Einstein & the Business of Coach Selection

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

By Jenny Williams

In my sporting and professional life, I have moved from the realm of elite athlete and experienced coach and teacher to the business of coach and management selection.

To be a world champion in my sport (Lacrosse) took hard work, lots of practise towards mastery, and an attitude of never giving up when others thought a task impossible. These elements, to anyone who has read books on champions, are obvious but there are other factors that may be more subtle which are often ignored or disregarded by those looking to get an edge. One of these is the quality of the coach, be it a master or L plate (learner) coach.

Five Brilliant Minds
Before examining more about coaching specifics, it is important to note some guiding principles outlined by five diverse and brilliant minds.

  1. Albert Einstein - defined insanity as continually repeating the same process and expecting a different result.  
  2. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman – showed that most people stay within the bounds of in the processes they are most familiar with. He calls it “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI) and suggests it is why most children become parents in the same vein they were parented. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating that as humans, we are both irrational in our decision making and more importantly overestimate our own abilities. In sport this happens when we suffer from unconscious bias or a psychological phenomenon known as the Halo Effect.  This is thinking that because someone is brilliant in one area they will be brilliant in another field.  In Australian football for example this can be the mistake of believing that a Brownlow medallist (MVP) will automatically be a great coach.

    Kahneman also pointed out that everyone has an opinion but only experts have an expert opinion. Expert opinion only comes with hours of study and practise in that particular field to achieve mastery accompanied by evaluation and continual feedback to ensure that you are improving. If the feedback comes from experts you can fast track to mastery in the activity.
  3. Psychologist Anders Erickson (whose studies writer Malcolm Gladwell has so well outlined) - denoted the importance of mastery, including specificity in a particular activity, in becoming a champion.  In sport a player may have many years of brilliance as a player but not done any coaching or been in charge of a team themselves.  Mastery of playing is generally built on technical skills, whilst mastery of coaching is more a function of people skills and management.
  4. Psychologist Dr Robert Hogan - looks at personality factors in performance with particular note to what he describes as adjustment level. Adjustment is basically the level of stress one can take before thinking, playing or acting rationally becomes a problem. For some individuals their adjustment levels are high and you see them functioning very well even in stressful situations. For others their adjustment level is lower. The take away message for adjustment is when someone reaches their tipping point, (you could say the straw breaks the camel’s back) “dark side behaviours” will emerge. This dark side will usually be fight, flight or cling.  In sport this will result in players fighting, hiding from the play or maybe staying totally within what they know and never taking a chance. Most individuals do not know about adjustment levels and therefore have little chance to deal with or increase their resistance to their challenges.

All of these brilliant minds will also agree that differing jobs dictate differing amounts of stress based on technical and people skills. 

So now we get to coaching. I have grown up in a household of coaches. My dad (Fos Williams) is in the Australian Football League Hall of Fame as a coach, my brother Mark won an AFL premiership as a coach, my other brother Stephen won five second tier football (SANFL) premierships as a coach and I have coached State and Australian level in my own sports as well as having taught physical education for 30 years.

I then chose to do my psychology Master’s Degree thesis on the personality characteristics of successful, long term, elite coaches.  The knowledge that I gained from this group, along with reading of brilliant research combined with my own experiences of coaching has given me a depth of knowledge in this area that allows me to write an informed opinion, perhaps even qualifying, by Kahneman’s definition, as an expert.

So now let’s look at current coaching selection methods with regard to all of the expertise outlined above.

Let’s start with Einstein. Most coach selection is based on repeating the same methods that have been used over the last few decades. They involve:

  • Referees  
  • Interviews
  • Presentations
  • Profiling

Using the expertise of the great minds mentioned, there are some specific questions that should be raised. 

  1. Expertise of the selection panel and the selection criteria that has been set. Just because someone was a great player does not make them a great selector of coaches and many suffer from WYSIATI, judging a coach on a limited set of experiences.
  2. The selection committee is not aware of the Halo Effect
  3. The selection committee does not understand the importance of SPECIFICITY in coaching jobs and the importance of adjustment level.  Most critical is the view of an assistant coach versus a head coach. Here candidates are asked what they will do in certain situations but the basic news flash is that being a head coach of a team is different to any other job.  It requires more people skills and a higher level of stress tolerance than any other role in the football department.  Coaches do not even know how they will react under such stress so they can only “imagine” their answer. (Good profiling will give insight into challenges they may face and at least look at probabilities and solutions).
  4. Mastery in a specific activity. Any coach who would like a head coaching position should, at some stage in their career, look after a lower level team and be in charge of the playing group and other support staff. This will give a basic insight into their strengths and challenges.  Good practice will also see anonymous reviews from players that they have coached not only in regard to on the field matters but in other aspects of their relationships. Great coaches care about their teams as well as the results.
  5. Young players who think they may like to go into coaching should have a pathway that includes good teaching and practise throughout their careers. This can include helping out at schools, coaching clinics and actually planning sessions. They are then developing coaching as well as playing skills.
  6. All coaches should get guidance and feedback from a master (expert) and also the players during the season. This should range from technical skills through to people skills. The feedback should be anonymous and any areas of concern should be addressed quickly.
  7. Do not rely on feedback from only dominant individuals within the team.  If they lack empathy they may not be attuned to the concerns of the group. 

For detailed discussion on the problems encountered in each of these areas please go to www.bestongroundperformance.com

No matter if you are a senior or junior club, if you are selecting coaches and do not want to waste time, energy or even kill players’ confidence then it is worth spending some time to look at alternatives and possibilities. 

In Australia, 30% of those drafted never play one Australian Football League game and the quality of the coach, in a draftee’s new club, will be a significant factor in their development and career. If a team makes a mistake in coach selection by not looking at all of the alternatives then the impact is likely to be negative on players, the club and even the coach themselves.

My father was a master coach and a brilliant man. He was always reading, researching and looking for an edge. In his 70s he was just coming to terms with the internet and would have never been stuck in the old ways. He also cared about his players and we would spend much time waiting for the kitchen table to be free for tea when dad was giving a player a pre-game massage to make sure they were ready for the big game.  In those days you were coach, physiotherapist, psychologist etc., and dad knew the importance of confidence in performance.  He cared about players’ lives and not just their performance. My mother was also a factor in his success. She was willing to become part of the club and part of coping with the stress of dad’s job. For players’ wives and partners, having my mum as a mentor, helped them to be part of the group and the old adage happy wife : happy life can be translated into happy partner: more wins. This has not changed to this day and is important in any team situation. 

So what makes a great coach?
Here is the formula. 

For great coaching:

  • High levels of CARE (50-80% empathy)
  • Good adjustment level.  (Higher the better < 50% will be a red flag)
  • High on scales of ambition+ bold+ power (competitiveness)
  • High levels of imagination
  • Mastery hours in people management (coaching or teaching)
  • Time spent in a “control” position. (e.g. coaching own team if going for head coach position)
  • Good technical knowledge.
  • A family situation that supports the coach

If any area is low then at least one assistant coach must be high in that area.

If adjustment is low then that coach will need help dealing with the stress of the job especially if it is a head coaching position.

Constant review and feedback is important based on these factors.

For more detail please look at my website or give me a call.  I am always happy to discuss or debate my ideas and make changes when appropriate. Feel free to send me a message on the Best On Ground Performance website or look for my forthcoming book “Building Champions”.

Jenny Williams is an organizational psychologist with a background in sport science coupled with practical experience as an elite level coach and player. Jenny was inducted into the South Australian Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. She captained and coached Australia in lacrosse winning gold, silver and bronze world cup medals.  She is an expert in crossing codes, leadership and developing coaches to higher levels in their craft.

Traci Mathwin, 15-01-15 17:42:
A great article Jenny
Bev Leavy, 21-01-15 11:52:
very interesting and invaluable points Jen. tks

Comment on this story

* - required field