Dan John: The Art of Coaching

I often talk about “The Art of Coaching.” Before the air is out of my mouth, someone will ask about “science.”

Yes, before I tell you about the art of coaching, I need to talk about science.

Science is very important to the coach, but all too often, science watches athletics then returns to the lab. Years later, successful athletes are told, “Yep, that stuff that you were doing that worked . . . it works!

Obviously, I exaggerate the issue, but for the coach, all the biomechanical information in the world still lags behind the real-time issues of techniques, tactics and strategies.

Carl Sagan, the great scientist who also gave us the show Cosmos, taught us all the great lesson of coaching:

“Science thrives on errors.”

Coaching and competing thrives on errors. Even if you had the perfect diet and exercise program from day one, I bet you will have messed it up in the search for more perfect.  One weekly magazine or a Doctor Oz (as in “Wizard of . . . ”) show will have you reaching for an herb, a tea or a pill to make perfect more perfect.

I know this: My doctor put me on a diet, but it wasn’t enough food. Now I am on two diets.

Let’s talk about the art of coaching. The easiest way for me to explain this is:

It is the art of making people think what they NEED to do is what they WANT to do.

Personal trainers have an odd career: People pay their personal trainers to get the PT to make the person do what they need to do.

“Hey, I’m giving you good money to make me do this stuff.” Folks, you can’t make this up.

Getting people to take ownership of nutrition and exercise is the art of coaching. Teaching nutrition, a complex field, is the art of coaching. Teaching movements with load, a complex concept, is the art of coaching.

Making all of this simple is the art of coaching. Of course, I have a quadrant for this!

If you ask something simple, like “where is the bathroom?” I’ll point “over there.” That’s a simple concept with a simple answer.

Well, sure, of course, it’s simple!

If you want to send people to the moon with just slide rules, I am comfortable with the idea it might take me years to understand the math . . . if I ever actually do understand it.

Well, sure, of course, it’s complex!

Now, if I ask you “where is the bathroom?” and you give me the longitude and latitude of the toilet, you are just being an ass.

You took something simple and made it complex.

We see this all the time in the field of fitness, health, nutrition, performance and longevity.

When people ask me the secret to longevity, I answer clearly: Don’t die!

It’s that simple!

The Art of Coaching is taking something complex and giving the tools to make it simple and clear.  You KNOW that!

I often use the Polynesian phrase “Sitting on a whale, fishing for minnows” in my workshops. I might spend the better part of a day going over the fundamental human movements, the importance of crawling and climbing and simple solutions for recovery and diet questions.

The “minnow fishers” always raise their hands and ask questions about things I intentionally ignored, make things that shouldn’t be hard harder and tell long stories about how they did a mud race, killed an ate a bear with a toothpick and can touch their toes.

The Art of Coaching is seeing the WHALES.


Let me go over my favorite principles to learn the Art of Coaching. I spoke about the first tool, Cost-to-Benefit Ratios, in Can You Go?:

I have a model called The Two Test Tubes. One test tube is where you put the new idea, exercise, nutrient, job, relationship or whatever. It’s your energy, investment, capital and juju, those good deeds (like over-tipping) that end up rewarding you later in life.

The other test tube is what you get back. It doesn’t have to be money, but that’s sure a nice measuring stick. It can also be wonderful memories, life-changing moments and “just a lot of fun.”

Now, make an imaginary mark at maybe 20 percent of the full test tube. I use that to look at anything I do or add to my system (or life). We’re following the Pareto principle with this idea, the 80–20 rule. True, in business this has become a cliché, but it absolutely is a wonderful way to judge things.

 I say “yes” to most opportunities or new ideas. I toss them in and see what happens. Then, I give them a grade.

A—Just like in school, this is the best you can do. If something takes 20 percent of your time or energy and fills that “what you get back” tube to 80 percent, you have a winner! When people start doing goblet squats and farmer walks and it rekindles their training, I figure we hand out that A grade. Royalties of all kinds would fit here, too. There is nothing more fun than a check in the mail from something you did ten years ago.

B—This is what you would expect from most things. You put your time in, and you get what you give back. And that’s pretty good!

C—These are those little things that take and give at that 20 percent level. This is fine, but not earth-shattering, and you might find hundreds of these in your life. I still say “yes” to most opportunities, as there’s always a chance something might end up being an A.

F—When you find something is eating up most of your time and energy and you only get back a fraction of the effort, stop. Stop now.

In training, if you add a new idea from a workshop or article, assess it through this lens. If it takes months or years to learn and master, yet only adds a bit—or worse, pulls you down a notch—you can say it was a failure. Drop it, move on and try not to repeat the mistake in the future.

If, on the other hand, something new is easy to add and it immediately changes lives, you have a rare gem. Give yourself a pat on the back and an A grade.

This model works for jobs, relationships and practically everything else in life. My goal is to have workouts with straight As in exercise selection as well as rep and set schemes.

The second principle I use is the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Folks, enough is enough. Donna Summers, in the song “No More Tears,” said it best:

Enough is enough is enough
I can’t go on, I can’t go on, no more no
Enough is enough, is enough
I want him out, I want him out that door now

Strong ENOUGH. Flexible ENOUGH. Enough time, energy, protein, fiber, veggies . . . Enough!

Now stop. I learned this the hard way in my youth. At Utah State University, I snatched and cleaned and threw the discus far. My back squat was just fine and I could go around 400 anytime I wanted.

Some coaches—I won’t say where, but the emblem has five rings—told me to get my squat waaaaaaay up, eat more carbs and take those substances that others were telling us not to take because they were banned.

I got my squat way up. Great! But, the discus didn’t go farther! Why?

Enough is enough is enough.

Yes, it is hard to measure what “enough” is going to be, but when you see diminished results, back off before you add more.

That’s why I now only test my top-end athletes with TWO tests, the farmer walk and the standing long jump.

Farmer Walk for Distance (100 yards as the basic standard. Use a trap bar.)

Under 135: 135 pounds
135-185: 185 pounds
185-205: 205 pounds
Over 205: 225 pounds
(Male or female)

Standing Long Jump: At LEAST body height

For athletes: Your issue might be somewhere from six feet to eleven or twelve feet. If you jump six and your competition jumps twelve . . . we may have an issue.
(Male or female)

The third principle I use in the Art of Coaching comes from John T. Reed: Correct the Correctable.

Reed, a baseball coach, feels you can teach proper bunting, but you might not be able to teach catching a grounder. Some skills are beyond the coach’s ability to fix quickly.

There are certain things in life you can’t change. I call these your “givens.” For example:

Height
General features
Eye color (maybe)
Genetics and original geography
Home life as a child

There are things about you in life you can change or, at least, address:

Physique
Hair decisions
Dress
Location
Career

Two biggest investments of life: You (!) and your spouse(s)

In every sport, there are things you can’t change. Good coaches KNOW this! Don’t focus on things you can’t change . . . focus on the things you can. I spend my time as a coach focusing on the tactics, arousal levels and preparation we have control over.

I can’t change the weather. Yet.

The fourth principle is Clarity. I use this little graph to explain it.

If you are coaching yourself, you need very little clarity. You KNOW what you mean. If you coach your spouse, you soon discover clarity issues with ability to coach . . . and good luck.

Or, try coaching 100 14-year-olds at once.

My friend James at bikejames.com taught me this lesson. If you coach online, you need a level of clarity that is simply stunning. For a while, he only had FOUR movements and even then, there were issues with clarity.

This is why I have names for every position and exercise and workout. “Four point,” “six point,” “eight point,” “half-kneeling” and “crocodile” all have specific meanings. “The Eagle,” “The Body as One Piece” and “The Transformation” are all workouts and programs that might take me ten minutes to outline to you, but my athletes nod and may train a full month without an additional question of clarity.

The need for clarity is underrated.

The final principle I use is not universally accepted. Let’s say there are ten Units of Enthusiasm shared with athlete and coach.

I believe this: There are times, especially after a great failure, that the coach might need nine units of the enthusiasm and the athlete one. Early in coaching, the coach might have more units, but it is the job, the art, of the coach to slowly give these units to the athlete.

In performance, the athlete better have most of this, if not all of it.

Many people argue that the coach should ALWAYS be up. Leap out of bed, do the breathing exercises then scream, leap and lead. Not me. Ultimately, the athlete, literally “the one seeking the prize,” needs to be the one seeking the prize.

The Art of Coaching allows the coach and athlete to find the prize.

And, by the way, where is the bathroom?


Dan John Can You Go? Assessments & Program Design Book

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In his book Can You Go, Dan John outlines the simple assessment tools he uses with athletes and ordinary people. His quick, straightforward assessment method will help you identify what your clients are lacking and what they should focus on in their training.

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