Why a coach should be ambiguous

From Jeff:

Remember how Mr. Miyagi taught The Karate Kid how to fight?  Wax on/Wax off. Paint the fence. Don’t forget to breathe. A coach is the coach because he knows what the student needs to do to advance. A big problem for coaches is that the most precocious students also (naturally) think they know what they need to learn.

If Mr. Miyagi told Daniel that he needed endless repetition of certain specific hand movements to learn karate, Daniel would have rebelled and demanded to learn more and advance more quickly. Mr. Miyagi used ambiguity to evade conflict.

An artist with natural gift for expression needs to learn convention. But she may disagree with the teacher about how much time should be spent learning convention. If the teacher simply gives her exercises to do without explanation her decision to comply will be on the basis of an overall judgment of whether this teacher, on average, knows best. To instead say “You must learn conventions, here are some exercises for that” runs the risk that the student moderates the exercises in line with her own judgment about the importance of convention.


As a footnote, as I wrote on Jeff's blog, I have always wondered what role (if any) a basketball o soccer coach plays when his players are on the court. It would be cool to run a experiment in which players are randomly assigned to teams, but in which only one-half the teams have coaches

Would the non-team coaches have a coach determining lineups and leading training, and just not appearing during the game? Or would the coach have no role whatsoever on half the teams?

Excellent point. Perhaps the experiment should consist of three sets of teams: 1. teams with traditional coaches, 2. teams with "semi-coaches" for training and selection of line-ups, but with no coaches during the actual games, and 3. teams with no coaches at all

I've coached youth soccer in a rec league that serves as a decent natural experiment for what you want. Most of the kids are assigned randomly to teams and coaches vary widely. Some coaches have no soccer or coaching experience. Some have soccer playing experience and no coaching and others have years of experience with each.

Over the course of three seasons for an age group that spans two grade levels, here are some of my observations.

- Teams with coaches with no experience don't fare well. The main problem I see here is simple, the players don't know what to do in a game. The coach spent too much time on dribbling drills and not enough time scrimmaging so the kids could learn the rules and what to do in common situations.

- When you have match-ups between the other two groups of coaches, then the advantage tends to go to the team that has the most kids who are close to the top-end of the age bracket AND have prior experience with soccer. The speed and coordination of the older kids help and if they have more experience, they won't make as many simple errors.

You should consider, though, that the coaches have different goals. Some are just giving their kids a trial of the sport and teach them good sportsmanship, some want to develop their team over 2-3 seasons so they can understand the game and have fun. These guys don't get too wrapped up in the score. Others want to win.

But, there are so many factors in coaching beyond teaching skills and the game and there are a lot of trade-offs with how you decide to go with each of these.

For example, positioning the kids to their strengths helps win games, but doesn't give them a chance to develop skills beyond their strengths and may cause them to become bored and reduce their engagement.

From my experience, I'd say there a lot of factors that go into the team's success on the field, but coaches matter. Good topic though.

For a long time, cricket has been dealing with the coaching issue. The dominance of the West Indies in the 70s and 80s was largely attributed lots of natural talent uninhibited by formal training. At the same time, the English of the same period were thought to be hamstrung by too much coaching. The ascendency of the Australians in the 90s was attributed to a combination of natural talent, lots of coaching, the mental disintegration of opponents, computer-driven analysis, and exercise and diet regimes tailored to individual players. (The last three factors are actually part of the coach's job.)

In addition to the right type of coaching for the right person (like being in the right place at the right time), the most important factor in modern sports is a high IQ. The demise of the West Indies can be traced to the disintegration of public school systems across the region. No matter how talented you are, if you do not have basic computer skills and you did not develop discipline in high school, coaching will not matter.

The best contact sports are not when we match people of similar physical skills, but when we match people with similar IQs against each other.

Cricket is a contact sport?

You need the right contacts to get in.....

I'd agree with the same IQ thesis for Boxing.

Concussion damage is a great IQ leveler.

This seems wrong. Perhaps quaint, but wrong. Jiu-jitsu schools and boxing schools, for example, drill specific motions over and over again. Boxers always go back to drilling the 1-2 no matter how experienced they are. The coach is not ambiguous, the coach is extremely specific: feet go here, back is positioned like so, hands move this way and not that. The post generalizes from a fictional example and in a space where the most effective performers present copious amounts of evidence to the contrary.

this is also the case with the military.

Yes, but the experienced boxers who go back to practicing the 1-2 are experienced enough to know that the fundamentals are key. It is the beginner and sophmore who doesn't yet get this the author is referring to.

Still, it makes no sense that beginners will not take instruction from their coach concerning beneficial practices, but they will obediently perform tasks that have no obvious connection to their development.

I think the argument is more that it's better not to try to 'convince' the beginning of exactly what the benefit of a certain exercise should be. Once you say, "you need to do this in order to learn Y", it opens up arguments about how best to learn Y and whether Y is really worth learning. So if it's true that the coach really knows best, better to provide less information about the rationale.

If that's NOT true, well...

I would love to hear what Robin Hanson says about this.

I'd wager a guess it would be something along the lines of "Coaching isn't about learning".

But more seriously, this point is one of the reasons so many coaches are historically accomplished figures in their sport. It allows them to suppress the coachee's rebellion with a "Yes I do know better because I won 30 years ago in the field" without having to do the harder task of explaining the judgment (not to mention that subtle explanations might be harder to process for a coachee who is a physically precocious teenage lunkhead high on testosterone and adrenaline).

Usually it's the opposite. The greatest players tend to be terrible coaches (e.g. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, etc.) The best coaches (e.g. Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers) tend to be bench guys or decent to marginal starters that had to work at the game and learn it as a player. The greats have otherworldly physical gifts and competitive fire that can't be taught. Jordan would tear his players to shreds as a coach for not being as good as him and having the same crazy desire. Guys like Phil and Doc know what it's like to work at it just to make the team and the little things that need to be done.

It seems plausible, at least for young naive athletes. But goes badly wrong in colleges, when students presume that because the school offers certain majors there must be decent jobs you can get with them. If they offered more explicit justifications for classes students might make fewer errors of this sort.

One thing that I've found interesting that distinguishes the big three American team sports (football, basketball and baseball) from the big three British Commonwealth team sports (soccer, rugby and cricket) is the involvement of coaches during games.

The American conception of a coach is someone intensely involved in the game itself: baseball coaches wear team uniforms and direct plays; basketball coaches stand on the sidelines and take players in and out, argue with refs and jump in at time outs; football coaches are totally running the show. The British conception is very different -- other than at half-time in soccer and rugby (and in innings/lunch/tea breaks in cricket), the coach is basically out of the game (this has changed a little with more liberal substitution rules in rugby, but still generally holds). The coach's main job is managing team training and individual players between games. By contrast, the role of team captain is much more important in the British games. Captain of the cricket team sets the field, says who's bowling and gets to vary the batting order. In rugby and soccer, it's the captain who interacts with the ref, not the coach.

Anyone have thoughts on why that is?

All 3 American sports have rules which allow coach involvement. American football has specific plays which now are largely brought in from the sideline. Basketball has a bunch of time-outs that are hoarded until the end in close games so the coach can draw up the play. The coach is close enough to hear. Both allow a lot of substitution. Baseball is nothing but a series of isolated events (around each pitch), but the catcher is likely to be the most involved (which is likely why catchers are the most likely to become managers later). If there are set pieces, then having someone think about the set pieces (who has time to do so) will pay off.

In contrast soccer (real football) has limited substitution and time-outs, and a large field where even shouting doesn't help that much. The game flows back and forth without many set pieces (free, penalty and corner kicks the exception. Are coaches more involved in these? American youth soccer coaches are, but this may not be typical.)

I agree that soccer and rugby, since they are continuous sports with minimal stoppages and not broken up into distinct plays, can't really benefit from an external person directing the game (unlike the American three). But that explanation doesn't really work for cricket: like baseball, cricket is just a (very) long series of inidividual plays (each delivery) -- yet there's no on-field role for coaches in cricket.

American sports didn't always have so much coach involvement. Basketball coaches weren't even allowed to talk to the teams during timeouts until about 1950, and and coaching during play wasn't made legal until about 1960. It was only in the 60's and 70's that it became common for football coaches to call the plays instead of the quarterback.

In basketball, at least, I think the main reason for rules favoring more coach involvement was simply that the rules were determined by committees made up largely of coaches.

Some days I wish competitive sport would disappear just so the the sports metaphors about learning would disappear. Of course they wouldn't, but enough already. Making a life demands apt self-direction, apt coaching is way down the list.

First, since no one else found it absurd, how can someone seriously find a lesson in a fictional movie? I bet karate fighters spend most of their time practicing karate moves (See Bruce Lee).

Take, for example, chess training. Coaches regularly recommend extremely concrete examples. To wit, 'do these 5000 tactical puzzles over the next two weeks, then do them again.'; 'go over these master level games.'; 'Find the best continuation in these 1000 positions without moving the pieces.'; 'review and annotate all your games after you play them.' Most casual players would balk with this kind of advice because it is really hard work and consumes a lot of time. So maybe they take solace in the advice of Mr. Miyagi's mumbo jumbo.

Getting good at stuff take lots of practice at the very thing in which you want to be good, and sometimes it isn't very much fun.

Sticking with the fictional characters, an opposing view (to the Miyagi technique) can be found in Major League: Back to the Minors.

The precocious hitter, Downtown Anderson, is sailing through the minor leagues. He gets called to the big team by the guy who was the star QB at Adams College. Mr. Downtown fails miserably with the big team because he's a pull hitter and the pitchers keep throwing him outside pitches. He returns to the minors, realizing that he's not as good as he thought he was. The coach of the minor league team, the former star QB of the Texas State University's Fightin' Armadillos, tells him there is a solution to his problem ... sweat, sweat, and more sweat.

Once the precocious pupil fails at the task, they might head back to the coach/trainer for a little advice.

Now, I give Miyagi credit because he found a way to get Daniel to repeat the motions a whole bunch of times while also getting his house and fence painted, his cars washed and waxed, and his floors sanded. Imagine the profit he could make if he turned that into a business ... money from the parents of the kids for the karate training and money from the homeowners for all the work done around the house.

How any movie with a training montage ruined the modern world:


My friend used to be a ski/snowboarding instructor and told me he tried to have three very different ways to explain each concept he was trying to teach. I experienced this first hand when his initial attempt to improve my heel to toe turn was unsuccessful and he handed me a snowball and told me to hold in in front of me when on my toe side and behind me on my heel side. It shifted my weight properly and worked like a charm and he explained it was his kids' method of teaching, but it worked for kinesthetic learners in general.

Anyway, I'd say the mark of a good coach is someone who is able to alter their technique to best fit their student.

It's about building trust and teamwork.

The coach wants, needs, and deserves player trust because what is best for the individual is not necessarily best for the team. The coach tests the patience and respect of the student by seeing how instructions will be followed in the absence of clarifying information.

The good teacher later explains or the student discovers on his own why the teacher had him do what he did. When the student realizes that his blind faith has been rewarded, he learns to trust the teacher and, as a byproduct, himself and his training.

Of course this relationship can and has been abused. The coach's judgment isn't always correct. And the student can often be right. When these errors happen, it seldom makes history.

The coach is still the coach, and as a manager and leader, his judgment is presumed better than the players. At the very least, he is doing what he is paid to do and is responsible for the outcome. The student can go back to being chased and beaten by skeletons.

Doesn't it seem like, outside of the confines of a kids movie, endless repetition of a movement directly linked to the sport you're training (i.e., practicing free throws or jabbing the heavy bag) for would be less likely to provoke rebellion than endless repetition of an unrelated activity (painting a fence)? In my experience, Phil Jackson notwithstanding, players start questioning the credibility of the coach if he goes too far into zen hoodoo territory.

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