Thursday, January 10, 2013

Must I Be An Extrovert To Be A Great Coach?

I once interviewed for a job where they voiced concern that I seemed to be too "low key" and might not be the enthusiastic motivator they felt their team needed.  It reminded me of a discussion in class while pursuing my PE degree that centered around the question "what makes a great coach?"  We made a list of traits that came to mind and then immediately got into stories about people who had no background or education in their sport who went on to great careers, and conversely, stories about people who were great athletes and had tremendous knowledge for whom coaching was not a great fit.  We can all point at these examples in our lives, I'm sure.

The conclusion?: It came down to personality more than any other factor.  My class, mostly full of former ball players, carried the same mindset as the administrators in that interview. They were looking for, or wanted to be, the gregarious, extroverted, take charge kind of guy that they envision makes a great coach.

This impressionable, aspiring coach walked out of that class with horns hanging low, discouraged with the thought of wasting time on a worthless degree, thinking that any charismatic doofus off the street could show up at the pool, read a couple of books, and coach circles around me.  "Am I really cut out for this?" was a question that took a long time for me to answer.  You see, on the scale of temperament from outgoing to inward, I score as a world class introvert.  In college, a four hour shift at Subway was more exhausting to me than a fifteen hour shift getting slammed in twelve foot seas.  Class discussions, presentations and even, at times, small talk were torture.  If I could have found a career working in a cave with no human interaction at all I would have jumped all over it.  It was difficult for me as an assistant coach to take charge of my own group for the first time.  Even now, after fourteen years as a head coach, I often feel as though I am constantly shielding my head from the flying debris and drama of the extrovert ruled world that spins out of control all around me.

Where I once tried to fake it to fit the mold, I have now come to terms with my natural tendencies.  Unfortunately, some mistake a quiet demeanor for lack of confidence, as though it is a type of weakness that needs to be cured. Team parents who aren't yet used to my style often act like I am doing their swimmers a disservice by not acting like a spunky cheerleader or a domineering yeller in practice and at meets, but I feel that would not be genuine and would actually stand in the way of creating the type of partnership I want to build with them as they mature. Also, often I see coaches who act like they have to be the loudest guy in the meeting, but as Chris so eloquently put it just a few weeks ago, being soft-spoken doesn't necessarily make one a pushover.

I am currently reading the book "Quiet" by Susan Cain.  In it she cites studies that show introverts, contrary to popular assumption, are often better leaders than their outgoing peers.  Introspection, attention to detail, a focus on the long-term ramifications of decisions, willingness to listen, and respect for the ideas of others can foster a type of leadership that makes groups better as a whole.  An introvert has less tendency to micro-manage, and more tendency to let employees take their projects and run with them. This can lead to a higher level of respect and pride in the work they do and can improve workplace morale as each contributor feels more valuable.  A quiet leader is often more adept at delegating jobs and helping everyone to get along better in the workplace.  Doesn't it make sense that this would work the same way with a group of athletes, other coaches, or the administration for your school or club?

As a matter of fact, the author even goes so far as to say that the Harvard Business School model of seeking and priming only the most extroverted students to become the world's leaders of finance may actually be damaging to the world economy.  Their assumption that to lead you must make quick decisions in the face of incomplete data and be sure to forcefully place your ideas at the front of the discussion often works against the greater good.  It is rare that the loudest guy in the room is the one with the best ideas, and often risks are taken with no one feeling they are in a position to question the alpha's in charge.  The book goes into great details about research on productivity, negotiation skills, management and American classroom and workplace structure that is often so deliberately organized to suit those who are outgoing that they can cripple productivity and learning for everyone.  It seems in America that, rather than helping people to maximize their innate skills, we try to force everyone to fit the imagined ideal even when we should know that it doesn't work.

Am I saying that my style is the best and everyone needs to stop pretending to be Mr. Exciting?  Not even close. There are still things I see in those high-energy coaches that I try to emulate. Am I saying that all coaches who always have their volume turned up to eleven are over-bearing jerks?  Haha.  Absolutely not.  I have on occasion been the loudest guy in the room, and sometimes I do let out a piercing yell when needed. What I am saying is that the things that make a great coach are not just sometimes hard to see, but they can also often be counter-intuitive to what you would normally look for. Every coach should stop to think about their their strengths and weaknesses and should take lessons from both sides of the spectrum.  Remember that your athletes will fall on different places on that spectrum as well, and getting to know them and what makes them tick as people is often the key to reaching them in a meaningful way.

I am much more comfortable with who I am as a coach than I was a decade ago, and I like to think that this post might help some quiet, young coaches out there to start seeing something they might perceive as a weakness can actually be a strength.  Because of my nature, when I do raise my voice it carries a little more weight, and I hope that the words of encouragement I speak will carry more influence as well.


  1. I'm a coaching "introvert" in a land of loud, boisterous, well (except I'm a female). I prefer sticking with my small team of 60 kids, where I take 10-12 kids to a meet and they sit close-ish by and I can get to know them. I also have my head buried in books half of the swim meet and I love the time I have to read...I'm usually reading something cool that I can apply to swimming and I start conversations with my athletes about it. Consequently, I see my swimmers imitating.... Instead of playing video games, they're reading books....which to me, is a lost art among our youth:)

    I can't stand the coach that walks up and down the deck screaming at their swimmers at a 6-lane pool; because what happens when you take them to that Christmas meet at Pitt and as I coach you can barely see to WATCH their swim, let alone scream at them to perform...or when you send them on the LSC bus and some other coach is coaching the whole LSC. How do they perform then?

    I've also found my introverted-ness actually HELPS me and the program. i'm patient and soft-spoken and encouraging. Swimmers from other teams sometimes come to my program because the word on the street is that I'm encouraging and positive and focus on the child, not the outcome of the meet. I get a lot of children that may have been lost from the sport with an extrovert coach because they would have been intimidated by on the balance between "normal" and "Special needs".

    Its taken 10 years but I'm finally comfortable in my own skin coaching the way I coach. I'm better one-on-one or in small groups, and I will tell people that; I focus better when its one person, and I can just worry about them and what they have to say.

    I guess, what it boils down to..I coach and treat my swimmers how I would want to be treated as an athlete.

  2. " I get a lot of children that may have been lost from the sport with an extrovert coach because they would have been intimidated by them"

    This doesn't sound like an extrovert so much as it is a overbearing, or even bullying coach. There are plenty of extroverts who care about the individual and are very encouraging, I employee two of them.

    A coach needs to temper their eagerness and be able to change their tone and demeanor. If an extrovert can't do that, they won't be an effective coach.

    I worked for a very demanding practice coach my first 8 months of coaching. High daily expectations and could come across as gruff. He never really called anyone out of the group unless it was a last ditch effort to get their attention. At meets, just about everything that came out of his mouth was positive, uplifting and future focused (what you need to do next time). The kids loved him. Kids are so exposed and vulnerable at meets, bad swims are magnified for many at a young age. He made it work.