Written by Altis Performance Director and Sprint Coach – Stuart McMillan, this week’s blog-post features an eye-opening examination into the pre-requisites involved in operating within a team coaching environment, and the consequent merits of forging such a bond.
“I’ve never done anything solo — except take tests.”
– Bill Gates
Chapter 1 of Michael Eisner’s book Working Together is sub-titled ‘Where I learned 1+1=3 (if not much more)’. If you ignore the irony in this statement from a man best-known for his narcissism (evident on the very cover of this book – as his co-author’s name is a quarter the size of his own!) There is much wisdom in it … as it relates to how creativity and effectiveness can increase beyond the sum of parts when rooted in a productive partnership.
Unfortunately, the sub-title of the first chapter of this book is pretty much where the wisdom waned – but it does lead me into the subject for this post: how working in coaching partnerships – or teams – can be more effective than working alone, and the potential pitfalls to watch out for.
I really feel that one of the major reasons we have thus far been successful at Altis is that we have actively created a respectful, integrated, and effective team of coaches – all working together towards one common goal.
Track & Field coaching is normally seen as a solo endeavor. Yes – we may have mentors, and colleagues we discuss ideas with – but rarely do we actually come together, and plan, implement, and coach as a team. It is very clear, however, that productive partnerships – and working in effective teams – have been a major reason for the success of most businesses and corporations. The interaction between partners, or team members – and the varying ways in which this aids creativity and productivity – is crucial to successful organizations. Eisner posits that every iconic business leader has or had someone else behind the curtain – a partner.
“Productive partnerships – and working in effective teams – have been a major reason for the success of most businesses and corporations.”
Coaching groups are the norm in team sports: most NFL teams have over 20 coaches, European soccer clubs have large coaching teams, as do all collegiate sports in the United States. So why not Track & Field? Sure – there are different event-group coaches – but how often do they truly work together? Sit down and discuss coaching philosophies? Programming? And coach together on the track?
In team sports, even the lowest man on the coaching totem pole normally has a specific objective that he or she is responsible for. This autonomy and purpose helps to drive their motivation – as long as their specific objective is met, the overall success of the team will not effect the ego of the team-sport coach. This is much more challenging in individual sports – and why integrated support teams have always proven to be so tricky.
I have always been an active proponent of an integrated team. But rarely have I seen it work in practice. Usually, what we experience is multi-related ‘integration’; and integration – by definition – requires inter-related connectivity. Not only members of the team knowing what each other is up to, but often actually working together on each other’s projects. The most successful team I have been a part of was our small unit of coaches, therapists, nutritionists, doctors, and sports scientists in London with UK Athletics. There was an active attempt to not only work together – but to understand what each other’s role and function on the team was. No single member of the team felt more or less responsible for an athlete’s failure or success than any other member.
And it is this model that has served as our inspiration at Altis. In fact, we have taken it even further – each coach is not only part of a team of coaches, but they also have their own partner-coach. I co-coach with Andreas Behm. Chidi Enyia and Dustin Imdieke are together responsible for the semi-professional sprinters. And Dan Pfaff and Kyle Hierholzer work together with the jumpers and multi-eventers.
Realizing the value of a great partnership
I wrote about this on my personal blog a couple of years ago. It was with some sense of trepidation that I began this coaching partnership at Altis. I’m a bit of a loner – and had no idea how I would react to a full-time coaching confidant. Luckily, my partner in this endeavor is Andreas.
Andreas is totally secure within himself – he knows what his strengths are, and just as importantly – he knows what his weaknesses are – and he is very comfortable in this. He’s very confident – but virtually free of ego. He’s way smarter than me. And he’s a hell of a nice guy.
I’ve enjoyed every minute of the last two years working with Andreas. In my 23rd year of professional coaching, I can honestly say that I am as excited about coming to the track each day as I was a decade ago.
I’m doing the best coaching of my career.
I’m learning the most.
I’m the most comfortable in my programming.
And most of this is due to Andreas Behm.
So in this week’s blog-post, I will share some things I have learned over the last couple of years at Altis with my co-coaching role, some thoughts I have stolen from Eisner’s book, and some recommendations for others.
10 Reasons why you should form a coaching partnership or team
1. Different roles
Eisner wrote how he and Wells would constantly switch roles and work to question and support each other in different ways. In Chapter 2, he details the relationship of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, who had very different styles towards thinking of new opportunities. One man’s weakness was the other’s strength, and vice versa. This duality served to bring the best out of both partners, and improve the weaknesses of each of them. Munger was a skeptic – always looking for why a deal would not work – while Buffet was the eternal optimist – forever trying to convince his partner to say yes. And while they both had very different styles of thinking, the respect and trust they had in each other allowed the partnership to flourish.
Andreas has a ton of experience coaching elite sprinters and hurdlers. While I have been coaching for longer than he, much of my experience has been based in S&C and therapy. In the two years we have spent together, I have learned a ton more about mechanics of sprinting, and practice set-up and flow. Andreas has become more adept at S&C, therapy integration, and programming.
A quality partnership allows you to better recognize your own weaknesses, and draw upon your partner’s strengths.
2. Same roles
In Chapter 8, Eisner details the partnership between chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. This pair of famous chefs proves that sometimes you can get away with more than one cook in the kitchen. When they opened up their own restaurant, they decided to work on every aspect of its operation together – with no separation of duties whatsoever. Working together increased their trust in each other, and made each feel included.
At Altis, Andreas and I both employ similar and dissimilar roles. I know very little about hurdling. So Andreas does all the hurdle programming and coaching. I am much more comfortable with S&C programming, so I do all of that. In every other aspect, we share responsibility – totally. We plan together. We program together. And we coach together. This constant conversation helps both of us learn from each other – without it, my weaknesses would remain so; but with it, there is ample opportunity for growth for us both.
The bottom line when it comes to roles within a partnership is that there is no blue-print. There are many ways in which a partnership can work – the success depends entirely on the personalities in play and the situation at hand.
3. Different styles
Chapter 3 of Eisner’s book details first the partnership between Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and then between Gates and his wife Melinda. Gates refers to his relationship with Allen: “… you could call me the doer, and Paul the idea man. I’m more aggressive and crazily competitive, the front man in running the business day-to-day, while Paul keeps us out in front in research and development.” Their partnership was obviously a fruitful one, and even though Gates and Allen were very different personalities, they were able to come together and grow their business based on a love of the field and a common goal.
Andreas is friendly. He’s a very nice guy. And he’s young. And looks even younger. And although he has a lot of high-level coaching experience – which includes coaching the Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder Aries Merritt, his personality and stature make it more difficult for him to be authoritative. Conversely, I’m older, more cynical, and with varying
degrees of empathy, it is more difficult for me to relate to the concerns of a 22 year old than it is for Andreas. The mix between the two styles gives the team the best of both worlds – and unique options for athlete communication. We often joke about the ‘good cop – bad cop’ routine. And while I am often perceived as the ‘bad cop’, oftentimes this role has switched.
The combination of comparable and non-comparable styles – when present in a trusting, open, and respectful environment – can lead to some amazing results.
It is well-known that we learn more by teaching others. At Altis, we host a dozen or so coaches each month at our Apprentice Coach Program. Not only is this a great week for the visiting coaches, it is a fantastic opportunity for our coaches to share their experiences, and add additional permanence to their thoughts. Our coaching team also meets weekly to discuss different ideas, and programming issues that may come up. Beginning later this month, we will each be responsible for weekly 10 minute presentations to the staff on interesting videos and articles. We are always searching for ways in which we can actively continue our coaching development.
Andreas and I are constantly teaching each other. Not a day goes by where I do not learn something new – either from Andreas, or Dan, or any other member of our coaching team.
When we teach, it forces us to structure our thoughts more coherently.
5. Idea generation
Working with a partner requires a lot of discussion. It is no doubt more work. But much can come out of this. It encourages greater creativity. Greater strength of conviction, and forces each partner to really hash out their ideas thoroughly.
Andreas and I meet formally every 3 weeks for a programming discussion. We debrief the previous cycle. And lay plans for the upcoming cycle. This time is invaluable. I’m not a big believer in group brainstorming – but this is a time we can come to each other with questions we may have if necessary. Most are answered in our heads before the discussion, but often one of us brings a different perspective to the idea that would have not been seen without our coming together.
Another voice in the room can often intercept and prevent bad choices.
We all have times in our lives and in our work where we are prone to complacency. Being engaged in a high-performance team, or a supportive partnership, is the best antidote to the occasional bouts of laziness we all find ourselves falling into from time to time. Coaching Track & Field is a brand new challenge every single day – it’s what gets me most excited about heading to the track each morning – but even with a life-long passion for coaching, I have days when I am not as engaged as I should be. In the past, this could have led to a less than optimal
training experience for the athletes; now, however, with the added responsibility of a coaching partner, and a coaching team, motivation does not necessarily have to come from within.
Andreas and I normally ‘head to the fence’ once we both arrive to the track, and talk about the upcoming session. This is where we discuss session flow, plans, upcoming races, potential programming issues, etc. Nothing is out of bounds – and we always leave this brief chat raring
The support of the team environment helps coaches increase productivity and stay motivated.
The encouragement we often get from partners can help us move forward in ideas we may not be sure of – and push us further than if we were to go it alone. This encouragement gives us further confidence, and allows us to delve deeper into things.
“When we do everything by ourselves, we can easily become isolated. It can feel like we are alone in the fight.”
When we do everything by ourselves, we can easily become isolated. It can feel like we are alone in the fight. When a partner shares our foxhole, difficulties can be addressed with much more ease. It is reassuring when another shares our idea.
The primary benefit of working in teams is that it is more efficient than working alone. Because
teams have many contributors, they complete tasks in less time – and when organized effectively, the end results are not only more efficient, but of higher quality.
Altis has grown exponentially in the last few years. In 2012, there were a dozen athletes.
In 2013, we had 25. In 2014-15, there are now over 70 full-time resident athletes. This massive
growth has forced the coaching staff to become very efficient with their responsibilities. We now
have a team of a dozen coaches – and there is obviously no way we could have grown to our current size, and maintained the quality of coaching we are known for if we were not operating
efficiently. Team-coaching allows for this. We all work very well together. We have daily team
debriefs. And more structured meetings each week or so. All of us are confident and comfortable coaching any of the training groups. Being the least versatile, usually I am with the short sprinters. Occasionally, however, I am with the 1/4 milers, or the hurdlers. We need to ensure that we are all on point – that the entire team knows what is going on with the session,
and with each athlete. This does not happen by accident.
Efficiency is not a passive process. Work at it.
We can sometimes spend so much time inside our own heads, that it is easy to lose context for things. It is simple to justify something internally – but by discussing the idea with someone
else, you have to really be sure of its value – of its context, and place in your coaching
I spend around 20 hours a week reading. I spend more than that just thinking. So a lot of time
in my own head. Without a conduit, I may risk going crazy. I spend most Sundays by myself –
reading, programming, replying to emails, etc. By Sunday night, I can literally feel myself craving human interaction. I almost feel drunk. I walk around in a daze – it’s not until I pick up the phone and speak to someone that I come around to reality.
Our ‘by the fence’ chats every morning not only serve as preparation for the day’s session, but
provide context for each of Andreas’ and my thoughts that have been brewing up inside of us for the majority of the weekend. I look forward – especially – to the Monday chat. No doubt, it is an important part of the process of keeping me sane!
The mind is a pretty cool place – but when it gets to be too much, it’s important to know how to take a break from it.
– Alice Walton
10. Sense of accomplishment
When we work collaboratively, there is a greater sense of accomplishment than if we had worked alone. We are humans first and foremost – and the human need for cooperation, collaboration, and community, supersedes almost every other requirement. Belonging to a group gives us a sense of identity.
Eisner concludes his book with some thoughts on happiness – and how it relates to working
partnerships. He said that in the end, what makes life truly worth living is sharing experiences
with other people:
…dig deeper, and you’ll find something else, something far more important, and by far the most compelling argument for working together.
My favorite Norwegian mobster slash Springsteen band member Steven Van Zandt said it well:
“Band members have a special bond. A great band is more than just some people working
together. It’s like a highly specialized army unit, or a winning sports team. A unique combination of elements that becomes stronger together than apart.”
Is a partnership for everyone?
At least not always.
It requires a large amount of trust, selflessness, teamwork, and collaboration. We are not
always in control of these traits at all stages of our lives, and envy and insecurity can
occasionally raise their great heads. I have worked in team-coaching environments previously – some successful, and others not so. In hindsight, I can point to a lack on my part of one of the above traits as to why the partnership did not succeed. I wasn’t ready for that particular
partnership. At that particular time.
First and foremost, partners need to like each other. Only when we get along personally is it
possible to set aside our egos.
Everyone needs someone else for balance – “otherwise, entitlement creeps in, stubbornness
metastasizes, balance is lost, and tripping, and finally falling occurs.”
Now go find yourself a coaching partner!
Two minds, two endurances, two personalities, tied to a common cause. Works.