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Building Coachable Athletes

By Dr. Wade Gilbert, Editor, The Coach Doc and International Sport Coaching Journal

Much has been written about PGA golfer Jordan Spieth’s record setting performance at the 2015 Master’s golf tournament. At only 21 years old, Spieth broke multiple scoring records and became the first golfer in 30 years to lead the tournament from wire to wire (first day to final day).

However, it was what he did in between shots that impressed the world more so than his athletic prowess. He is being lauded as the future of American golf not just because of his golf ability, but equally as much for the type of athlete he represents. Spieth has won over sponsors, fans and competitors alike because of his humble and respectful attitude, competitive drive, and willingness to learn.

According to his coach, Cameron McCormick, Jordan has always embodied these characteristics. McCormick reports many examples of how Jordan was willing to adapt and follow coaching suggestions all along the journey from 12-year old sensation to the reigning Master’s champion.

Jordan Spieth is a prime example of that most highly sought athlete by every coach: the coachable athlete.

Coaches spend considerable time and energy trying to recruit and build coachable athletes because they are eager to learn, fun to work with and – in the case of football – make their teammates better.

In my classes we often do an activity where I ask coaches to identify and rank characteristics of the coachable athlete. After having them prepare their list, I then ask them to compare their list with a list generated from a national survey of over 100 college basketball coaches.

The list includes the following nine characteristics, ranked in order from most important to least important:

  • Willingness to be coached
  • Willingness to sacrifice for the team
  • Acceptance of criticism
  • Acceptance of individual role
  • Positive response to discipline
  • Attentiveness
  • Respect for authority
  • Selflessness
  • Agreeableness with coach

Notice that “willingness” and “acceptance” rank at the top of the list. Coachable athletes approach their sport with a willingness to do whatever it takes to improve performance. They also are eager to receive feedback and are open to making adjustments. For athletes who play on teams, this is most evident when athletes eagerly accept new roles or new positions on the team, instead of complaining or challenging the coach.

Although I have found that most coaches agree with the list, there seldom is consensus on the order of the list. For example, two of my students asked their former coaches to comment on the list. The coaches included Margie Wright, college’s all-time winningest softball coach, and Brian Reynolds, who has coached his swim teams to 33 national collegiate championships.

Interestingly, both of these legendary championship coaches rated “selflessness” as the number one characteristic of a coachable athlete.

What these exercises illustrate is that taking time as a coach to reflect on how you define a coachable athlete is more valuable than the list itself. As you evolve and grow as a coach, your list will also surely become more fine-tuned. The most coachable athletes for any coach in any sport will likely be the ones who model the coach’s core values and program philosophy.

Take a moment and think about the athlete characteristics you would put on your list. Then ask yourself how you model and teach these qualities to your athletes. Wouldn’t we all benefit from passing along a more coachable athlete to the next coach in the athlete’s journey?

Dr. Wade Gilbert’s areas of expertise include coaching science, talent development, sport and exercise psychology, physical education, and youth sport. He holds degrees in Physical Education, Human Kinetics, and Education from the University of Ottawa in Canada. Gilbert has more than 20 years of experience in conducting applied research with partners around the world spanning all competitive levels, from youth leagues to World Cup. He is widely published and is frequently invited to serve as a featured speaker at national and international events. Dr. Gilbert has advised organizations ranging from school districts, collegiate teams, Olympic organizations, and the United Nations on coaching education and sport-related issues. For more information, or to read more from Dr. Wade Gilbert, please visit The Coach Doc. Find additional information at www.HumanKinetics.com.

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