Dan John: The Big Picture View of Coaching

An excerpt from Dan’s new book, 40 Years with a Whistle.

Dan John 40 Years with a Whistle

“You can’t see the picture when you are inside the frame.” ~ Les Brown

I love the phrase “the big picture.” In college, my friend, Crazy Jerry, encouraged me to take philosophy courses with Professor Johnson. Jerry wanted me to learn the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and I needed more credits to graduate. Unexpectedly, Wittgenstein’s insights really prepared me for my life in coaching.

Philosophy is a battle against
the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

The first insight was that people can use words to mean anything they want.

Jerry and I would often dive deep into the waters of philosophy at social gatherings. (You can see why we didn’t date much.) When we went too far, Jerry would stop the conversation with an interesting insight:

“You have a Toyota in your nose.”

I didn’t actually have a Japanese car in my nostrils. He was making a key point that really helped me as a coach and trainer: We humans have this ability to push air up from our lungs, play with our vocal chords and lips and form sounds that become words. Sadly, this is goal setting for most people.

So, Mrs. Henderson, what are your goals for this year?

“Um, lose weight? Um, get in shape? Um, eat better? Um . . . “

As we read in Hamlet: “Words, words, words.” When most people set goals, they have little ownership for what comes out of their mouths.

My follow-up question, “What do YOU mean by that,” has really helped me get people to actually own their statements.


But it was the other great lesson from Dr. Johnson’s Wittgenstein class that changed just about everything for me: the Family Resemblance Theory. Let me explain this.

My brother Gary has jet-black hair, dark eyes and is about my height, but weighs 70 pounds less. In fact, if you saw the two of us together, you would not think we were related. For those readers who don’t know, I’m blond, blue-eyed and built a bit thick.

But, it is funny. Gary looks like my sister Corinne so much that people often thought they were twins. And Corinne looks like my brother Ray. Hang on, there are six of us. Ray and my oldest brother, Richard, look like they came out of the same stamp. My brother Rich could pass for my brother Phil’s dad. And, although I may hate to admit it, I look like Phil. So, you see…Gary, who looks like Corinne, who looks like Ray, who looks like Rich, who looks like Phil.

When you go to your spouse’s family party and look around, you might see the same thing.

When you see all six of us together, you will see how much Gary and I look alike. But, look, you have to see all six of us together. You have to view the whole picture.

Although Professor Johnson didn’t use my family in his commentary, the moment he mentioned this, the light bulb went off in my head. It’s the “big picture.”

Let me give you another example.

Years ago, someone told me he expected fireworks when Mike Boyle and I were speaking together.


Well, it turns out that Mike does single-leg work and I don’t really emphasize it much. Literally, this person expected Mike and I to get into the corners, wait for the bell and duke it out.

Mike and I agree on, I think, everything. When you step back and look at what his athletes need and what my athletes need . . . they need basically the same thing. Sure, hockey players need more of “this” and discus throwers need more of “that,” but it doesn’t mean we disagree.

When you step back and look at the big picture, good coaches tend to follow the same basic patterns, the same basic foundations and the same basic truths. If you tease out one or two things, you might find some differences—some variations—but overall, most coaches resemble most coaches.

These are the three things that are underappreciated in understanding good coaching:

  • Coaching is leadership
  • Fractals and programming
  • Deprivation increases capacity

Check out 40 Years with a Whistle
for a deeper look into these three topics and more
from my lifetime of being coached and coaching.

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