Coaching from First Principles with Jack Han

How to think your way to becoming a better coach.

Eight-time Mr. Olympia champion Ronnie Coleman famously said, “Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder. But don’t nobody wanna lift no heavy-ass weight.”

His point is simple. Your goals mean nothing unless you back them up with action. Without doing the work, your goals will remain unfulfilled.

In the world of ideas, there’s a similar phenomenon. Just like every skinny-fat male that steps into a gym has imagined becoming a world-class bodybuilder at some point, every knowledge worker dreams about ascending the mountain of ideas and becoming an original thinker.

You hear this term thrown around a lot. But we must ask, what actually makes an original thinker?

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel writes that “the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people (original thinkers) find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.”

So we come to the following conclusion: original thinkers think from first principles.

First-principles thinking is all about deconstructing complex problems into its basic elements before reassembling those basic elements into a creative solution. It’s about asking, “What are the fundamental truths that govern this situation?” and then using the knowledge gained to solve a complex problem.

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Jack Han, a brilliant first-principles thinker in the game of hockey. He’s a former Toronto Maple Leafs coach and now writes for his Hockey Tactics Newsletter and The Athletic Toronto.

Even though I am not a hockey guy, I read his posts because they’re not just about hockey. They’re a window into how to think from first principles as a coach to develop better players.

We talked for close to an hour, and it was an incredible conversation. Below is a lightly-edited transcript of some of the most insightful bits of Jack Han-wisdom with my comments after each answer.

Using Video Games to Learn What Doesn’t Work

Jack: “There are thousands of people who play Counter-Strike or Fortnite. I could be Madden, or MLB, or NHL. They play it for fun. And then they go online and they play against better players and they get destroyed and then they rage quit. And then they just go back and play on easy mode.

Whereas I think that the way forward is like, okay, you get your ass kicked, which happens to everyone. And then you’re like, “Well this person understands the game better than I,” right?

So then first of all, I have to understand what am I missing here? And second of all, I have to put some reps in, you know, to get to that level. And then once you get to that level, you’re like, “Oh, well, this person’s actually missing this other thing. So if I add this to my game, next time I see him, I’m going to kick his ass.

It’s still a really fun process, right? It’s still really enjoyable, but you’re doing something more thoughtful or at a much higher awareness level than just playing on easy mode and thinking that’s all there is to it.”

Tanner: Learning what doesn’t work is often the best way to get to what does work. If you stay on easy mode in life, you never get the feedback from failure that enables you to become better.

Learning the Correct Mental Models

Jack: “When you play something that’s man-made like the NHL video game series, it’s a man-made construct, right? So you know that there’s a model behind it. It’s built on certain assumptions. So what it’s forced you to do is say, “Okay, well, none of this is magic because a group of people coded this.”

Which means that if I got about this with the correct mental model, then I should be able to, you know, unlock this game or find something that works. So it’s like if I’m playing NHL and I’m carrying the puck down ice, and then I get hit and I lose the puck and I’m like, “Oh, well, next time I gotta be doing something different.”

What it does is it allows you to build some mental models and sets expectations where when you play this in real life, it helps you make decisions because you’ve had so many mental reps.”

Tanner: Because the hockey environment is so dynamic, knowing what to avoid can often be a more effective mental model than knowing what to do.

Comparing Coaching and Medicine

Jack: “The one parallel I’ll make is between coaching and medicine. Coaches should aspire to treat their profession with as much respect as good doctors.

When you go see a good doctor, the first stage is diagnosis, right? Like you have a sore throat or you have a fever or your ankle hurts, whatever. So if you don’t have a correct diagnosis from the doctor, then everything else that comes after is pointless. So if I have a player who can’t pitch, if I can’t pinpoint the issue correctly at first glance, then we’re going to be in trouble. So let’s say that you do that right.

The second step is to treat. So whether the doctor prescribed you some medicine, or physical therapy, or whatever else, the treatment’s gotta be on point. And I think as coaches, we intuitively understand the importance of the first two steps, right? Like we gotta figure out what’s wrong with this guy and give him some drills or some information so we can fix it.

But the really underrated part is the third part, which is follow-up. If you go see a doctor, generally speaking, he’s going to ask you to come back. Whether it’s in one week, three weeks, a month, six months, whatever. But he wants you to come back and if you’re not better off than before, then we have to make some corrections. It might be because you didn’t follow the treatment plan, or maybe he made the wrong diagnosis. The follow-up has gotta be there.

And I think as coaches, our ability to give feedback and then to check back over time and to check for understanding separates really good coaches from the bad. You can give an okay coach the correct information and he can transmit that. But then is he going to be disciplined enough or inquisitive enough to check back in and see whether it worked or if he needs to course correct.”

Tanner: Improvement is driven by feedback loops. Shortening the time between action and the resulting feedback is the quickest way to upgrade your ROL (rate of learning).

Thinking Better to Get Better Outcomes

In a recent post titled Blasts from the Past, Jack tells the following story:

July 1997

At day camp I exchange my pizza pocket for a piece of my friend Xavier’s egg salad sandwich. I immediately realize that this one-for-one trade was worse than the Hall-for-Larsson deal. The fluorescent yellow triangle caught my attention due to its novelty–I had never tried egg salad before. I learn that novelty isn’t always what it’s cracked out to be. Same as hockey teams trading established players for a mystery bag of draft picks and depth pieces.

I complain to my parents that my friend tricked me. They say it’s my fault for not thinking through before acting. In our family not thinking is a cardinal sin. So I resolve to think correctly.

I asked him to talk about what he learned from this. Here’s what he said:

Jack: “There were hundreds or thousands of this type of episode growing up where I make a mistake or I make a suboptimal choice and instead of blaming other people, or external factors, or luck, or my parents, I was taught to say, “Hey, so something bad happened, right? And maybe you could have avoided it, maybe you couldn’t, but if you thought through it better then you would have made a decision that optimized your outcomes.”

Which is basically what every business book says, right? If you want to make better decisions, then you have to follow a certain mental model or follow a certain checklist. And it’s not perfect. It doesn’t guarantee you success. But you’ll get there faster or you’ll get closer to that outcome.”

Tanner: The reason you want to focus on process over outcome is to increase the odds of attaining the best outcome.

Writing as a Way to Scale Insight

Jack: “I just consider writing part of my process because it forces me to actually crystallize my thoughts, to make it really concise, and to find examples and do research.

I have a marketing and business background and for me, it just makes so much more sense to write an article that’s really well-researched and well-thought-out–maybe a thousand words and then 10,000 people can see it as opposed to just talking about it with the player and then you have to repeat that conversation every single time for anyone who could be interested. For me, that’s just way more scalable.”

Tanner: Writing is the best way to scale your insight because your published words go to work for you anytime, anywhere. When you publish online, your writing opens doors you didn’t even know existed.

Doing Things That Don’t Scale

Jack: “The one critical marketing decision I made to market this book was to do something crazy and non-scalable, which is, I’m going to talk to the first 50 people that buy the book. And that was actually one of the richest experiences I had this year because the people who are niche enough in their hockey interest to follow me on Twitter and to buy my book are all really interesting people.

So that was really interesting. I would have these conversations that were hockey adjacent, but that’s not really hockey with all these interesting people. It took me five days. I was completely gassed and my voice was gone, but I loved it. It was great.”

Tanner: In an age where everyone is trying to optimize for maximum scale, the things that don’t scale are the most meaningful and the most memorable.

Some Closing Thoughts on His Career Path

Jack: “I think that my career has kind of taken shape in a way that fits the power law because, sure, I enjoy coaching and enjoy working with players directly, but my reach is so much bigger if I use other leveraged means, which is social media and blogging and writing. So why not pursue that one?

The season’s stopped right now [COVID-19 shutdown]. There’s no hockey going on. So why not embrace that power law and say, “Okay, no other major league or minor league hockey coach in North America is putting out an eBook, but I’ll do it because it’s a ball that I can hit .400 on.

Being an outsider has actually helped me to get out of the conventional thinking which is like, “Coaching is supposed to be done a certain way. And you’re supposed to use this kind of information to empower players in this way.”

But I’m not restricted by my working situation anymore. I’m not restricted by, “Do I have to be somewhere? Am I on a bus going to another city at 7:00 AM?”

No. I’m at home. I can write. So right now it’s actually a perfect time for me to do this. I’m just really enjoying the flexibility and the ability to kind of zone in on this. This is something that’s in my wheelhouse and I can take a chance on it.”

Tanner: Everything we teach out players equally applies to us. The obstacle is the way. Jack shows us how it’s done.

Thank you to Jack Han of the Hockey Tactics Newsletter for doing this. Want to learn more? You can contact him on Twitter or buy his eBook.