The Truth About Modern Coaching


In my early coaching years I was young and ambitious.

As an athlete, I was fueled with a competitive desire to win which transferred to my youthful coaching self. Winning meant being proficient, successful. People care about winners. This, looking back now, was a cardinal sin of the ego. I missed a lot of opportunities to connect with people because I was so focused on training champions. Too naive to grasp the subtleties of this profession. 

The doctrine taught to us in competitive sports is simple: the goal is to win. This is true of any contest. However, the question nowadays is at what costs?

Once I earned some worldly coaching experience and enjoyed some modest success, I no longer chased accolades, rather I came to understand the core motives that drew me to coaching. Which are:

  1. teaching
  2. relationships
  3. contribution to my community

These are the pillars of modern coaching, or at least should be, as demonstrated by the past of American coaching.

If we look back at American history, in the early days coaches viewed themselves as teachers first and instructors second.

Professors, P.E. teachers, math teachers, history teachers, etc. usually took a second job as coach to compliment their days in the classroom. The career coach concept did not appear until recently. The common thread among Bowerman, Wooden, Gambetta, Payton Jordan, Fred Wilt, etc. was they were teachers of students first and foremost.

Sadly, this depth is lost today.

Many coaches at the collegiate and post-collegiate ranks are now career coaches, focused on climbing the ladder by winning and moving on to the next best paying job of prestige — without any classroom experience. During the course of personal reflections, I realized this cultural obsessiveness by coaches on winning without a teacher’s foundation can be toxic and hurt the very people the coach exists to help, the athletes. 

A teaching foundation is firmly rooted in the relationship the teacher develops with their students. A productive teacher walks the walks, has skin in the game, and their students see it. Trust is forged. Respect is fostered. And loyalty is cemented.

With the absence of a teacher’s background, many coach/athlete relationships lack those components. It becomes a patriarchal relationship. The coach informs the athlete to do as they say or else risk of punitive punishment. Threats are made. Doctrines are expounded. Systems are put in the place.

Athletes become a replaceable cog.

And with this approach, ironically, so does the coach.

Many American collegiate coaches have a life span at their institution shorter than the duration of their athletes. I know. Sadly, I am such a statistic. I only lasted a maximum of 3 years at any institution on my resume. Workplace politics, low pay, better job offers, etc. contribute to this. With these and other mounting restrictions in place, it is no wonder athletes are not being developed to be technically, physically, and emotionally ready for their sport.

"Win Now. Worry About the Consequences Later" could be the next Olympic motto. No matter that this modern posture undermines what sport should stands for — development and reinforcement of community. 

The great coaches of yore were also community leaders. Bowerman had his neighborhood jogging programs, Gambetta and his peers started the coaching education movement, Lydiard traveled the world educating people about the transformative power of running, and Payton Jordan hosted many community, national, and international track meets (including the largest ever in the US). 

They all knew the bedrock of the coaching profession is contributing to your community.

These are the role models for the young coach to emulate, not necessarily the coach of the most recent championship team who has made zero effort to connect with their community. All of us getting better has more of an impact than just one of us. This is what the early teacher-coaches understood. And the great ones of today such as Conner, Lananna, Fleshmen, Mackey, McMillan, Smith, etc. understand.

The modern coach should be graded not solely on the number of trophies won, but more heavily on the impact their 1) teaching 2) relationships and 3) contribution has in their community. As that is what coaching is really about.


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 

Jonathan Marcus