Coaching is What You Don’t Say

In a world that defaults to interventionism, coaching often comes down to what you don’t say.

Legendary musician Miles Davis has a tremendous quote about music. He says,

“Music is the space between the notes. It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”

As one of history’s great trumpeters, Davis knew that some of the most profound moments in music come from the space where nothing’s happening. It’s not that the notes Davis played weren’t important; they were critical to each performance. Rather, to give his listeners the best experience, Davis had to pay equal attention to the space between.

This has profound implications for coaches. It suggests that coaching isn’t just the positive things you do but is also the things you don’t say, the drills you don’t use, and the cues you don’t use, and the complexity you remove.

But music isn’t just the silence. The notes that flowed through Miles Davis’ trumpet also mattered. A lot.

Just as Miles Davis’ songs are nothing without the notes, the active side of coaching matters as well. What we say, what we give, and what we do with our athletes and teams has a big impact. Doing nothing is not the answer. The best coaches I know understand that self-organization is a tool in the toolbox, not a failsafe to cover up poor coaching.

There’s a (perhaps apocryphal) quote attributed to Michelangelo on how he created his iconic Statue of David. “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

This is similar to how I tend to think about coaching.

By stripping away the superfluous, we can bring out the athlete’s greatest potential at that time. Of course, physical development plays a key role in expanding the athlete’s potential. But often, we place a larger emphasis on adding complexity instead of stripping away the superfluous.

But note that this stripping away is a deliberate act. Michelangelo had to actually strike the marble to reveal the sculpture within. Miles Davis was deliberate about the space between the notes. In a similar manner, a large part of coaching is making the deliberate choice to step aside when called for.

The lesson for you and me is this: coaches are artists, and great works of art are great because of the notes not played, the marble not present, and for coaches, the things not said.

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