What Makes a Good Coach?

With perspective from over 40 years of coaching experience, Joe Friel shares his detailed list of qualities that make a good coach.

What follows here and what is contained above in the video are some tenets of good coaching. This is by no means a comprehensive list. In fact, it’s fairly intuitive and may even come across as some sort of combination of the golden rule and the Boy Scout oath, but that’s okay as both have merit.

A good coach’s primary consideration is the safety and well-being of the athlete.

This should be one of your first conversations with the athlete. For example, when and where does the athlete do various types of workouts? Are the time of day and the venue safe relative to traffic, weather, terrain, and other conditions? Are there alternatives to consider? What is the condition of the athlete’s equipment kit? Is anything not safe? Is the athlete eating a healthy diet that supports his or her level of training? Has the athlete been diagnosed with any significant health issues past or present? Is the athlete taking any medications? Was the medication prescribed by a doctor? Does the athlete have any physical impairments, no matter how insignificant (from leg length discrepancies to scoliosis to vision impairment and more)? And don’t just take the athlete’s word for it. Get confirmation of a new client’s health and well-being from a medical professional.

A good coach is equally concerned with the athlete’s mental well-being as with his or her physical health and capability for performance.

Psychological stress from any source (job, family, finances, etc.) can have devastating effects on the athlete’s readiness to train and compete. In your role you need to be ready to identify, not to solve, such matters. Seek help from a sports psychologist or other professionals as needed.

A good coach establishes boundaries around their lifestyle and family time.

While you are employed by the athlete and the athlete comes first, there are times when you can be reached, and times when you can’t. Be gentle in making this point with your clients. But do make it. This can be a difficult conversation with some athletes.

A good coach shows respect for their athletes.

Respect starts by accepting that the athlete is exceptional in some way and that the coach’s role is to identify, nurture, and amplify their unique talents—not to whip them into submission. That is best accomplished by treating the athlete as a person, not as an object to be manipulated for your personal benefit. You are here for the athlete, not the other way around. Ultimately, a good coach lives by the golden rule, treating athletes as he or she would like to be treated.

A good coach helps the athlete grow and succeed in sport and also in life, which is secondary but nonetheless important.

A coach fills a unique role in the athlete’s world. You may well come to know more about the athlete than anyone else in their life. The athlete may seek your advice on topics outside of the typical coach-athlete relationship. It’s an awesome responsibility that you must respect while being careful to maintain a healthy distance on significant matters in the athlete’s life. After working with a good coach, athletes should feel they’ve become better people. If you can accomplish that (while keeping a safe distance from the athlete’s complicated personal needs beyond sport), you’re making the world a slightly better place.

A good coach keeps training simple and focused on the basics.

Your first step is to teach the basics of success in sport by setting up the athlete to achieve a goal at the lowest level of previous failure. This could be something as elementary as completing a short block of training or a single challenging workout. Celebrate the accomplishment. Then take a small step toward the next higher challenge. Keep this progression going until you finally arrive at the ultimate goal for the athlete.

The only variable is what the athlete’s specific set of goals are in the progression to the ultimate goal. Every athlete is unique in this regard. While for some athletes it may be simply completing a block of training, for another it may be improving power or pace, or achieving a personal best in a B- or C-priority event. It could even include overcoming fear, as in open-water swimming or fast descending on a bike. Whatever it may entail, continually and systematically ingrain the fundamentals of success while gradually preparing the athlete for the ultimate goal—the event. Make sure the athlete understands what’s necessary for success in that event and drive those fundamentals and metrics home by repeating and rehearsing the details frequently in workouts. Don’t assume they understand because you explained it. Practice it over and over and over.

Nearly all athletes will improve with this simple approach to training. Those who don’t are exceptional in some way and require more focused attention. That’s when the real fun begins.

A good coach uses training language that is familiar to the athlete, not scientific jargon.

This is also a good test of your ability to communicate: If you can’t explain a scientific concept in terms that a child would understand, then you don’t fully understand it. The athlete should have a role in the development and management of their training. Ownership will deepen the athlete’s understanding and improve their dedication to the plan.

A good coach never stops learning.

You can’t possibly know everything—but strive to anyway. Commit to always be a student of the sport, even if you’re considered an expert. The other side of this coin is that it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” The experts I most respect say those three words on occasion. The coaches I least respect appear to know everything. They’re faking it. You can’t possibly know everything. So what are you capable of achieving? What are you working on? How are you growing? A good coach is on a never-ending journey.

A good coach teaches the athlete that the competition is with and within.

Your athletes compete with, not against, other athletes. Competitors are not the enemy. In fact, it’s because of competitors that the athlete is motivated to improve—competitors present a challenge to inspire performance. Once your athletes realize this, the true competition within can begin—motivation, persistence, and patience all occur internally. You can help focus an athlete’s attention, but you can’t give any of these qualities to the athlete. Your role is to give direction to the internal challenge.

A good coach establishes a healthy working relationship with the athlete that grows stronger over time.

You get along with each other, have a friendly working relationship, enjoy your conversations, show mutual respect, and confide in each other. You are honest with the athlete when it comes to progress made toward the goal. If your honesty is questioned, even if it only has to do with small stuff, then your contribution to the athlete’s mission is compromised. Consider your personal integrity just as valuable as your coaching knowledge. Never sacrifice integrity to impress the athlete or anyone else. Be yourself. You’re not perfect, and that’s okay.

A good coach listens more and talks less.

The sign of a good coach is the ability to ask the right questions at the right times—and then listen to what the athlete says. Listening involves understanding. Once you understand then you can be of help. Do not dominate the conversation. You don’t learn anything when you are talking.

A good coach knows his or her own weaknesses and is always working to improve them.

This applies both to your coaching and more broadly to you as a person. Ask the athlete for feedback and accept at face value whatever you are told. Don’t challenge the opinions you receive; instead ask for examples. Are they accurate? They must be, or at least they are to the athlete. Evaluate whether you should make changes. Are there weak links you can be working on to become a better coach? Debrief with the athlete following important events and at the end of the season. Ask for feedback and embrace the learning. Never stop growing personally and professionally.

A good coach doesn’t make excuses.

Be honest about your own mistakes and failures. They happen to everyone. A shortcoming in training or racing isn’t always the athlete’s fault. Your role is critical to the athlete’s success. Evaluate how you did and what you could have done better.

A good coach sees the flow of feedback from the athlete as the key to success.

The path you take to prepare an athlete for an important event involves a careful plan for training (shared with the athlete), persistent and dedicated implementation (documented by the athlete), ongoing and frequent evaluation of progress (including observations from the athlete and the coach), honest progress evaluation (from both the coach and athlete), plan adjustment, and repetition.

Your long-term goal is for the athlete to learn how to successfully self-coach. While it may sound counterproductive to your business, executing on this goal will lead to great success for you as a coach.

Any book about UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, especially The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership. Wooden is widely regarded as the definitive “good” coach with an approach to cultivating performance that extends well beyond sport to the rest of life. 

In stark contrast to Wooden’s coaching career, Win At All Costs: Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception is an eye-opening read on the fallout caused by coaches who pursue performance at the expense of their athletes. 

Video Transcript

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