You Need a Coach!
At the beginning, and for some time after, you need a coach.
Here’s one way to think about it. At the beginning of your career, you have no idea how to design your training. If you’re not smart enough to know how to design your training, you may not be smart enough to know you’re not smart enough to design your training. It’s like Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns,” for which he caught no end of grief. But he was right. There are things you know that you don’t know. But there are all kinds of things you don’t know that you don’t know.
This is not as simple as the fact that the way we see the world is shaped, maybe even determined, by the way we want the world to be. What I see, or what I hear, is colored by the things I love, the things I fear, the things I want, the things I wish for, and so on. There are plenty of studies that demonstrate this.
For instance, if I want to be a successful sprinter at the national level, I will read successive incremental improvement as something that, over time, will get me to my goal. If, on the other hand, I believe that I am slow and incapable of improvement, that same successive incremental improvement will seem to be an aberration, something born maybe of a defective stopwatch.
What I’m talking about is a problem that leaks out beyond that.
You see, in the paragraph above, I know the question. “What are the conditions by which I will become a successful sprinter at the national level?” Now, I may misinterpret my training, or I may over-interpret the results, but I have a clear idea of the question. I just don’t know the answer.
But the greater problem is when, as in “unknown unknowns,” I don’t even know the question. There’s a concept in psychology called the Dunning Kruger Effect which covers this. In short, incompetent people don’t know they’re incompetent. They don’t know the right questions, so how could they possibly know the answers. Maybe, for instance, I’m asking the wrong question in the first place. Maybe the real question is, “How do I get strong enough to even do the training that will help me get faster?”
Worse, incompetent people invariably overestimate their competence. They take a single point of evidence, and rationalize from that single point an entire universe of knowledge. Take bad drivers, for instance. Somewhere in their minds the single fact that they have driven from Point A to Point B without incident crystalizes, in their minds, to “I’m a good driver.” Add Confirmation Bias, the tendency to read all evidence as confirmation or proof of what you already think, and you have a situation where it is very hard, as the saying goes, to know what you don’t know. Any accident the bad driver has is someone else’s fault.
That’s why a novice needs a coach.
But you need the right kind of coach. Just think of all the times you’ve seen something like this online or in real life: someone holding forth on a practice that doesn’t make all that much sense to you. But they’re confident, almost arrogant, and they can’t be moved by evidence to the contrary. You’re just wrong. You’re just stupid. Until someone with real expertise enters the conversation and sends the confident but incompetent one sulking away, no smarter for the experience of being proven wrong.
On the other hand, you will know when you’re in the presence of a real expert when you have someone who is modest about what they know, who admits that they don’t have all the answers. What they will invariably have, however, is a really good grasp of the essential questions. They will have some of the answers, which they know because they have tested them. And they will have a genuine curiosity, almost a hunger, to find the answers, knowing that, even though they know some answers, they must constantly study and relearn, refining the answers they have. That's the kind of coach you want.
There’s more, of course. There’s the way they interact with an athlete. There’s the relationship they have with the sport. But what I’m describing here is a relationship to learning and teaching. And if a novice has the right coach, and the right orientation toward learning and teaching, then the novice can eventually become a coach himself. He might even be able, someday, to coach himself.
But not necessarily. And definitely not at first.