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Coaching Matters, A Lot
Recent research suggests the importance of a head coach is greater than anyone anticipated
Coaching is important.
Damn important, it turns out.
In fact, recent research suggests the importance of a head coach is greater than anyone anticipated.
The term “coach” originated from the idea that an instructor tutor literally carried someone through a specific task (like a stagecoach taking someone from A to B). As sport became more professionalized and commercialized, coaches began to take on increasingly more sophisticated and significant roles. What started with simply carrying the team from start to finish became a requirement to organize, scaffold, and help players build skill — with the idea that the players would ultimately carry themselves.
In that transition, we lost sight of the larger role of the coach in sport: to help win games. Sport has become increasingly player-centric, and rightfully so — the credit goes to the man in the arena, after all. But the mistake here isn’t giving the players more credit, it’s the implicit assumption that the coach isn’t in the arena with the players at all.
It turns out that coaches are a huge part of what goes on in the arena, even if they never cross the threshold to the playing field. Separate studies out of Harvard and the University of Chicago have suggested that across the major North American sports, head coaches account for 20-30% variance in a team’s performance.
In elite performance, 20-30% is AS-TRO-NOMICAL!
In the history of the NFL, a large percentage of games are decided by 3 points or less, with an average score of nearly 25 points per game. Those 3 points are just 12% of the score variance — enough to add a tick to the win or loss column, and well under the impact of what a coach can have.
Across an NBA season, the difference between a bad coach who is two standard deviations below the mean and a good coach who is two standard deviations above the mean is 14 wins. 14 wins is the difference between a post-season appearance and sitting at home in April; it’s the difference between a 1-seed and an 4-seed; it’s a difference in odds of reaching the ultimate goal.
In Major League Baseball, good coaches account for fewer runs allowed (rather than more runs scored). This is a crucial impact when you consider that of the final 8 teams in last year’s playoffs, all but one ranked in the top 8 in the league for runs allowed.
“Coaches hold the key to the mental and emotional state of every player in the locker room — and every staff member that services the team”.
Of course, these studies are limited by the outcomes they assess, and overlook the non-tangible outcomes that are perhaps more important anyway. While coaches are lauded for their technical, tactical, and strategic abilities — it’s often what gets a head coach promoted to such a role — these studies fail to capture the more interpersonal nature of what it means to be a head coach and how that impacts winning.
The head coach sets the climate of the entire organization, having an immeasurably high impact on whether you have an enjoyable workplace or not. The technical term of this kind of climate creation is the “motivational climate”. Made famous by Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, the idea of the motivational climate actually originated in the late 1980s when researchers began to examine how performers oriented to tasks. What they found was two predominant approaches to task performance: task-orientation (what later became called “growth mindset”), or being motivated by the process, and believing that effort and hard work would lead to success; and an ego-orientation (what later became called a “fixed mindset”), or being motivated by status and achievement, and believing that talent was the reason for any outcome.
As scientists started to dig into this more, what they found was that these orientations are dramatically influenced by 3 key people in any performer’s life: parents, teachers, and coaches. People can hold different orientations across different contexts, such that school is an ego-oriented activity but sport is task-oriented, or vice versa.
And it turns out that these task performance orientations predict a lot of important behaviors for performance outcomes. Athletes with a growth mindset persist longer in the face of adversity, attribute failure to effort (meaning they understand they can control how to succeed the next time — by giving more effort) and tend to move on quickly from mistakes which allows them to get back into the game. By contrast, players who hold a fixed mindset attribute failure to talent (and internalize the idea that they may not be good enough), give up easily, and dwell on mistakes. And coaches play an outsized role in creating those attitudes.
Coaches hold the key to the mental and emotional state of every player in the locker room — and every staff member that services the team. They also guide attention to what’s important; helping to smooth the bumps after a losing streak, or reinforce a steely gaze when a big goal is within touching distance. Coaches determine whether or not players and staff show up to work and believe that hard work and effort will lead to victory; they determine if players think they aren’t good enough, or if staff are afraid to make mistakes.
And that’s before we even mention a coaches’ impact on a player’s view of life and the world. As many athletes retire, they move on from the focus on wins and losses — they talk about the coaches they had, and what they learned. Coaches’ impacts are rarely fully felt in the moment. They’re appreciated years and decades later, despite the outsized impact they have on the performance now, the environment now, the outcomes now, and ultimately whether or not the athletes on the field will be remembered for anything significant or not.
The Great Paradox of Coaching is that it’s simultaneously not about you, and all about you. It’s okay that we acknowledge and recognize that, just as we would if it occurred in a domain outside of sport. Imagine the reverence given to a CEO if s/he accounted for 20-30% of revenue, plus set the tone for a multinational corporation.
Have I truly taken stock of my role in the arena, and the outsized impact I have on performance outcomes?
How can I continue to improve the motivational climate of my team and foster a growth mindset?
When facing adversity, what am I guiding my players’ attention towards?
Have I recently reached out to former players and staff to see how they’re doing?