We all know the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Two bicycle mechanics who conquered the seemingly impossible, flight. But how did two mechanics, without a college education, without financial backing beat others to the punch?

A comparison to their US rival, Samuel Langley, provides some clues. Langley, the head of the Smithsonian at the time, spent over $70,000 on his flying machine, with a large portion of that being government funded. His ambition was to cement his legacy in the annals of science. This was to be his discovery, akin to Edison or Bell’s recent marks in the history books.

In building his plane, he focused on power. Provide enough power and he would have flight. He hired engineers and took a scientific approach to tackle the problem. He scaled up the successful unmanned gliders of the time, figuring that if we increased the horsepower of the engine, a similar design could handle carrying a human. His final machine, the Aerodrome A, had an engine that produced 52 horsepower. Vastly superior to any other machines. The controls of the Aerodrome A were almost a second thought. A neglected variable. After all, if the machine was powerful enough and they were only trying to fly in a straight line for a short period of time, who needs much control?

On the other hand, the Wright brothers spent $1,000 of their own money on their flyer. They toiled away in obscurity, tweaking and testing their plane in front of a handful of acquaintances helping them with the project. They lacked a formal college education but made up for it being voracious readers with a natural curiosity. Growing up, they read far and wide, and pulled on their knowledge from different domains. They gleaned inspiration from subjects far and wide, from the mechanics and balance of the bicycles they were making to the flight of birds.

Taking their cues from their bicycle business, they put the focus on balance. Creating a plane that was stable in the air and could be controlled with the ease of the bicycle. Suitable controls were a must. So Wilbur went about designing and then testing his control apparatus, first with kites, then with gliders.

Only after they had solved the issues of control and designing a plane with sufficient lift (through more testing of gliders) did they turn their attention to building the engine to power the plane. They figured they needed 8 horsepower. Their glider produced 12. A far cry from Langley’s machine.

As we all know, the Wrights “won” the race. A simplistic, but largely true, view is that they changed the focus of what was necessary for a flying machine, versus Langley and their other competitors. They attacked the same problem from a different perspective. And when they took their first flight, they didn’t rush to show the world. They waited… For two more years, they perfected the control, and fine-tuned the engine to give them the necessary power. Only then, did they perform their first public flight.

They had skin in the game. They were inventors by nature. Testing and modifying until they were satisfied with their product. They had a wide range of knowledge and pulled from it. They were dabblers, not specialist.

A Coaches Approach

We can use the analogy of Langley and the Wright brothers to look at different models of coaching. I call this the Broad versus Narrow approach to coaching.

In the broad, or philosophical, model, we are process driven. After what “works” regardless of whether we can explain exactly why. We tinker and toil away, utilizing knowledge from a variety of domains to guide us. We function off of a flexible model, one that can be disproven, shifted, or changed based on the data coming back.

Some might note that this is how a scientific approach is supposed to work, and I’d agree. I sometimes like to call this the philosophical approach to coaching; combining science and art. We can see this approach in how the Wright brothers tackled their problem. Having a flexible concept informed by knowledge and experience, with trying different avenues as the guiding light.

In the narrow, or mechanistic, view of coaching, we abide by a rigid model. Tied to our perspective of how training or coaching should be, with little compromise. The focus is on how do we improve a key component instead of seeing the big picture. In such a model, we tend to rely on technology to a greater degree. And because of our narrow focus, we tend to have more blind spots.

In endurance sports, we see this clearly when we solely focus on physiological based training systems. The key to improving performance becomes only about improving VO2max, Lactate Threshold, economy, or power output. Much like Langley, the thinking goes that if we can improve power output, everything else will fall in place.

Regardless of whether you coach endurance athletes, speed and power ones, or in a team sport setting, it’s easy to succumb to the narrow approach to coaching. We fall in love with parameters that seem like they must be the key to athlete improvement. We become convinced that Y is key to improvement. Instead, channel the Wright brothers. Zoom out. Read far and wide. Maintain perspective and knowledge that the whole system is complex and it takes an understanding of how the systems interact more than how to improve the ‘key’ one.

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What the Wright Brothers Can Teach Us About Coaching.

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