Reflections on working with different athlete personality types.
Alan Couzens, M.Sc.(Sports Science)
Dec 4, 2018
Admittedly, this one is a bit out of left field. But, as you have probably figured by now, I am a guy with a love for trying to figure out complex systems and there is no more complex system than the human mind!
And, human psychology isn’t a new obsession for me. In fact, my first undergraduate degree was in Psychology before I put the human mind in the "too hard basket" and figured I’d move on to 'simpler' systems like the physiology of the human body :-) But, as time goes on and the years of working with the 'inner people inside the athletes' stacks up, I find myself coming back to some of those old questions – How are athletes unique in their high performance mindset? What motivates different types of athletes to devote a large part of their existence to this ‘different’ way of life? And, important to my own satisfaction, what types of athlete do I best 'click' with?
As the years go on, my experience in dealing with 'real world' physiology grows but, a 'happy side effect' is that I am fortunate to meet, learn from and interact with more and more different people. To the more extraverted among you, the significance of this may not be immediately apparent but, us introverts typically don’t get to experience the plethora of individual personalities that make up humanity – to our detriment! And, maybe, paradoxically, building & experiencing these relationships is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job as a (introverted) coach.
However, balancing these contradictions is not always easy, not always smooth and, yes, over time, it has become readily apparent that there are some personality types that I immediately ‘gel with’ and others that are a little more akin to an ‘oil and water’ relationship. So, that is the purpose of this post – simply to reflect on the dynamics I’ve observed in working with the different personality types and the ones that work well and don’t work well for my own type. In the hope that it will create more discussion from other coaches and athletes on the topic and we can begin to make the whole process of finding the 'right' coaching relationship a little less painful.
First and foremost, it may come as a surprise that elite endurance athletes cover the full gamut of the personality spectrum! Introverts/Extroverts, Intuitives/Sensors, Thinkers/Feelers, Judgers/Perceivers are all covered. In my experience, there is not really one personality type that sticks out as 'typical' of very high level athletes. Some may be slightly more represented e.g. Sensors('Doers') probably make up a higher proportion than Intuitives but overall there are a whole lot of different personality types that make up the sport.
Let's start with a quick review of the typology I’m using above – The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a way of classifying personality on four scales Introversion<->Extroversion, Intuition<->Sensing, Thinking<->Feeling, Judging<->Perceiving. An individual’s personality type is indicated by a 4 letter acronym indicating which of the above ends of each scale is dominant. (you can take a test to find your own type here) E.g. I am I.N.T.P. – Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving. Introverted meaning I get energy from time to myself. Intuitive meaning I think in terms of ideas and abstractions rather than concrete objects. Thinking – meaning, I prize logic over feeling (& attempt to make decisions on that basis) and Perceiving – meaning that I am open to new ideas and pretty OK with changing my mind (on the basis of new, very logical, evidence of course :-)
So, to the point of this post: What has been my experience in working with the different types? And which ones do I (the INTP) gel the best with?
I always seem to have good relationships with my extraverted ‘cousins’. We have a similar way of looking at the world and just as importantly, a similar view towards argument and disagreement. That is – that we don’t mind (OK, we kind of enjoy :-) a debate so long as it moves understanding forward! Furthermore the difference between Extraverted Thinking and Introverted Thinking is very complementary. Extraverted thinkers are broad, discriminatory thinkers. They 'know what's going on in the World' In contrast, I, the INTP, may have been asked "are you living under a rock?" on more than one occasion :-) INTP's tend to know a few things very deeply whereas ENTP's have a good working knowledge of a lot of subjects. This usually makes for a good relationship as the INTP has a deep understanding of the topic at hand and the ENTP is able to translate that in current, practical ways.
My previous relationships with the ENTJ type have been similarly good. Gordo is an ENTJ and I think is representative of a typical ENTJ<->INTP dynamic. For those “Walking Dead” aficionados out there, this is the Negan-Eugene relationship (The 'Boss-Man' and 'Mr. Smarty-Pants')
The ENTJ has the confidence and action bias to “get stuff done.” The INTP has the depth of knowledge to serve as a great resource in helping the ENTJ get stuff done. This complemantarity leads to a certain mutual respect. Additionally, providing the interests align, the INTP usually doesn’t mind a background role away from the demands and pressures of being the ‘head honcho’. Just as long as we feel respected and have time to be alone thinking, we’re happy :-)
Overall, when it comes to coach-athlete relationships, I typically have a harder time with ‘sensing’ (S) types. Sensing types are ‘real world’, ‘hands on’ ‘here and now’ types. While intuitives (like me) are ‘head in the clouds’, ‘what could be’, ‘what if we..’ planning types. While rationally, the planner and the doer should make for a good team, there tends to be an inherent “What is he on about?” misunderstanding between these 2 groups. I know that personally, I have a hard time when athletes don’t appear to be excited by goals and a vision of where they could be. Similarly, I’m sure there is frustration on the other side for a “pie in the sky” mindset when they just want to deal with the next race or the next training session etc… The notable exception to this, at least in my experience, would be the ESTP...
The ESTP has extraverted sensing as their dominant function, i.e. they are all about *experiencing* all that life has to offer and similar to the other E’s above, they tend to be OK with (and actually enjoy working with) an introverted-thinking type as kind of the ‘how-to’ guy to help to get them to these experiences. Inaki is an ESTP and our energy is among the best I’ve experienced for that reason. There is a complementarity & mutual respect between these 2 roles but, importantly, there is also a common ground in introverted thinking – which makes up my primary function and the ESTP’s secondary function, i.e. we both think similarly, the ESTP just spends more of their time and energy focused on doing & is a-OK with sharing the load with another thinker.
Apart from my own type, I probably know the ESTJ type best of all as my wife, Jen is ESTJ. And, (obviously :-), I have an immense respect for and compatibility with this type! In a coaching sense, in some ways, the ESTJ may be a coach’s dream type. They are inherently, responsible, dutiful, loyal and when they make a commitment to something they see it through and get it done. This is true whether we are talking about the grand scale or the micro scale. I worked with a Pro Triathlete who was ESTJ and one day he came to me and said “I’m still not really super excited about any goals this season.” This was in the midst of some pretty heavy, frankly impressive, training. Confused, I said to him “So, what is getting you out the door each day to get the training done?” His reply – “You wrote it on my program. If it's written, I do it!” ‘Nuff said! :-)
I have to start this by saying I have a truly deep connection with and kinship for the spirit of the ENFP. There is something deep in their 'being',maybe their courage and authentic curiosity, that speaks to my heart. I suspect this is because we share the function of extraverted intuition but they do it better! The relationship is similar to the INTP-ESTP, in that the ESTP’s secondary function (introverted thinking) is my primary function so there is a level of respect/admiration there. Similarly, in this case, my secondary function, Extraverted Intuition, is the ENFP’s primary function, i.e. a function that I have/know/value is better developed in ENFP’s so there is a deep INTP->ENFP respect for how they live their lives that sometimes may even verge on envy. ENFP’s primary function (Extraverted Intuition) drives them to ‘follow their heart’ in seeking out new experience. We INTP’s have the same drive from our heart one level down but our bias towards introverted thought tends to lead us to 'follow our head' & keep us tied closer to home (or the nearest library :-). But, I think it’s fair to say there is always a bit of a yearning for exploration, a bit of a wanderlust under the surface. For the ENFP, it’s not under the surface. It’s how they live!! However, in a coaching sense, having an athlete prone to ‘following their heart’ may not make for the most steady or reliable relationships. For all the reward in working with the ENFP (& there is a lot of reward in these relationships, however brief, for the INTP!), this is the greatest challenge.
ISFP’s primary function is a tough one not to have a deep respect for – Introverted Feeling is a drive to stay true to yourself – to place your values and morals at the utmost when it comes to decision-making and in the broader context of how your live your life. Every ISFP I have come across has been a truly *good* person, in the deepest sense of the word. However, in a coaching sense, this drive to perpetually “search yourself” for the 'right' thing to do, coupled with a tendency to focus on the ‘here and now’ can come across as a lack of commitment (to an 'N' type). Additionally, for my own type, Feeling is my inferior function, my least developed function, so talking ‘feelings’, at the best of times, can make me a little uncomfortable, a little out of my element. This is of course, my own weakness and something that I am trying to develop over time but it can make for a tough relationship between dominant thinker and dominant feeler.
INTP-ISTP matches have made for, without question, the toughest coach-athlete relationships in my experience. We’re only one letter apart but that is one big letter!
Starting with the good: We both meet 100% on our respect for autonomy, especially when it comes to autonomous thought. We are both typically anti-authority. I would say we are compatible in our inherent distrust for, our dislike for, heck, our distaste for(!), anyone who attempts to tell us and others what to do! This may sound weird coming from a coach but it is 100% true. I am not about telling others what to do. I am about employing what I've learned to work with athletes to achieve their goal. If we can't come to a point of agreement on the proposed route, we will probably part ways at that point but, importantly, I deeply respect & value their right to not agree with me and do something completely different. In my view, for the coach-athlete relationship to really 'work', the athlete has to agree 100% with and deeply 'buy into' the core tenets of the plan. We have to be 'on the same page' and have similar principles & believe the same things are (or at least might be) important. In my view the traditional autocratic 'because I'm the coach' relationship makes for a short-term, unpleasant relationship at best, for both parties (especially if one of the parties is INTP or ISTP!) Being told what to do can be an issue for both INTP's and ISTP's in any relationship/context (work, marriage etc) so, having that understanding, and not having that usual friction of ego/control is a very good starting point!
The primary issue that creates the problems in the INTP-ISTP pairing comes in that, while we have the same dominant function of introverted thinking & we spend a lot of time immersed in thinking things through, we feed those thoughts via our secondary function in very different ways. We are both very independent, introspective types. However, the INTP introspects on as much data as he can find from as many different sources as he can source. He looks to whittle this data down into trends and general rules/models that he can then test against future individuals to further refine etc etc. On the flipside, the ISTP reflects primarily on his own experience as the first and foremost guide to his actions. I would say, as a rule, INTP’s don’t value any single experience (/data point :-) terribly highly & ISTP’s don’t value others’ experience terribly highly if they haven’t experienced the same thing themselves. The following tweet sums up the difference really well...
I read somewhere that a good way to tell the difference between ISTP and INTP is how they deal with information: ISTP struggle to depart with what they know foremost, and INTP struggle with always needing more information.#ISTP #INTP— INtraverT & Perceiver (@belatedINTP) December 10, 2018
Needless to say, this makes for conflict in the way these types see things that is difficult to resolve. Fundamentally, when it comes to our thoughts, we 'think' in a different language (global model v local experience). Fortunately, the ‘P’ that we both share makes us pretty open to acknowledging that there are other ways to look at the world and arrive at a certain “agree to disagree” conclusion.
Of course, this doesn’t represent the full Myers-Briggs (16 type) spectrum, just the more salient recent examples of good and bad in my mind, and the above is entirely subjective and represents my own experience. I’d love to hear others experience to both see if it gels with the above and to kind of illuminate the other side, i.e. I’m sure for the personality types that I don’t tend to gel with, they represent the favorite types for other coaches coming from other perspectives/other types themselves!
In the bigger picture, I just think it’s an important area to look at and an important conversation to be had. There can be a perspective that, when it comes to communication and interpersonal relations, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ coaches out there but the likely reality is that, as in any relationship, rather than ‘good’ and ‘bad’, it is more a matter of finding, the right coach for the right athlete. And, I might add, the search is worth it! When it ‘works’ it’s rewarding for both in a way that greatly transcends the mere sporting performance!
To the athletes that I've had the good fortune to work with over the years: Whether, in a coaching sense, it ‘worked’ or not, I honestly feel truly blessed as a person to have had the opportunity to get to know you all.
Respect, love and stay true to you,
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