Guest Post: What makes a good coach?

If Rugby Union front row forwards have a reputation of wearing their IQs on their backs then Dan Palmer breaks the mould. He is known as a Scrum Technician and has a large input into scrum practice. Having played at the highest level, under a variety of coaches and coaching styles, I asked him what he thought makes a good coach. 

When asked to write a piece outlining what I thought the make up of a good coach was, I assumed it would be quite a basic process.  One – I would identify who I perceive to be the best coaches from my personal experience – and two -assess what their commonalities were.

If only it were this simple.

So, what makes ‘good coaches’ in fact ‘good’?  This is quite a difficult question to answer, as coaches are unique and have varied skill sets – although, underlying traits are inevitably present amongst the best. I believe there is a vast range of qualities one could sight to answer this question – but as I started to generate a list of the good and the bad, a pattern started to emerge.  It became clear to me that it would be possible for me to separate most, if not all, of the elements I favoured into two distinct categories. The theoretical and the practical.

Not only was it possible for me to separate the best traits under these headings, but also my coaches themselves, both good and bad, would fall into the same system.  This simple task made it quite obvious to me that the coaches who I felt I gained the most from – the ones I would say were my ‘best’ – where the ones I felt compelled to list twice.  So, there was my answer – now to articulate it.

Under my theoretical heading were attributes that could all be reduced basically to specialized knowledge of areas.  Not only of the specificities of strength and conditioning protocols – but of nutrition, recovery techniques, rehabilitation, injury prevention, and psychological elements such as the process of learning and external pressures that influence the performance of athletes.

As important as knowledge is, and please don’t feel like I am underplaying it – because it is f#@*&g critical – it really means nothing if a coach lacks the ability to pass it on.  The number of coaches I have seen get jobs clearly because they have the right paper work and certificates is countless. I could point to many who could well have been the most educated, and could tick all of the theoretical boxes, but I would still perceive them to be incredibly poor coaches.

This is where my second category comes into play.

I developed a much wider range in the practical bubble.  I would include skills really only established by actually being in the athletes environment.  Characteristics such as the ability to demonstrate and communicate clearly; to understand the environment and the people within it; to listen to the athletes and provide motivation when necessary; to work closely with skills coaches to get an understanding of the functional transfer between the strength and conditioning component and the skill.  Being completely engaged with the entire environment in this way is absolutely paramount.

Is it possible to completely blitz most of these practical elements and have very little theoretical knowledge? My answer is yes, but most athletes from my experience will see right through you.

The key to getting the most out of athletes is clearly to have a healthy combination of traits from both a theoretical and a practical perspective.  The very best coaches I have experienced, not only acknowledge this, but also actively look to continually improve both areas of their coaching.

Improving knowledge is straightforward – knowledge is accessible, its about making the effort to source the most up to date and leading information and taking the time to learn and understand how it relates to you specifically.

Developing practical elements for coaches takes time to evolve, because it is primarily involved with getting on field experience. When talking to the better of my coaches, something becomes clear that they all have in common, they actively look to expose themselves to a range of surroundings, through a variety of different sports, countries and cultures – this exposure shines through in well rounded trainers, and gives them a clear edge when dealing with athletes, especially in a team environment when the personalities and backgrounds are vast.

I have progressed to this point and it has just occurred to me that I have overlooked a trait in coaches that I most respect – and I believe it to be one of the most important, if not, the most important element of a good coach.

The best coaches know their weaknesses.

Know what you are good at, but also understand your deficiencies so you can supplement your athletes with people better equipped to comment on any given area than yourself.  Building a strong network of professionals and experts to help supplement your program is no doubt one of the most vital components to being a successful coach at an elite level – not one coach I have ever had knows everything – the best ones admit this, the worst try to bluff their way through.  Again, athletes will not fall for this, trust me.

I am by no means an expert on any of these matters, I have just been lucky enough to be involved in professional sport for a while, and have seen good and bad coaches come and go – So I hope there is something to be gained from my ramblings – if not, I apologise for interrupting the most recent few minutes of your life.

I will leave you with a few quotes regularly referred to by one of the best high performance coaches in the business – Dean Benton.

“Not all change is progress, but all progress is the result of change, to resist change is to get in the way of progress”

And one of my favourites:

“Knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad”

Take from that what you will.

Dan Palmer has represented the NSW Waratahs, ACT Brumbies, the Wallabies and is now feasting on croissants & wine while playing Rugby Union for FC Grenoble in France. Follow him on Twitter @DanPalms or check out his playing bio here.

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