What, Why, How: The Coaching Framework I Learned from a Former MLB Pitching Coach

A simple framework that will transform the way you coach.

The date was February 9, 2019.

I was sitting in the largest conference room at The Buttes hotel in Tempe, Arizona, right outside the Tempe Diablo Spring Training Complex of the Los Angeles Angels.

11 days earlier, I signed my first ever contract in professional baseball as a rookie ball pitching coach for the Los Angeles Angels.

And now, I was sitting in a room surrounded by the organization’s coaches, front office staff, and analysts. We were there to prepare for the year ahead. 

It was a whirlwind of a weekend for me. For the previous year, I had held a job as a sales assistant in my hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Becoming a professional baseball coach wasn’t really in my view. Yet there I was.

After presentations from our GM, sport psych director, and lead analysts, we split off into our departments for breakout sessions.

All the other departments headed to other rooms, but the pitching department stayed in the main room. It felt like the main event.

The new MLB pitching coach, Doug White, got up and started talking. If you know Doug, you know things moved quickly.

We talked about what the Angels’ pitching philosophy would be under Doug and how we were going to implement it. I feverishly took notes, doing all I could to be able to recall what he said.

But then, about 20 minutes in, Doug dropped something that changed the way I coach forever.

He said:

“Whenever you talk to a player about doing a particular drill, you need to know these three things:

  1. What are we doing?
  2. Why are we doing it?
  3. How are we going to do it?”

He continued, “If you cannot answer any of those questions, do not talk to the player. If you don’t know the answer, you are not allowed to help a player until you find out.”

This framework, which we’ll call What, Why, How, is the topic of this article.

We’re going to come back to this framework in a couple of minutes, but first, we need to take a detour. Our first stop is a little thing I call Reklaitis’ Law.

Reklaitis’ Law

Reklaitis’ Law states that:

A coach’s ability to communicate with players is more important than you think, even when you take into account Reklaitis’ Law.

As I’ve observed coaches as a player and, more recently, as a fellow coach, I’ve seen a peculiar trend.

Coaches everywhere are quick to acknowledge that the ability to communicate is important. But when we talk about communication, it always seems to be as a side thing to the more enjoyable parts of coaching: the tactical strategy, the biomechanics, the objective stuff. 

It’s almost as if we just recognize that the communication piece exists, acknowledge its importance, and then don’t really do anything to get better at it.

But Reklaitis’ Law goes deeper.

When a coach says that communication is important, it demands that coaches acknowledge that communication is even more important than they think it is. It requires them to press in further.

A fundamental truth underpinning Reklaitis’ Law is that without communication, coaching does not exist.

As we consider this in our What, Why, How framework, we come to two important conclusions.

First, we understand that Reklaitis’ Law forces us to always consider how we can be communicating more effectively to generate better athlete results.

Second, we recognize that in coaching interventions, the burden of work falls on the coach, not the player. It’s the coach’s job to communicate clearly and effectively, not the player’s job to try to go out of their way to try to understand.

Underlying all of this is the truth that communication skills are something that can (and must) be improved. We talk about deliberate practice with our athletes quite often. But Reklaitis’ Law suggests that we turn this idea back around on ourselves and consider what we can do to improve this ultra-important skill (more on that at the end of the article).

Before we get back to coaching, we have a couple more stops to make. And our next stop as we consider our What, Why, How framework is an oath taken by medical professionals since 275 BC.

The Hippocratic Oath

The Hippocratic Oath is an oath of ethics taken by physicians throughout history, traditionally attributed to Hippocrates, a Greek doctor. Many countries still use a modified version of the oath as a rite of passage for medical students.

The oath has been modified over the years to better match the context of the day. In that way, the oath is both timeless and timely — containing general transcendent principles of the medical profession while also speaking to the needs of the day.

While many of the lines of the oath are applicable to us as coaches, there’s one principle that stands out from the rest, which we will talk about next.

primum non nocere

Primum non nocere is a Latin phrase meaning “first, do no harm”. While it’s debatable whether this exact phrase has ever appeared in the oath, this is a pithy way of saying that the most important thing a doctor can do is to not cause any further harm to the patient. In that way, it’s like the doctor’s approach to inversion.

This general principle remains a part of the most recent version of the oath, which states, “I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism,” and later, “I will prevent disease wherever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.”1

But another way to state the principle of primum non nocere is to say, “Given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.”

And this, my dear reader, is where we pivot and return to coaching.

First, do no harm for coaches

Recall the alternative way to say, “first, do no harm” mentioned two lines ago.

Given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.

One of the most tragic things in coaching is when coaches make an existing problem worse — when a coach over-treats an issue and the treatment actually serves to make the problem worse rather than improving it.

The problem is that overtreatment of athlete issues often does not have linear effects. 

One poor “treatment” (coaching cue, the introduction of a new drill, etc.) does not just lead to one extra problem. Rather, a poor treatment has nonlinear effects. What was meant to help fix one issue has suddenly turned into 2, 3, or even 4 other issues somewhere else. Like Heracles in Greek mythology, we’re battling the Hydra. With each problem we fail to tackle, more problems pop up.

A better approach for coaches is to enter every coaching situation with a first, do no harm mindset.

And I believe that our framework of What, Why, How is one of the best ways to get you there.

Doing No Harm: The What, Why, How Way

Imagine a typical coaching scenario. Because my experience is as a pitching coach, we’ll go to the baseball pitching mound. If you’re not a pitching coach, please bear with me.

If you look at coaching scenarios from an outsider’s perspective, there’s so much going on: athletic performance, interpersonal dynamics, power dynamics, influence strategies, short- and long-term games, and so much more.

But right now, we’re going to double-click into a key moment in every coaching scenario: the moment when a coach decides to intervene.

With our imaginary pitching lesson, let’s just say that I want to get this athlete to work on feeling a load into his back leg: what we (Tread Athletics, the company at which I work) call the back hip spiral.

To try to influence this change, I might say something like this to our athlete:

“Hey man, I want you to load your back leg like a spiral.”

Now, would that be a good or a bad piece of instruction?

I hope you said bad.

With that bit of instruction, all I did was tell the athlete the What. I told him what I wanted him to do but neglected to tell him Why it was important or How he was going to accomplish the task.

Fortunately, in this imaginary scenario, a co-worker of mine came up and started talking to me about this helpful framework for coaching called What, Why, How before I could instruct the player to do that. 

Realizing how wrong I would have been, I am grateful for the do-over gifted to me by fate. 

Because I now know the importance of including all three components in my coaching instruction, I try again:

“Hey man, right now you’re losing out on what you’re able to produce from your back leg (Why). On this next throw, I want you to try to feel your leg loading like a spiral (What). To do that, focus on a wave of energy building up from the inside part of your foot, running up through your knee, and ultimately along the outside part of your thigh and into your hip. You’ll know you do it right when everything feels connected (How).”

That’s probably not perfect, but it’s certainly better than what I was going to say before, right?

You See, Here’s Our Problem

In coaching, we always say the What. But the problem is that, oftentimes, we stop right here.

Not only is this incredibly lazy coaching, it’s also infuriating for athletes. 

Despite what some coaches have been hardened to believe, players are generally coachable and want to learn from somebody who can help them. Players become uncoachable when they recognize that a coach doesn’t have the ability to make them better.

So when we tell an athlete What we want him or her to do, we also need to include the Why and the How.

But it’s not enough to just know this and acknowledge it as true. You also need to practice the skill. 

Which brings us to our final section of the article…

A way to get better at this

While you can (and should) absolutely start applying this framework to your coaching right away, there’s another key piece here that will make this more effective for you.

Just as the great players invest hours outside of practice to help them reach the pinnacle of their game, great coaches invest in their careers by getting in extra reps outside of the practice arena as well.

So here’s something you can do today to implement this What, Why, How framework in your coaching:

  • Create a new spreadsheet (Excel, Google Sheets, whatever you’d like)
  • At the top of the first column, write “athlete name”
  • At the top of the second column, write “#1 issue”
  • At the top of the third column, write “What to do”
  • At the top of the fourth column, write “Why we’re doing it”
  • At the top of the fifth column, write “How to do it”

By the way, I’ve also created a Google Sheet template that’s free to download. Enter your email below to get it today!

For each athlete you coach, go through the exercise of identifying their #1 issue. Then, build out a simple what, why, how framework for what you can say to help them fix that issue.

Try to keep each cell to one sentence or less. As hockey writer Jack Han has written before, “being able to distill a complex concept into a nugget smaller than a tweet” is beneficial for everyone involved. The more concise you can keep your problem identification and solutions, the better.

It’s important to remember the old military idea attributed to Helmuth von Moltke the Elder that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The same will hold true of your framework. You’ll spend an hour putting together what, why, how solutions for players that won’t work. That’s not failure, that’s an opportunity to learn.

Keep adjusting and evolving your coaching cues. Adaptability is a key component of good communication, so you’re going to need a lot of it if you’re ever going to become the best coach you can be.

So go, apply this framework to your coaching. 

Its simplicity makes it easy to brush off and never do, but I promise that if you implement this today, you will become a better coach.

  1. See the difference between the original and the most recent Hippocratic Oath here: https://doctors.practo.com/the-hippocratic-oath-the-original-and-revised-version/ []