a single day going through the motions. This was tied with Tribe for our favorite book of 2016.