What the Wright Brothers Can Teach Us About Coaching.
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
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
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,
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
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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