Finding your “perfect match” in a coach.
Alan Couzens, M.Sc. (Sports Science)
March 17th, 2017
OK, so you’re on the hunt for the best coach around. The coach with the “body like Arnold and a Denzel face” Oh wait, that was Salt ‘n Pepa. But the same principle applies. To quote a much better song - You want it all and you want it now!
Well, here is an important reminder: Coaches are human!
I know, right, surprising :-) Human - with the whole range of different personalities, strengths and weaknesses that you will find across any population sample.
The interesting (& kind of neat) thing about coaching as a profession, especially in modern times is that it is such a broad 'job' and it can mean very different things to different people. If we took a trip to Mountain View & chatted with the computer programmers typing code at Google’s head offices, I’ve a hunch certain personality types may occur at a disproportionate rate. Similarly, if we went down to the local gym and chatted with the aerobics instructors, another type might abound. But coaches do a lot of different stuff. Some tasks – like planning, are very cerebral, others – like running a squad workout, demand a mechanistic focus, others are very interpersonal, like talking with an athlete after a disappointing race & so we get all types represented.
While (in the interests of doing the best job that we possibly can for you!), we would love to be equally great at all of the above, they all demand very different attributes & they lead to the fundamental reality that different personality types will excel in different aspects of coaching. This makes it all the more important for you, the athlete, to have a clear idea of what you're looking for and what 'good coaching' means to you.
As you kick off your coach search, while many (especially new) coaches may want to pretend to be everything to every athlete, it is important to keep in mind that like any relationship, there will be some areas where our 'partners' exhibit strengths & others that might, well, drive us a little cuckoo. Getting a bit of a sense of what we're specifically looking for in a 'partner' so that we can be sure that the strengths they bring to the table dwarf any of the minor irritants that are also 'a part of the package' before going through with the 'commitment ceremony' is a very worthwhile task. A task that can prevent a lot of future frustration and even heartache. So how do we begin to identify some of these particular strengths & weaknesses among the different types?
One way of defining the differences in personality type and resultant approach/'skill mix' that you might see among the different coaching types is to look at how you match up on a personality level - ala 'E-harmony' :-) While they use a bunch of expensive, secret, proprietary algorithms to make their matches, there are actually some really good, scientifically validated ways to define & compare personality types. Comparing what you're looking for against the typical attributes seen in each type can help you make a better decision in your coach search. One of these inventories that has a lot of research support is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. (MBTI)
The MBTI defines personality types on 4 scales:
Introversion (I) < ---- > Extroversion (E )
Intuitive (N) < --- > Sensate (S)
Thinking (T) < --- > Feeling (F)
Perceiving (P) < --- > Judging (J)
The first scale refers to our baseline stimulation and where we get energy from. Introverts, on the whole, find social situations drain their energy & need a good deal of time alone to recharge the batteries, while extroverts get their energy from the social world around them & find that too much alone time drives them a little crazy.
The second N/S scale refers to how we interact with our world. Intuitive types tend to see the world in terms of what could be - goals, plans, dreams, possibilities, while sensates are much more 'real world' focused, living more in the here and now.
Thinking v Feeling refers to how we make the majority of our decisions – via the data, option-weighing & pro's & cons lists of rational thought (T) or the less definable ‘gut feel’ (F)
And, finally, perceiving v judging refers to our open-ness to new perspectives/thoughts/ideas vs desiring a concrete conclusion where ‘everything is fixed & decided’.
Unsurprisingly, the different mixes of the above can make for very different coaches (& very different athletes!) Finding the right mix of both can mean the difference between a very frustrating experience on both ends vs pure magic. In my 20 years of coaching, I’ve certainly experienced both of those extremes!
Surprisingly, perhaps, in my experience, the ‘magic’ of a perfect match isn’t often found in matching your exact type. In fact those mixes can often result in a lot of head-butting. Rather, the really great relationships occur when the coach and athlete are complementary – not complimentary where you say nice things about each other, although that often helps too :-), complEmentary – where the areas of weakness of the athlete are areas of strength of the coach and vice versa. And, more than that, where the ‘weaknesses’ of the other side of the equation are accepted (rather than serving as a perpetual source of irritation) because they pale in comparison to the power of the complementary strengths.
Don’t believe the pitch - we all have strengths & weaknesses! All of us coaches and, yes, all of you athletes. Actually, let’s move beyond calling them strengths and weaknesses – we all have differences in what makes us happy, what doesn’t and how we choose to spend our time on that basis. These factors will drastically affect what ‘coaching’ means to the personality type that is doing it. Some coaches hate planning. They hate desk time. Spreadsheets, power files and charts of the Annual Plan make their brain hurt. They are not happy as a coach unless they are shoulder to shoulder with their athletes. This obviously has pro’s and cons. Others are more distant. They love the puzzle of ‘number crunching’ and customizing training plans. They love figuring out the individual unique 'puzzle' that is each and every athlete. They love pulling all of these observations together to craft a customized 'master plan'. But... dealing with the uncontrollable variable that is the ‘touchy feely stuff’ of human emotions makes their brain hurt! Again, pros and cons to both. Of course, as the athlete, you want both: A truly customized plan thought out at the highest level and you want someone there with you, by your side, motivating you & cheering you on every step of the way. You want 'Supercoach!' :-) Well, they don't exist (remember the human thing? :-), so let’s come back to the real world & go with something much better than finding superman – finding a coach with strengths in the areas that you are weak to build a super TEAM!
The most productive and successful relationships come when we’re intently aware of both the strengths and weaknesses of all members on the team. So, let’s look at that in a little more depth, what strengths and weaknesses can we expect from the various personality types?
While there are 16 permutations of the above 4 scales, I’ll focus on 4 of the corners here just to give a bit of insight on the differences that you can expect across the MBTI spectrum in the context of coaching.
INTP ('The Scientist'/'The Architect')
I know this type intimately :-) The INTP is a master planner. They love pulling apart the physiological puzzle that is the individual athlete and using that information to derive a master plan that offers that athlete the (statistically :-) highest probability of reaching their goals. They often come from sports science backgrounds & likely have degrees & academic experience in the field.
They are often shy, reserved and tend to see interactions without information exchange as time away from critical thinking time. Don’t expect this type to initiate large amounts of interaction or be a bundle of emotional support. Critical thinking is a way of life and that extends to people. That said, if you have specific questions that you want honest, factual, data backed answers to, or you want to exchange important information/data, they welcome this sort of dialogue with a passion!
Go with an architect/analyst if you’re self motivated & determined (& willing to download every workout :-) but planning & analysis isn’t your strong suit. (maybe you ride with a power meter but don’t know how to really use that information to build a better plan). Or, if you value the informational context that a full time coach (with a data obsession) brings to the table. Or, if you you have a 9-5 and a family & you simply don’t have time to give planning and analysis the attention it deserves!
ESFJ ('The Cheerleader'/'The Caregiver')
The INTP's polar opposite, the Cheerleader is charismatic and likeable and everyone wants to be around them – remember high school? Well almost everyone wants to be around them except for those INTP’s above – remember high school? ;-) As true 'people people', these personality types abound in the coaching world. They build squads, they have followers, they love the team aspect of building a big social network of motivated athletes. Enthusiasm is always high and relentless positivity abounds.
These coaches, however, aren’t big fans of being away from the excitement. The grind of session planning doesn't compare to the fun of watching the session unfold & so, sometimes it gets skipped or minimized. I’ve worked with this types in both my time as a personal trainer and as a swim coach – they rock up to a session and wing it, and you know what? Everyone has a great time. Everyone loves their workouts and loves them, even if the workouts aren't really part of a bigger picture plan that leads an athlete to a specific goal.
Go with an ESFJ, if coaching to you is about having a motivator and a cheerleader in your corner & you want the journey to be FUN. Avoid them if you are a more serious type expecting a detailed long term plan.
ENTJ ('The CEO'/'The Commander')
These are the no nonsense guys/gals. They are the doers. They are often ex-athletes who move from self-management to team management. They have a strength in seeing that plans are executed.
I’ve worked with a number of these types in all different capacities – as a coach, as an employee, as a business partner and as a colleague and I have to confess, I have a respect and a kinship for this type. We meet on a rational level. And the respect is often mutual. They appreciate well thought out plans although they are often a little too impatient and eager to get the plan into action to spend a lot of time doing the research themselves. They help ‘architects’ like myself to move things along, though may also have a tendency to act before fully thinking a plan through.
Another practical strength/weakness of this type in the coaching world is that they are literally the CEO, i.e. business interests can sometimes supersede coaching interests.
Go with a CEO if you need someone to keep you focused on the basics and on task. Avoid them if you are looking for a more detailed or customized plan or if you are easily offended by criticism. They will tell you how it is.
ISFP ('The Artist'/'The Adventurer')
You know that saying, ‘it’s all about the journey’? These coaches live that. They love the experience of coaching, they love the relationships & they celebrate the uniqueness of the individual. They have a quiet charisma to them and an ability to truly connect with the individual athlete.
These coaches follow their feel. They are not long term planners and, on a deep level, disdain the thought of being too ‘boxed in’ by plans. They are also emotional, sensitive souls who give and expect a certain respect and kindness in communication. They care deeply about the feelings of the athlete & will put a lot of time and thought into not hurting those feelings. They are equally prone to being hurt.
Go with an ISFP if you value the day to day process & the coaching relationship over a long term plan. If you want an open partner to ‘figure stuff out’ rather than to lay out explicit prescriptions and instructions.
While you can probably get a good sense of what category a prospective coach fits into just by talking with them, as someone who makes a life habit of 'doing my research' you could always go the extra mile and have yourself and your prospective coach complete the full MBTI or one of the shortened online versions. Here is one of my favorite - also a great site for delving deeper into the types outlined above, as well as the other 12 combinations... https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test Although I tried this once with an ENTJ that I was thinking of working with and got a predictable "you want me to do what? What am I going to get from that?" :-) Still, a very useful way to spend 12 minutes for both of you, in my book.
Even as a ridiculously extreme INTP (as my test results show :-) I am still human, and subject to my own biases. I hope that I’ve avoided those as much as possible in the above analysis. If you read various blogs and listen to various podcasts, you’ll hear all perspectives – ‘sitting at a desk isn’t coaching’, ‘old school coaching is a realm for luddites who won’t embrace the new way of doing things’, ‘coaching is all about people not technology” blah blah blah. These arguments kind of miss the point in my view. Coaching can be all of those things – acting as a consultant in a domain where your knowledge exceeds that of the athlete, acting as a positive role model and support system, acting as a motivator to give the proverbial kick up the butt, when an athlete has a hard time sticking to the task or acting as a plain old friend & companion on the journey. One is not ‘real coaching’ or better coaching than another. It all comes down to filling the unique needs of the particular athlete with the unique strengths of the coach.
When the fit is right, the magic of this synergy between strengths and weaknesses will be so great that any of the minor irritants of weakness on either side won’t even be a consideration. In fact, they may even bring a smile or 2 to the coach’s face as he/she reflects on all of the different types that go into making up this crazy mix we call the human race.
To borrow a phrase from an ENTJ I greatly respect (advice equally applicable to both athletes AND coaches when it comes to initiating a new relationship)…
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