Modern Coaching’s Problem: Too many analysts, not enough artists

Coaching’s changed, but it’s now limited by a new problem. We have too many analysts, and not enough artists.

Coaching’s Old Guard was (typically) a homogenous group of previous players. These people (often men) were in the position because they had “done it” and their playing background was a signal that they could be trusted. But looking back on it now, there were some obvious faults.

For one, many members of the Old Guard weren’t proficient problem-solvers. And without the ability to solve complex athlete problems, many athletes’ careers ended prematurely or fizzled out far before they reached their potential.

But fortunately for the Old Guard, high technical proficiency wasn’t needed. They were there to play a very specific role, one that was more about herding cattle than developing people.

But over the last decade, things have changed. Slowly at first, then seemingly all at once, a new crop of faces phased out the Old Guard. In baseball, at least, very few members of the Old Guard remain. They’ve been replaced by a new class of coach — the Data-Driven Analyst.

I’m an optimist, so let me start by saying this: on the aggregate, athletes are better off with the new class of coaches.

But, this new breed of coaches (of which I am one) has one predictable fault. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me tell you a story about one of technology’s greatest companies.

Back in the 70’s, employees tasked with finding the best software or consultancy option for their company had one logical choice: IBM.

With IBM as the leader in the market, the safest option was to purchase their equipment. By choosing the “best”, the Purchasing Manager satisficed and protected themselves from the downside of something going wrong. If things went poorly, they could always say, “Well, just imagine how bad it would’ve been if we went with the other company!”

The incentives were messed up, which allowed employees to outsource their critical thinking to the default action of the industry (even when the best choice might’ve been a non-IBM offering), avoiding blame & negative consequence in the process.

I fear the same thing has happened with today’s crop of coaches.

In the same way that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, no coach gets fired for following the data. The data is king, or so we’ve been told. The models generated by the analysts are right, 100% of the time, and should not be questioned.

Dear friend, I hope you recognize the problem here.

Most coaches today are playing the Moneyball game where data-driven analysis is the limiting factor in generating team wins. Every team now has a fully-stocked room of analysts, so the ability to process stupendous amounts of data no longer produces the same competitive advantage.

So, you may be wondering, if the Moneyball game is past its time, what’s next?

If the field of coaching is going to take the next step forward, what’s the new limiting factor?

As we know, it’s not data. Nor is it analysis. And it’s not knowledge either — that limiting factor went away over the Pandemic.

As we step into this next season, what coaching needs more than anything is artists.

Coaches who abide by the only rule of coaching: it has to work.

Coaches who are relentless in their pursuit of making players better.

Coaches who have learned to dance in the space where data analysis & creativity meet.

We need more Rob Hill’s and Eric Jagers’. Creators like Coan McAlpine, Ben Brewster, and Nancy Newell. Mentors like Stuart McMillan and Dan Pfaff. Leaders who make things better for those they lead and the generations that follow.

And I have good news.

If you’re reading this, you’re not too late.

There’s still plenty of time.

If you’re ready, there’s only one thing to do.

Grab your paintbrush. It’s time to create a better future for athletes everywhere.

Thanks to David Navarre for pointing out an error in the original article regarding IBM. It was updated on Feb. 19, 2022 at 9:18 PM EST. 👍