Month: November 2011

A Field Guide to Avoiding Toxic Teachers/Coaches

We’ve spent a fair amount of time in this space talking about what makes up a great teacher or coach. Today, let’s talk about the opposite. The bad ones. The ones who quietly steal your time and energy and prevent you from progressing as well as you could. The ones you want to avoid.

Confession: I know about toxic teachers/coaches, because, at various times in my life, I’ve been one. Both in the classroom (in graduate school, no less) and on the sports field (with my Little League team), I’ve been in charge of the learning process, and I have proceeded to do what I’ve since realized was a pretty terrible job. (I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that whenever I run into someone from one of my first classes/teams, I usually begin by apologizing.)

So with that in mind, I’d like to offer this brief, completely unscientific list of traits for which to watch.

1) The Courteous Waiter: This is the kind of person who puts all their efforts and attention into keeping you comfortable and happy. They don’t push you to the edges of your ability, but rather keep you in the comfort zone, glossing over any moments of difficulty in favor of a “we’ll worry about that later” approach. This kind of person is usually quite likable (think of that really cool teacher you had in high school) and because of that likability, you never learn much (again, think of that really cool teacher you had in high school).

2) The Charismatic Speaker: This is the kind of person who spends all their time talking. Lecturing. Weaving shimmering webs of ideas into the air. They’re often quite eloquent and charismatic; listening to them can be great fun. Which is precisely the problem — because in the end, passively listening to someone talk is a really inefficient way to learn. We learn by doing, exploring, discovering for ourselves. By asking questions, interacting, engaging with ideas. (Another reason why Socratic method works so well.)

3) The Remote Ruler: This person spends their time high above the playing field, designing strategies and methods, and rarely descend to interact with the people they’re leading. Some good examples of this type of teacher is found in the leadership of bigger organizations, like the NFL and Wall Street, both places where a culture of remoteness can easily take hold. This person often seems quite powerful, but they often end up failing because they overlook the most fundamental source of power: the personal emotional connections to the people they’re leading.

Finding the right teacher, coach, or mentor is sort of like test-driving a car. And just as with a car, it pays to lift up the hood. Go for a test drive. Find one who connects with you, who challenges you, and who pushes you past what you thought you could do. You’ll go farther.

PS — speaking of good teachers, I’m reading a couple really good books right now: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami (great on the link between endurance and creativity), and Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which is great on the relationship between impulsive and rational thinking.

What’s Your Gadget?

For the past couple weeks, my wife Jen has been asking me if I’m going to write about the goggles. She’s asked enough about the goggles, in fact, that it’s become a running joke in our house. It’s gotten to the point that if you simply blurt out the word “goggles” at unexpected times, you get a big laugh.


So here’s the story: there’s this eight-year-old kid, Seth Wilson, who lives near us in Ohio. Seth happens to have been named the top-ranked second-grader in the country by a basketball website (why in the world people would rank second graders is a topic for another day). Thing is, Seth is really, really good, and he sometimes practices wearing these homemade — you guessed it — goggles. They’re not normal goggles, because the lower half of the lenses is painted black. When Seth wears them during his drills, he can’t see anything at his feet.

The goggles increase his feel for the ball, his vision, his touch. Essentially, they nudge him to the sweet spot on the edge of his ability and put the focus on perhaps the most important skill a young player has to develop — controlling the ball on auto-pilot while focusing his attention on the game.

Jen is absolutely right to love the goggles, because they’re genius. In a world where people pay big money for lessons and high-tech equipment, a homemade gadget like this is skill-development gold. Which got us thinking about other gadgets.

Such as the Hershey’s Kiss, used by young violinists. This gets placed in on the body of the violin as they play. If you lose proper position, the violin tilts and the kiss falls. Keep form, and you earn a treat.

Or the yogurt lids — a hitting-improvement gadget pioneered by the late legendary baseball coach Marvin “Towny” Townsend of Tidewater Little League in Virginia Beach, VA. The yogurt lids are used in the place of balls; the “pitcher” stands a few feet away and flips the lids at the waiting batter frisbee-style; they have to hit a small, curving, speeding object. Because they’re plastic lids, you can have batting practice indoors, in a tiny space, and make a lot more swings to boot.

These kinds of gadgets — inexpensive, simple, innovative — can have more effect on learning than a raft of fancy theories or classes. I also like them because of the larger message: good practice methods aren’t something that’s handed down from on high — they’re something you invent, figure out with what’s at hand, or borrow from others.

So the question is, what’s your gadget?

PS — big thanks to reader Angel Sanz for pointing this out:

Tip: When to Think (and When Not To)

Readers of this blog know that we’re hu-uuuge fans of stealing — by which I mean the kind of stealing where you shamelessly pickpocket good ideas from one line of work (sports, music, business, whatever) and put them to use in another. Here’s one, which I especially like. It’s stolen from Annika Sorenstam, the golfer, but it could apply to pretty much anybody.

Here it is: Draw an imaginary line that separates your practice space from your performance space. When you’re inside the Practice Zone, your brain is fully switched on. You’re thinking, strategizing, planning. But when you step across the line into the Performance Zone, you click off your mind and just play.

Here’s how Sandy Williams, a reader who recently attended one of Sorenstam’s camps, describes her using it:

Essentially she drew an imaginary line about a yard behind the ball (think of the back line of a batters box).  She deemed the area behind the line as the ‘thinking’ zone and the area in front of the line as the ‘play” zone.  In the thinking zone, she would get info from her caddy and think hard about the wind, the aim, which club, which shot, visualization, etc.  Then once she had figured out what she wanted to she crossed the line into the ‘play’ zone, she said she turned her mind off and hit the shot (or ‘played’ like she was a little kid) like she had done millions of times before.

There’s plenty of brain science that supports this method (MRI scans show that the more skilled an athlete is, the less they’re thinking). And of course we know that top performance happens when we relax and go on autopilot, letting our unconscious brain do its magic. But I like it because this Practice/Play Zone idea could be applied to lots of stuff beyond sports. Music, writing, trading stocks, chess, you name it. We all have a zone where we build, and then a zone where we relax and show what we’ve built.

I also like it because it shows the real paradox at the heart of improvement. During practice, thinking and planning are your friends. During performance, however, thinking and planning are your enemies. You can’t avoid this paradox; you need to build a routine that embraces both sides. You essentially have two brains, the conscious and unconscious; so the best way to improve is to give one zone to each.

PS — Thanks to Sandy Williams and the always-enlightening Finn Gunderson, director of alpine education for the U.S. Ski Association and director of sports education at YSC Sports, for passing this one along.

PPS — What other strategies have you come across that address the practice/performance issue?

A Word of Coaching Advice: Talk Less, Matter More

Take one second and think about the best teacher, coach, or mentor you ever had.

Now come up with one memory of them, fast.

(Got it?)

What’s your memory? Is it something your coach/teacher/mentor said? Something they did?

Perhaps what you remembered wasn’t anything particular they said or did, but just their face — specifically their eyes, and how those eyes looked at you — or, rather, looked into you. Which is to say: the lasting impact of our teachers might not be contained in their words, but in the connections they form with us.

When you look around today, a lot of coaches and teachers and bosses seem to be doing everything but connecting.  Go to a soccer game, for instance, and you tend to see  coaches on the sideline doing a lot of talking (shouting out mid-game advice, orchestrating the action), but not a lot of connecting. Certain CEOs and managers are similar, though perform do their sideline orchestrating via email. But is this wise? Is it useful?

I recently met a terrific soccer coach by the name of Iain Munro, who coaches at YSC Sports Academy in Philadelphia (a burgeoning soccer hotbed in its own right). Munro, who’s in his sixties, played and coached at the top level in England and his native Scotland (working with, among others, Alex Ferguson and Jock Stein). I put the question to Munro this way: if the average coach says 100 words to his players, how many words should a master coach say?

Munro looked into my eyes; he let me know he really heard the question and was giving it due consideration. He placed a friendly hand on my shoulder, and I got an ineffable feeling that I was about to hear something important. Then I did.

“Ten words,” he said. “Fewer, if possible.”

The truth is, great coaches and teachers don’t spend their time talking. They spend most of their time watching and listening. And when they communicate, they don’t just start talking. First they connect on an emotional level, to one individual at a time. They deliver concise, useful information, and they make that information stick. Kind of like Munro did when he communicated with me.

So with that in mind I’d like to offer the following checklist; a filter to use before you start talking.

  • 1. Are you connected? Do you have the person’s complete and undivided attention?
  • 2. Do you know — deeply understand — where that person is in their development right now, and what the next step is?
  • 3. Can you, in five seconds or less, deliver a clear, memorable piece of useful information to help them take that step?

Watch Munro work with his soccer teams and you’ll see him sidle up to a player during a drill, without interrupting the larger flow. He puts the hand on their shoulder, connects to them, and delivers a nugget of helpful information. Then he steps away, allowing the player to take that nugget and start applying it.

Munro’s players, of course, will remember him for the rest of their lives. Not because he makes them better (which he does) or because he’s so entertaining (which he is, too) but for the same reason you remember your greatest coach: because he’s not about himself, he’s really about the people he’s trying to help.

Genes are Overrated

Most everybody can roll their tongue in a tube. But have you ever tried the cloverleaf? It’s hard. Super hard, in fact. When you first try it, you flounder around and can’t even come close.

Back when I was in fifth grade and again when I was in college biology class, my teachers informed me that tongue-rolling, like so many other talents, is genetic. They said around 80 percent of people have the gene to roll their tongues in a tube shape. A far smaller percentage — a genetically chosen few — could fold their tongues into the rare cloverleaf.

But a funny thing happened the other day. I was driving my daughter Katie to school and she stuck out her tongue at me and said, “Look! I can do it!”

I look over, and sure enough, she’s folded her tongue into a cloverleaf shape. It’s kinda freaky, but kinda cool too.

I’m not saying our family is weird or anything, but Katie is officially the third Coyle kid to be able to perform this feat. Also, I’m told that several of their friends can do it, too. So what’s up with all these cloverleaf experts? It must be the genes, right?

Thinking about this got me thinking about when I was in 8th grade. One day a new kid arrived in school. His name was Bob Audette, and he had just moved to Anchorage  from far-off New York. To us, he might’ve moved from the moon. Bob Audette was different from anybody any of us kids had ever met. Bob Audette wore cooler clothes than we did. Bob Audette spoke in a thick accent that sounded exactly like Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back Kotter.”  Bob Audette called the water fountain “the bubbler.” Coolest of all, Bob Audette carried a basketball everywhere he went, and he would sometimes flip the ball into the air and spin it on his finger with supreme Vinnie Barbarino casualness, the ball revolving there while he chatted up the girls in the hallway. It was magic.

This had a strange effect on me. After watching Bob Audette for a few days, I found myself taking a basketball and trying to spin it on my finger. I didn’t play basketball — this skill was completely useless — but for whatever reason I got obsessed, spending hours in my basement spinning this ball. Of course, I was terrible at it for a long time. But then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t terrible. In fact, I could do it as well as Bob Audette. (On all other fronts, I remained a lot closer to Horshack than Vinnie Barbarino, but hey, it was something.)

I asked my daughters about the cloverleaf trick, and they reminded me who had started this whole thing: it had been Mitchell Black, from Brooklyn. Mitchell, 11, had visited us in Alaska a few years ago with his parents. He was a city kid, smart and funny and personable, and he’d shown us his trick. Our girls had stared in amazement. They started trying it, mimicking him, competing with each other. Next thing you know, a whole bloom of cloverleaves has started.

Genes are so overrated.

(And the power of Mitchell Black and Bob Audette is so underrated.)