December 12, 2021 7:10 pm

Athletes' Trajectories Should be Independent of Coaches' Limitations

The following article is my attempt to discuss a topic that has been rattling around in my brain for a long time, but I still have not been able to communicate it effectively to anyone. We had Kevin Bay (Owner of Hybrid Performance) on the Sharp Lid Podcast this past Monday, and it will be aired sometime within the next few days. If you listen to the podcast, about 3/4 the way through (46:25), I stumbled over an incoherent combination of words trying to blurt out a question to spur the discussion I was looking for. Kevin actually did a pretty good job picking up what I was putting down, and I really did like his answer. Even still, I don't think I was able to get the entirety of my point on the table. So here is another attempt at communicating the concept:

Great coaches have more restrictive ceilings than great athletes. 

Athletes become great based off the entirety of their experiences. The best athletes have the best intuitions on where they should be spending their time, and what they should focus on within the process of learning skill sets. (ever wonder why the most skilled guy in your gym may be the laziest when it comes to front squats... makes you think) 

The process happening within athletes nervous systems that are headed for greatness is so intricate and outside of any coaches understanding- or else they probably would not be a coach.

Coaches are limited by their beliefs of what is possible. Their beliefs are often limited by the efficacy of their own programming.

If athletes limit themselves to a coach's beliefs, and purely subjects themselves to a coach's programming, then their ceiling is set.

Let's examine a simplistic scenario. In this scenario lets grade an athletes value 1-10. 1 would be a bed ridden person, and 10 would be MJ, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams- GOAT status. The average high school athlete who will not move on to play any more non intramural sports in life is about a 5. D1 athlete is a 7. Professional athlete 8.5.

Let's say you're 22 years old and you're a 6.5, but you're determined to make you're dreams come true and be an All Star in your sport (9+) before your biological clock turns sour. You find a gym with a great coach who happens to be coaching several other 22 year old athletes who are already in the 7-8.5 category. So you're behind, but you're on the same track as everyone else in the gym. Sure, some of them won't be as dedicated and bring as much focus every day as you, or be as consistent. But some will.

What are you going to do? On our fancy scale, you'll steadily be 1-1.5 points behind the rest of the pack in that gym, stuck with the same rate of progress as everyone else. The entirety of the training facility is subject to the same ceiling of rate of progress.

Some athletes will make more progress in some areas compared to others due to genetics and reignited dormant scaffolding that was built early in life. But remember, you're the 6.5 in the facility at age 22, so that most likely pertains to the other guys and gals, not you.

Now that you're aware of the issue, putting a cap on the rate of progress, let's put the simplistic scenario aside.

If you're a coach and you're analyzing your efficacy and the rate of progress within your facility or program, how do you foster the chance for an athlete to blow your concept of what's possible out of the water? Or even move the needle a bit further than you previously believed...


I don't have a definitive answer to this. I am inclined to think the specific programming that people pay hundreds of dollars for per month may not be the answer, but then again, there is demand for exactly that. People weirdly like being told what to do. This may be a good time to admit this is where I make a chunk of my living.

Most facilities will assess you and then fit you into their template. Then, you're subject to the exact conundrum I described above. I have had several players that I consult for who workout at the most celebrated facilities in the country send me their programs and they are hilariously identical. Many of these players have extremely unique athletic profiles too. Any facility (especially one that is so successful that hundreds or thousands of athletes pay them for programming) who tries to say they're selling you an individual program is so absurdly full of it.

I would also be weary of facilities that attach themselves to the identity of having their programming being guided by the latest discoveries in "science." I'll leave my in depth take on this for another article, but outside of hard sciences, most studies are very misleading, lack context, are not capable of narrowing down enough variables or considering enough variables, and the researchers lack skin in the game. It also is slow to the punch. Most scientific inquiries are based off of what the best practitioners have already been doing for years.

I admit that there are well thought out counter arguments to my next take (all takes for that matter).

Most coaches look at the athlete in front of them and think how do I get this person a little bit better. Fewer coaches assess an athlete based on how far they are from making millions of dollars playing their sport, and back track from there. 

The way I view an individual plan is that you look at the level of achievement desired within the timeline an athlete presents to you, and you work within those parameters.

Coaches don't challenge themselves in this way for a few reasons. First off, it's hard. I do not see many coaches that progressively overload themselves as much as they do their athletes. Challenging your mental models is not as concrete of an activity as challenging yourself under a barbell. Secondly, coaches are scared of injuries. Which is totally understandable. The rate of progress necessary for someone who is not on track to play a major sport at the highest level brings on such a high level of risk that surely it is not worth it to consider. But I defer back to the first point, it's hard.

A practice I have been engaging in as a baseball coach for a long time now is the following:

No matter who the player is, sometimes players who I am not even coaching, and regardless of what goals they have for themselves, I ask myself, "what is it going to take for this player to have a Major League Baseball career?" I always program based on what the player asks for after we discuss the options, but I entertain myself with the thought of how to get him to the top. By doing this I have experienced similar growing pains to when I train as an athlete. The symptoms feel very similar to when I am in a overreaching/supercompensation phase of training. When I do get a chance to unwind and fully reset after a few days or weeks or months of being deep in the trench, I complete my adaptation.