What It Means to Be a Coachable Athlete

Being a great athlete often starts with being coachable. As an athlete, here are a few things you should be conscious of during competitions and practices.

By Ryan Adams — November 22, 2022


What It Means to Be a Coachable Athlete

If you're a student-athlete or going to be, you likely saw a fair share of success in high school. Whether throwing touchdown passes, scoring goals, breaking records, or winning races, you've proven that you've got what it takes to compete at a collegiate level. It's normal to believe you have it all figured out and have little to learn. That, however, is the most dangerous attitude you can adopt either in college athletics or any personal or professional pursuit.

Athletics in college is a different beast. Whereas natural talent and some dedication might find you at the top of your roster in high school, county, or even state, you're a big fish in a small pond. Leaving that pond makes you realize there are a lot of ponds out there, and you might not be as big a fish as you thought. I felt excited and confident when I arrived at team camp during my freshman year. I was a five-time Ohio state champion and had capped my high school career with a state record. Upon speaking to my new teammates, I quickly realized being state champ was par for the course. All of them were state champions or record holders, and some had even shown on a national stage.

I didn't understand initially, but I learned through frustration and anger at early lackluster performances that what worked in high school wouldn't necessarily work in college. Some principles remained the same: hard work, grit, intensity, and focus. But I learned throughout years of coaches teaching me the same thing repeatedly that I couldn't just go out there and be a hard worker. I had to eat right, sleep right, know when to push and when to take it easy, and learn recovery modalities, among other lessons. Without a receptive ear, I likely wouldn't have seen the success I did in college, and I probably would have seen more had I learned what it looked like to be a coachable athlete earlier.

What is "Coachability"?

In one word: humility. It's acknowledging that you don't know it all, despite whatever success you may have had in your past. This is a helpful posture to adopt as you progress in any pursuit or enter any new work environment. Ask questions to clarify, not to challenge. Accept criticism. Adopt an attitude that you know nothing and your coach knows everything. Of course, that's not true, but it's the best mindset when you start for all intents and purposes. It's akin to the ancient Master-Apprentice relationship. They say jump, and you say, how high.

This won't be a permanent posture. Communication with your coach changes as you grow. Your underclassman years should be invested in learning your program without deviation. Forget what came before, and trust that what your coaches know will be best for you. As you grow older and more familiar with the program, you can begin to provide more feedback. You'll find that when you question something after putting in a couple of years of humility, your coach will be more likely to listen to you because they know that you have already bought into the program. You're not questioning them arbitrarily or because something worked for you in high school. Rather, you're offering perhaps a unique perspective you've gained after following their model to a T.

Buy In.

The most detrimental attitude to infect a team is doubting whether or not their program is the "right" avenue to success. Why do we do this when other successful teams do that? It's not a bad question, but it's your coach's place to ask it. It may be true that there are more tried and true methods, but there is more than one pathway to the top. If that weren't true, the same teams would be winning championships year in and year out. Dynasties happen, but eventually, those methods make their way across the coaching pool and are no longer an advantage.

Whether or not a training program is optimal for each team or individual athlete, it is most beneficial to adopt the attitude that this is the right program—especially when a program has a history of success. I've seen many athletes, underclassmen and upperclassmen, grow bitter and resentful toward their school and sport because they do not see the level of success they expected or they're battling injury.

These are normal in any career, but abandoning a humble attitude and blaming the program and coaches only exacerbates those frustrations. There might be a trend and some reason to doubt if it's more than a few athletes. Transferring is always an option in these scenarios. Before blaming your coach or program, it's best to find what might have been your responsibility in your misfortune. A house divided will fall, and a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. When athletes begin to incorporate their training without communicating with their coaches, it typically results in worse injury or performance.

Edify the Program. Be a Leader. Check Your Attitude Often.

A rising tide lifts all ships. As you grow older and more successful, it can be easy to believe you've done it by the sweat of your brow alone. While your hard work has facilitated your success, attributing the right portion of that success to your coaches is proper because it's true and helps your teammates buy into the program. Buy-in leads to better performances all around and establishes your team's reputation.

Even those who grasp these concepts of coachability, buy-in, edification, and humility are prone to wander. It's easy to slip back into old mindsets after failure, especially after success. Constantly check yourself. Ask, "Is what I'm saying indicating I believe in my program? Am I planting any doubt in the minds of my teammates? Am I taking responsibility for my own shortcomings? Am I attributing my success to more than just my own efforts?" We're imperfect and prone to wander from lessons we might think we've learned and will never forget. We mitigate this by answering the above questions honestly or asking a teammate or coach for their perspective.

I can't promise your coach, program, or future workplace will be perfect. It likely won't be. But learn what you need to learn by having a humble attitude from the offset, and after some time, you'll learn whether you need to change or you're the change the program needs.

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is a professional runner currently based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from Furman University in 2021 earning a bachelor's degree in Spanish Literature and Politics & International Studies, with an interdisciplinary minor in Latin American Studies.
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