The Best Kind of Coach

Peter Kaplan, 1954-2013

Every day, in every profession, we hear people celebrated as “great coaches.” And it’s mostly true. The worlds of sports, education, and business are brimming with legions of talented, remarkable coaches — perhaps more than at any other time in history.

But here’s the question: what does being a great coach really mean? Is it a flattering catchall, or is there a more useful way to understand the essence of what the best coaches do?

When you look deeper, I think great coaches come in three evolutionary types. You can think of them as three species, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

First, there are great coaches of behavior. These people tell you what to do, how to do it, and when to show up. They focus their energy on making sure things go as planned. You might think of these as the Daddy Coaches, old-school guys. You show up, they’ll provide the machine to make you better. Their key asset is their system, their process (Exhibit A: Nick Saban.)

The second type of great coach is one who deals in knowledge. They are focused on the information — what to learn, when, and what it means. They deal in the currency of ideas and techniques, and on making sure the right links are made at the right time. You might think of these as Teacher Coaches; they’re found more in quieter, individual pursuits. If behavioral coaches are about the what, knowledge coaches are about the how and the why.

But there’s a third type of great coach. A mysterious type who often go overlooked, because what they do doesn’t look like coaching. It looks more like magic. Because these people have the ability to alter someone’s destiny in the time it takes to eat lunch. They aren’t about the how or the why — they’re completely, utterly about the who. Their core skill is to see someone in a way that they don’t yet see themselves; to give their lives a larger narrative, sense of belief, a higher purpose.

You might call them a Soul Coach. And a perfect example in my profession would be Peter Kaplan, who died of cancer last week at 59.

You likely have never heard of Kaplan. He served as editor of several publications, most notably the New York Observer from 1994 to 2009. His real job, however, was hiring, mentoring, and serving as godfather to an entire generation of top journalists far too numerous to list here. To writers, he operated like a favorite uncle, constantly giving them targets to reach for, and nurturing the belief that they could do it. As one put it, Kaplan was Dumbledore, and NY journalism was his Hogwarts.

It’s instructive to see how he used his skills. As Doree Shafrir wrote, getting hired by Kaplan was “like getting tapped for one of the most thrilling secret societies in the world.”  In his New York magazine piece, The Wizard and the City, John Homans describes the scene:

[Kaplan’s] signature move was this: He’d escort his 24-year-old quarry into his office in the New York Observer’s townhouse, cock one of his groucho eyebrows behind his big round horn rims, pause, clear his throat, pause again, clear his throat, pause. Some more inarticulate noises. And then, if you were lucky: “Do you wanna be a star?”

What a come on! What young writer wouldn’t say yes to such an offer? And with that, Peter had implicated his prey in his own vast ambition, which made for a fantastic ride. Peter thought that journalism could change the world, and he mythologized himself by mythologizing everyone around him, imagining career trajectories and inflection points, allowing his people to believe preposterous things about themselves — which sometimes came true, partly because he believed in them himself…. He was prepared to find something in all people, from his dentist to the counterman at the Viand coffee shop. He was never a snob. And when you’d entertained him, said something he found smart or funny, brought him a tale of human foible, he let you know it with that big laugh. So entertaining him became part of the mission.

When we think of the greatest coaches, I think it’s good to remember the Kaplans. Not the ones with the information or the system, but the ones who had the simple human ability to connect, to communicate their belief in us, and who worked to make that belief come true. Information gets replaced; systems grow outdated. But the nice thing about inspiration is that it leads to other things. It never really ends.

As Phil Weiss wrote:

[Kaplan] taught me how to be a writer. Even in the hospital in his robe with tubes in him, he wanted to nurture me. That was the reveal in Peter’s life: He loved the role of nurturing people’s gifts. All his creativity and glamour and imagination he poured into others, and yes, that gave him power. A lot of the celebration of Peter now is a reflection of that power; and the widespread grief includes many people like me, people who lost someone who so believed in them that he got them to believe in themselves, now what will we do? That’s the way we’ll honor his spirit, to live up to what he thought of us, to show him, tapping his cigar in the clouds, that he wasn’t wrong.